Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage on how to do ‘fusion’ food right

September 16, 2020 7:31:32 AM

Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage on how to do ‘fusion’ food right

When talking about food, the word ‘fusion’ can strike fear into a diner’s heart. More often than not, it suggests mismatched dishes chucked together with relatively little thought or consideration.

However, Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage are here to change your mind – and respect is at the core of everything they do. Ottolenghi is a giant in the food world – known for his cumin-heavy cookbooks, colourful London delis and restaurants, and his love of pomegranate seeds – and for his latest book he’s collaborated with Ixta Belfrage, who worked in his test kitchen for four years.

The result is Flavour, a collection of exciting new dishes paying tribute to a range of cultures – and incidentally, it’s all vegetarian. Like Ottolenghi’s previous veggie cookbooks – including Plenty and Plenty More – this is a real celebration of vegetables, not sad beans on a plate.

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The most exciting day! Today, totally and officially, FLAVOUR is out in the UK and a few other countries. (US, Canada, you’ll need to wait a month). Although I have done this before ( once or twice..) , it’s every bit as thrilling to release this onion-shaped baby out to the world. I am very emotional and so totally proud of it!! Working with @ixta.belfrage has been an incredible experience and it taught me loads. I truly hope everyone learns to love those limes and chillies as much as I do. I also wanted to thank @tara.wigley for finding the thread that runs through the book. Caz Hildebrand (@heredesign) and Jonathan Lovekin have been amazing in making this beauty. #ottolenghiflavour GO!

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Ottolenghi says the pair’s approach to writing the book was “pretty similar”, but they brought “very different backgrounds” to the table. “My background is deeply rooted in the Middle East,” explains Ottolenghi, who was born in Jerusalem. “I’ve lived here [England] for more than 20 years and gone through my own trajectory. Ixta has less experience writing books, but tonnes of experiences from being all over the world, and a really interesting background that includes Mexico, Brazil, Italy and France. And so all these stories came together.”

Belfrage explains her “mother is Brazilian and grew up in Cuba via Mexico, so there’s south and Latin American in my heritage; in my upbringing; the kind of food I ate, and where I travelled when I was growing up.” She moved to Italy when she was two-and-a-half, and says “that’s really what feels like home to me, and the food feels like home to me.”

With varied backgrounds capitalising on different ingredients and flavours, you might wonder how the book could come together so seamlessly. However, a similar approach to food ties the duo together, with Ottolenghi explaining: “We both love big flavours and big gestures. Intensity is definitely something we have in common, but the details are quite different” – and the recipes reflect this.

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CHILES RELLENOS – one of my favourite dishes of ALL TIME, and also one of the most nostalgic (these were my No1 TOP requested dish at my Grandads house in Mexico). I loved watching them being made almost as much as I loved eating them. This classic Pueblan dish consists of peppers (usually poblanos but I’m using Romanos) that are charred, stuffed (with cheese, meat or seafood, I’m using cheese here), dipped in a fluffy batter, deep fried then served with salsa, typically salsa roja. Find the recipe below, and see my stories for the how-to later today. Trust me, you REALLY want to make these. #ottolenghi #OTK #ottolenghitestkitchen . Chiles rellenos 6 mixed red and yellow romano pepper, with a slit cut along one side 200g mozzarella, roughly torn into small pieces 200g feta, roughly broken into small pieces 800ml sunflower oil, for frying 2 limes, cut into wedges, to serve Salsa roja 3 tbsp olive oil 1 tbsp unsalted butter 1 onion, finely chopped 2 garlic cloves, crushed 300g sweet red cherry tomatoes ½ dried habanero chilli 1 tsp cumin seeds 1 tbsp tomato paste 120ml water Batter 4 eggs, separated 80g plain flour ½ tsp salt Fresh salsa 2 ripe tomatoes, finely chopped 2 jalapenos, finely chopped 1 tbsp coriander leaves, finely chopped 2 tbsp olive oil 1½ tbsp lime juice Turn the oven to the highest grill setting. Place the peppers, slit-side up on a wire rack set over a large tray. Grill for 7 minutes near the top of the oven, then carefully turn the peppers over so they are slit-side down and grill for another 7 minutes until the skin is blackened and bubbling in places. Remove the tray from the oven and leave to cool on the rack, slit-side down, so any liquid drains away. (I don’t peel the peppers- you really don’t need to and I love the charred skin, but peel them now if you want to) Meanwhile, make the salsa roja. Add all the ingredients (except the tomato paste and water!) to a large saute pan on a high heat with 1 teaspoon of salt. Stir-fry for 6 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and continue to fry for 10 minutes. Add to a blender with the tomato paste and water and blitz until smooth. Set aside. Method continued in comments

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Whether it’s swede gnocchi with miso butter, za’atar cacio e pepe or caponata with silken tofu, the recipes marry together global flavours. For Ottolenghi, “all these cultures” are united by one thing: “The human palate. We’re attracted to certain flavours, so if you substitute anchovies with miso – these two things are from quite different cultures, but they both involve the same level of saltiness, umami, fermentation – things that are really cross-cultural. So it doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to substitute one thing that may have been in a dish from one culture, with another from a different culture.”

The main issue is “being sensitive when you do that,” he explains, “so it actually does work. You don’t mix things just for the sake of it, but you mix it up when it makes sense and is delicious.” Belfrage agrees, and says “one does have to definitely acknowledge where it comes from.”

Something else uniting Belfrage and Ottolenghi is their roundabout way of getting into the food industry. Ottolenghi completed a master’s degree in comparative literature and was considering pursuing a doctorate before changing direction to study at the Cordon Bleu. Belfrage never formally trained as a chef and says she did “lots of random things” before setting up her own catering company and market stall selling tacos.

Both chefs now see this as an asset. As she didn’t have professional training, Belfrage says: “I definitely don’t go about cooking thinking there is a certain set of rules that need to be followed, or ideas that might be taught at cooking school. I don’t think there are any rules when it comes to combinations about flavour.”

“I also don’t have very much experience in restaurants,” she adds. “I just picked things up along the way, and that’s informed the way I cook.”

Anyone who’s read an Ottolenghi cookbook, or has seen the chef speak, will know he has a beautiful grasp of words and way of talking about food – no mean feat. “I think it’s all a big mixture; the cooking, the talking about food, and the ideas that come around it,” he says thoughtfully. “I guess it reflects your personality, and both Ixta and I have had very varied experiences professionally.

“Food is never in isolation – it’s about how you cook, how you present it, what you say to the world, what you say to yourself.”

Ottolenghi FLAVOUR by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage, photography by Jonathan Lovekin, is published by Ebury Press, priced £27. Available now

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