The Edible Atlas is not your run-of-the-mill cookbook. It lists recipes, of course, but also takes you on a tour of the world through 39 different cuisines. Food journalist and author Mina Holland says candidly that she's not a chef but is interested in how styles of cooking draw on local tradition and find place in the culture of a region.
"The idea for The Edible Atlas came to me one day as I gazed at my shelves of cookery books, a chaos of spines, proclaiming their origins," says Holland. That's when she realised that cookbooks could be divided broadly into two categories: those that boast big names (like Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver) or those like Paula Wolfert's The Food of Morocco that are geographically specific.
"The former championed the original creations of their namesakes, often a delicious fusion of styles and heritages, and the latter dissected one cuisine in exhaustive, intricate detail. It struck me that there was an opportunity to explore the origins and feature of lots of different world cuisines in one book."
The Edible Atlas doesn't only dish out one recipe after another — it is beautifully interspersed with anecdotes, snippets of history and literature, along with words of wisdom from some of the world's most seasoned food experts.
"There's a lot to be said for recipes to guide and inspire our cooking, but I wanted to balance the really typical recipes I included with context and personal anecdote. I am a food writer after all, not a chef. The result is a book which, I hope, is as comfortable at your bedside as your stove top," Holland explains.
It wasn't easy going about researching a book that gives readers a glimpse into 39 different world cuisines, Holland recalls. "I spoke to a lot of chefs and experienced home cooks and, in many cases, was lucky enough to be cooked for by them. I was in a privileged position as a food journalist attached to The Guardian and was put in touch with some of the world's greatest authorities on the cuisines I covered."
She also travelled a lot, although not always specifically for the purpose of book research. In many ways, she thinks this makes it a better read because she sets the scene rather than overwhelming the reader with too many facts or details.
"The book is skewed in favour of places and cuisines with which I have more experience — and I have spent a lot of time in Europe. Some might see this as a shortcoming of the book, an imbalance perhaps, but the writing wouldn't have that personal, sometimes confessional, tone without my own experience (and often preferences) informing it," she says.
Holland believes food is a vehicle for self expression and it's this that gives it an important role in literature — which is why literary references abound in her book. "I've always seen the written word — fiction, poetry, autobiography — as a window into food culture. You can tell a lot about characters and the place a piece of writing is set by what and how they eat. I'm fascinated by the stories that food can tell us."
Holland names her grandmother and Nigella Lawson among her culinary influences, and explains, "Granny and Nigella armed me with an active interest in how to put food together, and also in the stories that food tells us."
At home, Holland cooks a lot of Lebanese-influenced food but Italian is a favourite. "I'd pick Italian because it's not a single cuisine, but many (so it's a crafty choice!). There are the Germanic influences like dumplings in the north as well as polenta and lots of wonderful dairy, gorgeous fresh vegetables throughout, the spice of Calabria, Arab influences throughout the south from Puglia to Sicily, and pasta galore."
Indian food has its own special place. "I adore Indian food," she says, adding, "We are so well versed in northern Indian dishes in the UK that they almost feel like an extension of our own cuisine."
South Indian food, which she also loves, feels like more of a novelty. "On the day I was born, my dad went to a south Indian restaurant for a masala dosa, which perhaps set the tone for my own fondness of them, served with plenty of sambar and coconut chutney!"