If you’re an avid foodie, cook or healthy eating enthusiast (like me!), you’ll no doubt have any number of world ingredients stored in your fridge – ginger, coriander, avocados, maybe some olives, some medjool dates, perhaps even some tamarind. The list of these natural, international ingredients could go on and on.
These days, we don’t even consider many of these ingredients to be exotic. Thanks to the wonders of modern transportation, they’re everyday fare that we know we can buy whenever we need them.
So the latest publication from The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew – Kew’s Global Kitchen Cookbook (101 Recipes Using Edible Plants From Around The World) – comes as a great reminder of the source of such worldly delights, the fascinating history surrounding their arrival on our shores, and how they’ve been put to culinary use over the centuries.
I must admit, when I saw the title of the book, I immediately assumed that ‘plants’ referred to herbs and perhaps some of the more unusual things to be found growing on trees and bushes. Actually you’ll find the word as it’s used here covers a much broader spectrum, encompassing the world of fruit, vegetables and spices, both the familiar (oranges, cabbage, beetroot) and the well-recognised but lesser used ingredients (pak choi, plantain, green tea) in Western kitchens.
If you like your cookbooks to come with images of the finished dish, then you’ll be disappointed. But in their place, the book is full of sumptuous, beautiful historical illustrations of plants and imagery of faraway places taken from the Kew archives (around 140 illustrations in total).
With an introduction by journalist and author Carolyn Fry (Disclosure: Carolyn is actually a good friend of mine, and a fellow journalist whose work I already admire greatly!) that charts the journey of various plant species from their indigenous surroundings to our plate, there follows six chapters on the continents – each with a brief yet fascinating introduction and a selection of recipes.
We learn, for example, that hazelnuts were among the first trees to spread across Europe after the last ice age, around 10,000 years ago. Evidence from an archaeological site in Wales suggests the community of the time ate hazelnuts, crab apples and raspberries, as well as the occasional venison.
The Americas contributed greatly to the number of plants in the global kitchen. The book documents that potatoes were grown in the Andes 7,000 years ago, and it was the Incas who first perfected the art of potato farming. They also worshipped Axomama, the potato goddess.
From China, of course, there came tea. Legend has it that, 4,700 years ago a leaf from a tea plant blew into water being boiled for Emperor Shennong. He drank it, and felt refreshed.
From China, tea was later transported overland to Korea, Turkey and Afghanistan, and then by sea to Japan, Indonesia and Europe. By the end of the 19th century, 90 per cent of Britain’s domestic supply of tea was being grown on plantations in India.
There are many ingredients that we may strongly associate with one country, which in fact came from somewhere else entirely. We learn that Seville oranges, for example, hail from the Himalayas and were brought to Europe by Muslims in the eighth century.
Good old apples also have a surprising origin. The book reports that there’s DNA evidence to suggest modern apples were first domesticated from wild apples from Kazakhstan.
When it comes to the recipes in this cookbook, the majority have been taken from a series of culinary articles by various authors published in the highly regarded Kew magazine between 1990 and 2007.
At first glance, some of the offerings might seem quite plainly titled, such as Potato Salad. But look into the recipe a little further, and you’ll be advised on what type of potatoes work best (nice waxy ones like Charlotte or Belle de Fonteney) and how it’s best to let warm potatoes cool in a vinaigrette, before adding some unexpected ingredients like capers, sun-dried tomatoes and basil leaves.
There are also some highly unusual recipes using indigenous plants peppered throughout the world sections of this cookbook. In the East and South East Asia sections you’ll find Green Tea Crusted Chicken Breast with Cucumber Tea Salad; in West Asia, there’s Grilled Quail with Rose Petal Sauce. In Europe, how about the Parsnip and Lemon Meringue Pie, and in Africa, Mustard Mackerel with Rhubarb and Tamarind Sauce?
The final two chapters feature a useful list of herbs and spices from around the world – again, with beautiful illustrations.
Kew’s Global Kitchen Cookbook would make a lovely gift – especially with Christmas just around the corner – for any foodie. At first glance, it may look like a ‘coffee table cookbook’, to be leafed through and admired. But look a little further, and aside from all the fascinating historical information, there are some beautiful recipes that appear to be really quite refreshing and unique.
Check back to the blog on Wednesday, where I’ll feature one of the recipes from the cookbook, and highlight others that are high on my priority cooking list!
Kew’s Global Kitchen Cookbook was published (Oct 2013) in conjunction with the Kew Festival, IncrEdibles, which ran from 25 May to 3 November 2013. It’s currently available on the Kew website for a special price of £10 (normally £14.95),
The book will be published in North America in February 2014.