When I cook for myself, the only real guideline I follow is the search for flavor – everything else is a suggestion. And sometimes, especially with a cuisine I’m not too familiar with, that means following a recipe to the letter. But more often than not, pleasure is the goal, which means steamed cabbage and carrots sprinkled with shichimi togarashi; or Red Stripe marinated chicken, battered in potato starch, fried and slathered with miso mayo; or, among friends, a whole fried snapper served with basil, fried shallots, satay and lettuce, to wrap. Usually, it is in this search for taste that I realize what is actually most comforting for me at a given moment.
Recipe: Melon and Cho-Cho Salad
So it’s a joy when a cookbook is seriously enjoyed, especially when its quest serves as the book’s compass, as is the case with chef and musician Denai Moore’s brilliant Jamaican cookbook, “Abundant.” “Jamaican food is often misrepresented,” she writes, “stripped of its complexity and reduced to being a meat-heavy cuisine.” Focusing solely on vegan dishes, she explores the wrinkle lines and implicit connections between Jamaican cuisine and its neighboring flavors. A section detailing what reminds her of Jamaica reads like poetry, as she describes, among other things: “Callaloo with lots of garlic and onions. A freshly baked flaky patty (or two). Nutmeg-scented polenta (cornmeal) porridge. Captain’s hard dough bread. A really good festival by the beach.”
That complexity is also present in Moore’s recipes: spring-onion-and-cheddar biscuits with kimchi-tofu and greens, ackee carbonara, brown-stew noodle soup, rice-and-pea arancini, passionfruit-glazed doughnuts, jerk “pork” gyoza, ginger and marzipan bread. They are the kinds of dishes that could flow through if you gave yourself the permission and authority to know yourself – instead of who you are told to be. The expansiveness and permission that Moore gives us is enough cheerful: Flipping through the pages, I was giddy. These meals felt new and familiar at the same time, speaking to Moore’s edict: “Eat well, try new things, and be present with the food in front of you.”
It is an act of grace to give diners a foundation for their culinary journey.
Jamaican cuisine is hardly unfamiliar with plant-based cooking, but that is rarely the focus of its often exported goods. When I asked Moore why she chose to focus on vegan dishes, she said that veganism “didn’t affect my relationship with Jamaican food at all. If anything, it made it stronger and deeper. I think going vegan pushed me to become more creative in the kitchen, and recreating the dishes of my culture became a necessity.”
The challenge of introducing cuisine across cultures is hardly unique, although non-Eurocentric cuisines certainly carry the burden in the United States. It can take the form of a hyper-emphasis on the fast-casual or a reluctance to read through a culture’s broader culinary offerings in favor of what is considered less challenging. But there is a lot of nuance in Jamaican food: this too can be seen in the Jamaican cookbooks that have hit shelves in the last few years, and in cookbooks from other cuisines that have incorporated island flavors and ingredients. As a culture’s comfort with cuisine increases, its ability to tolerate game may follow. But it’s worth asking which kitchens are given this benefit of the doubt with little interference and why the hurdles presented to others are as high as they are.
It’s an act of grace to give diners a foundation to begin their journey, a map and a multitude of directions to take — and each of us, in our own way, can engage in that play every time we step into the oven. Regardless of the cuisine we navigate, we bring our experiences with us. The food and sports journalist Danny Chau, describing in The New Yorker how fusing cuisines crept into his own cooking, notes it surprisingly: “Honoring one’s appetite sometimes requires making unexpected moves.” And there is a certain kind of sanctity in respecting your cravings: fusing flavors, memory and experience to find whatever it is in a meal that brings you comfort and then work to share that with someone else or simply enjoy it alone. We really are experts in our pleasure.
Therefore, Moore’s melon-and-cho-cho salad is an exercise in navigating textures and flavors: Chayote, mint, sliced shallots and almonds sit on top of each other to form a flavor both instantly recognizable and unexpected. It’s a reminder that home really can be found wherever we care to make it, if we care to make it, and that we can take what we find special in our cuisines with us, adapting and changing and mixing and sharing as we go. go
Then again, regardless of our best efforts, flavor often finds us when we least expect it: A while ago, my boyfriend and I wandered into Mazesoba Shichi, a noodle shop in Tokyo that sits a stone’s throw from Shibuya Station. Once we sat down, the flavors recalled dishes oceans away. And the restaurant’s soundtrack — quiet reggae — stunned me into slurping silence. But maybe that shouldn’t have been too surprising: It just underlined the many different connections between us that we might not be aware of, reminding me of Moore’s note at the beginning of “Abundant”: “I’m a proud newbie who ; want to explore.”