After watching many episodes of Masterchef, Top Chef, and other cooking competitions, it is common to see chefs and cooks drawing inspiration from their family recipes and using flavors from their local and regional cuisines. They even get creative sometimes with fusion dishes integrating the two. While it’s fun to watch contestants compete, their love for food and culture is truly the addicting factor on these shows.
Years ago my co-workers and I decided on Vietnamese food for our lunch break and asked others in our department to join. One woman gave a sour face but decided to go which made me excited to see her try a new cuisine. Once we were seated, her sour face returned. She opened the menu and said, “UGH! They probably grabbed whatever rat they found on the floor and cooked it.” Her statement was offensive. I was speechless and also shocked she would make such a comment knowing I am Vietnamese. Oddly enough, she ate her chicken pho - excuse me - rat pho, and we never talked about it again.
My co-worker only concentrated on the WHAT. WHAT was she eating? WHAT protein were the cooks using? While it is understandable to ask the WHAT, it is equally important to pair the question with a WHY for a well-rounded food experience. For example, "What are the most common proteins used in pho, and why is it a popular Vietnamese dish?" Asking the WHY opens up another realm of information. It introduces you to the culture, traditions, and knowledge of the types of food each region has to offer.
If you are starting a venture of becoming a home cook and getting adventurous with flavors beyond your comfort zone, I have a few tips to get you started.
Start Cooking with What’s Familiar
If you’re from Louisiana and love the local etouffee, jambalaya, and crawfish boils, start learning the basics of Cajun seasonings, ingredients, and cooking techniques. Cook with family and friends, crack open a book about Cajun cooking, and explore recipes popular in Louisiana. You already have a massive advantage by knowing what these dishes should taste like, now you just need to recreate it.
Taste It, Then Cook It
Once you’ve nailed your family and local dishes, try cuisines from other countries and cultures. You can start by exploring ethnic restaurants in your city, or you can hop in the car and drive to the next major city or state. America is so regionalized with their foods! You have famous Tex-Mex and steak in Texas, specific BBQ types for most southern states, vegetable-centric dishes along the West coast, and some of the best seafood dishes on the East coast. Tasted something you like? Try making it at home! Write down the name of the meal, look up recipes for it, and start cooking. Change it up to your liking by going heavier or lighter on the spices and swapping out for proteins and vegetables available in your store.
This is also the perfect opportunity to ask your WHY questions. For example, WHY are some countries and states more prone to spicy cuisines than others? Because food spoils quicker in warmer climates and antimicrobial properties in peppers help preserve foods and kill food-borne pathogens. Therefore, you will not see as many spicy dishes in areas where the weather is colder.
Tex-Mex dishes, banh mi pizzas, sushi burritos, and carne asada fries are lovely concoctions of different cultural cuisines. Fusion dishes are gaining popularity, but it is destined to happen considering the melting pot America has become. As you cook other cuisines, fusion will most likely occur after some time! One day you may ask yourself, “What if I top my pizza with bibimbap ingredients?"
As you start your culinary and cooking adventures, practice asking both the WHAT and the WHY. WHAT will tell you what ingredients and spices you need to recreate the dish, and WHY will help you understand the culture. What you learn might surprise you!
Jane Pelcher, RDN
I am a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist focused on helping everyone love nutrition through cooking! My blogs provide new home cooks with basic cooking skills and grocery shopping tips. Most importantly, I strive to teach the nutrition behind the foods you cook to help you understand how specific foods can better your health and prevent chronic diseases. I hope you embark on this journey with me!