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    A new wave of immigrant cookbooks celebrates America’s delicious diversity

    |     Sarah Henry     |

    IT STARTED with a meatball.

    Anna Francese Gass, born in Italy and raised in Rhode Island, grew up devouring her mom’s meatballs slathered in tomato sauce.

    Her mother learned how to make the dish in a tiny countryside kitchen in Calabria.

    “Visiting my grandmother in Italy always felt so familiar to me – the same aromas, ingredients, and methods used in our home in the United States had origins on my grandmother’s stove,” writes Francese Gass in Heirloom Kitchen: Heritage Recipes and Family Stories from the Tables of Immigrant Women (Harper Design, 2019).

    “My mother carried all of it in her head and heart when she left her homeland for a better life abroad.”

    Heirloom Kitchen is one of several new cookbook anthologies championing the recipes and stories of immigrants who now call the United States (US) (and, in one case, England) home.

    They are welcome reminders, during a time of anti-immigrant rhetoric and government policies, of the rich cultural and culinary variety immigrants bring.

    Some leave their homeland for love or economic or educational opportunities; others escape violence or political or religious persecution.

    Many are home cooks: mothers trying to feed their families well while maintaining a connection to their cultures of origin. Some have gone on to cook professionally. These books have different flavours and varying political undercurrents, but they all express appreciation for the foodways of communities from around the globe.

    The dishes found in their pages – from pozole and pupusas to bibimbap and barberry rice – confirm that diversity is indeed delicious.

    A few years ago, Francese Gass, a professional chef, recipe tester and contributor to Food52, was watching her mom make meatballs when she realised she didn’t have the recipe down pat.

    What spice blend did her mother use? How many eggs? How many cups of bread crumbs?

    She vowed then and there to preserve her mother’s recipes for her three children and generations to come.

    (Her mom’s meatballs, it turns out, are delicate and moist, light on bread crumbs, and include a half-cup of sauce in the mix. They’re also baked, not fried, and then poached in sauce.)

    A book idea was born.

    Francese Gass decided to ask friends, all children of immigrants, if she could “borrow” their mothers or grandmothers for a day in their kitchens so that she could document their favourite childhood recipes for prosperity. She had no shortage of takers.

    The author, who left the corporate financial world to pursue a culinary career, travelled around the country to collect recipes with roots in Greece, Lebanon, Ghana, Mexico, Korea and beyond. She also collected stories of what it was like for each woman to leave everything behind to start over in a new land.

    We meet 85-year-old Palestinian Fethie Aboweznah Loutfi, a child of goat farmers, who fled with her family across the desert and barefoot from Yaffa to Jordan in search of safety.

    Denied entry, they continued on to Syria, and in a refugee camp there she fell in love with an Albanian refugee; they married, had a son, and decided to move to the United States in search of a better life.

    The couple raised eight children in New York; Loutfi worked as a member of the United Nations maintenance staff.

    Used to cooking for a crowd – as her Palestinian rice dish maqluba attests – she delights in feeding her family, which includes members of Muslim, Catholic and Jewish faiths.

    The book, organised around geographic regions, includes 100 recipes from 45 contributors.

    A common thread: re-creating the comfort of home through cooking. “Food is love. You can taste it in the recipes these women, all mothers, shared with me,” Francese Gass says.

    “Food made from the heart and soul is the best food.”

    Fusion cuisine isn’t a term these women bandy about. But it is their lived experience. Sheila Brathwaite Haire was raised primarily in Panama, but her grandparents hailed from Barbados and Jamaica. Her recipes reflect her mixed heritage: arroz con pollo (Panamanian chicken and rice) and Bajan cou cou (cornmeal and okra), considered the national dish of Barbados.

    Francese Gass hopes readers discover new tastes in Heirloom Kitchen.

    She did: The French Culinary Institute graduate hadn’t cooked with preserved lemons or winter melon before recipe testing for the book, and she’d never eaten borscht.

    The book includes images of ephemera from the homeland of these cooks.

    There’s a 50-year-old spoon that Bea Pisker Trifunac brought with her from Serbia; Soon Sun Kang Huh’s recipe book handwritten in Korean; and the metric measuring cup Anke Gelbin tucked into her suitcase before leaving Germany.

    “These women cook with simple tools to make delicious food,” Francese Gass says. “In their kitchens, there wasn’t a sous vide machine or Instant Pot in sight.”

    The women in We Are La Cocina: Recipes in Pursuit of the American Dream by Caleb Zigas and Leticia Landa (Chronicle Books, 2019) may have started as home cooks, but they’re intent on making a living at their craft.

    Many of the alumni from the San Francisco nonprofit kitchen incubator programme (la cocina means the kitchen in Spanish) got their start selling street food, hosting pop-ups or running farmers market stands; a sizable group has gone on to own their own bricks-and-mortar businesses.

    Rising stars include Nite Yun of Cambodian restaurant Nyum Bai and Reem Assil of Reem’s California, a Palestinian bakery.

    Both were semifinalists this year for prestigious James Beard Awards.

    The book features 100 recipes from more than 40 programme participants.

    It showcases regional Mexican cuisine, along with dishes that hail from the Philippines, Senegal, Iran, Nepal, El Salvador and elsewhere.

    Mole, miso, muhammara, momos, mac and cheese: This brightly hued book has them all.

    Each contributor’s profile provides a compelling account of the resilience of the mostly low-income immigrant women and women of colour who – against such obstacles as language barriers, gentrification and access to capital – flourish in the competitive and costly Bay Area food bubble, thanks to La Cocina.

    Together: Our Community Cookbook by the Hubb Community Kitchen (Clarkson Potter, 2018) features 50 recipes by women who cooked in the aftermath of the devastating Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017.

    The Al-Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Center opened its doors to displaced residents and women who needed a place to prepare fresh meals for their families began cooking together in the mosque’s kitchen.

    The Hubb Community Kitchen (hubb means “love” in Arabic) became a source of support, comfort and sustenance for Grenfell residents, many with roots in far-flung places, including Algeria, Egypt, India, Iraq, Morocco, Russia, Uganda and Yemen.

    The cookbook includes a foreword by Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, an advocate for the programme.

    After the duchess, who began making under-the-radar visits to the mosque, learned the kitchen was open only two days a week because of a lack of money, she suggested a cookbook, produced with the help of the Royal Foundation, the young royals’ charitable arm.

    The book has sold more than 130,000 copies worldwide; proceeds have been used to refurbish Al-Manaar’s kitchen, now open seven days a week, and provide training.

    Recipe headnotes offer a snapshot of the women behind the book.

    Ahlam Saeid earned a master’s degree in chemistry in her native Iraq, from which her recipe for green rice originates. Lillian Olwa’s carrot and onion chapatis are a nod to her childhood growing up in Uganda. Olwa learnt to cook after the Grenfell fire; she grew tired of eating takeout food while living in temporary housing.

    Coming soon A Place at the Table: New American Recipes from the Nation’s Top Foreign-Born Chefs (Prestel, September 2019) by Gabrielle Langholtz and Rick Kinsel of the Vilcek Foundation, which seeks to raise awareness of US immigrant contributions – including the culinary kind.

    Top chefs in its pages include Dominique Crenn, Corey Lee, Daniela Soto-Innes, Marcus Samuelsson and Yun.

    Also of note: The Immigrant Cookbook (Interlink Books, 2017), edited by Leyla Moushabeck, which also features recipes from US professional chefs with recent immigrant roots.

    They include such James Beard Award-winning chefs as José André and Ana Sortun, as well as emerging culinary talents, such as Assil and Tunde Wey. Grammy-award-winning musician Ziggy Marley pops up in its pages with a coconut fish dish.

    The Immigrant Cookbook also sports the most pointed subtitle of the bunch: “Recipes That Make America Great Again.” No fake news in that sentiment. – Text & Photo by The Washington Post

    Dona Luz Salad


    FOUR servings

    This is served at Veronica Salazar’s El Huarache Loco restaurant in Marin County, California, and was inspired by the vegetable salads her mother, Dona Luz, used to make when Salazar was growing up.

    MAKE AHEAD: The dressing can be refrigerated for up to one week in advance.


    For the dressing

    1/4 cup fresh lime juice (from 1 or 2 limes)

    Two teaspoons grated piloncillo (sugar; may substitute dark brown sugar

    One small jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced

    1/3 cup mild extra-virgin olive oil

    For the salad

    1/2 cup hulled, unsalted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

    Eight ounces small potatoes, preferably red or purple, or a combination of colours, scrubbed well

    One teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed

    One head romaine lettuce, rinsed well and cut into two-inch squares

    Two large handfuls (two cups) fresh watercress

    1/2 cup packed cilantro leaves

    Eight to 10 grape tomatoes, each cut in half

    Freshly ground black pepper

    Flesh of one ripe avocado, cut lengthwise into quarters

    1/2 cup crumbled queso fresco, for garnish


    For the dressing: Whisk together the lime juice and sugar until the latter has dissolved.

    Add the jalapeño, then gradually drizzle in the oil, whisking, to form an emulsified vinaigrette.

    (Or you can combine all those ingredients in a small jar, seal and shake until well blended.)

    For the salad

    Toast the pumpkin seeds in a small, dry skillet over medium heat for about five minutes, or until fragrant and lightly browned, shaking the pan to avoid scorching.

    Cool completely.

    Place the potatoes in a pot and cover with cool water.

    Bring to a boil over high heat, add the teaspoon of salt and then reduce the heat to medium-low.

    Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until the potatoes are tender enough to pierce easily with the tip of a knife.


    When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, cut them into halves or quarters.

    Transfer to a mixing bowl, along with the lettuce, watercress, cilantro and tomatoes (to taste).

    Pour in the dressing and toss to coat evenly.

    Taste, and season with more salt and the pepper, as needed.

    Divide among individual plates.

    Top each portion with an avocado wedge, if using, and garnish with the crumbled queso fresco.

    Drizzle more dressing over each portion, as needed.

    Nutrition | Per serving: 430 calories, 10g protein, 28g carbohydrates, 35g fat, 6g saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 320mg sodium, 10g dietary fibre, 9g sugar

    Baked Butter Mochi


    SIXTEEN servings (makes generous two-inch squares)

    Serve with softly whipped cream or ice cream.

    Mochiko (sweet rice flour) is found in larger supermarkets as well as in Asian markets.


    Four tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted, plus more for the pan

    1/2 cup (99 grammes) granulated sugar

    1 1/3 cups (207 grammes) sweet rice flour (mochiko)

    One teaspoon (four grammes) baking powder

    1/2 teaspoon (three grammes) kosher salt

    One cup whole milk

    3/4 cup plus two tablespoons coconut milk

    Two large eggs, lightly beaten

    One tablespoon vanilla extract


    Use a little butter to grease a nine-by-nine-inch baking dish. Line the bottom with parchment paper so that two sides of the paper create a bit of overhang; this will make the slab of baked mochi easy to extract.

    Sift together the sugar, sweet rice flour, baking powder and salt into a mixing bowl.

    Add the four tablespoons of melted butter, the whole milk, coconut milk, eggs and vanilla extract, whisking to form a smooth batter.

    Pour into the baking dish, smoothing the surface with an offset spatula.

    Bake (middle rack) until the centre is set and the surface is golden brown, 50 minutes to one hour.

    Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely (in the pan). Use the parchment to lift out the slab of baked mochi. Trim the edges all around (snacking bits for the cook or helper), then cut the slab into 16 equal squares (about 2 inches each).

    Nutrition | Per serving : 110 calories, 2g protein, 14g carbohydrates, 5g fat, 4g saturated fat, 30mg cholesterol, 60mg sodium, 0g dietary fibre, 7g sugar

    Daisy’s Steamed Fish


    TWO to four servings

    San Francisco speech pathologist Daisy Choy grew up in Hong Kong, with consistent access to fresh fish.

    This dish is healthful, using ginger and scallions as star ingredients in its simple sauce.

    Choy’s cooking is said to be a reflection of her ancestors from Shun Tak in China’s Guangdong province, where the food is known for being fresh and light.

    You’ll need a steamer basket, preferably a large bamboo one; if you don’t have one, you can use a thin plate, seated on a cookie cutter inside a large skillet filled with an inch of water.

    Serve with cooked white rice.


    For the fish

    One pound white-fleshed fish fillets, such as grouper, red snapper, sole and flounder

    One teaspoon ground ginger

    Pinch fine sea salt

    One teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

    One teaspoon cornstarch

    Three scallions, white parts only (reserve the greens for the sauce)

    One one-inch piece fresh ginger root (unpeeled), cut into thin strips

    One to two tablespoons peanut oil

    For the sauce

    Two tablespoons peanut oil

    One two-inch piece peeled fresh ginger root, cut into matchsticks

    Green parts of three scallions, cut crosswise into thin slices

    One tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce

    One teaspoon pure sesame oil

    One tablespoon water


    Pat the fish dry with paper towels, then season/coat both sides with the ground ginger, salt, white pepper and cornstarch. Pour enough water to come up about one-quarter of the way up the sides of a large skillet; bring to a boil over high heat.

    Cut the scallion whites into long strips; reserve three or four pieces and use the rest to line the bottom of a large bamboo steamer set atop a pot filled with a few inches of water.

    Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Arrange the fish on top of the scallions, then place those reserved scallion pieces and the ginger on top of the fish.

    Drizzle the fillets with peanut oil, as needed, then place a round of parchment paper on top of the fish. Cover with lid and steam/cook for about eight minutes, or just until the fish is opaque. Discard the parchment.

    Meanwhile, make the sauce: Heat the peanut oil until shimmering in a medium saucepan over medium heat.

    Add the ginger and scallion greens; cook for three to five minutes, until tender.

    Add the soy sauce, sesame oil and the water. Cook for five minutes, until heated through.

    Discard the scallions and ginger atop the fillets (and the scallion whites beneath them), then arrange the fish on a platter. Drizzle the sauce over the top and serve right away.

    Nutrition | Per serving (based on four): 250 calories, 23g protein, 3g carbohydrates, 16g fat, 3g saturated fat, 40mg cholesterol, 320mg sodium, 0g dietary fiber, 0g sugar

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