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Mezcla and the chilli problem

"Lets just embrace that word: FUSION! Better yet, let's celebrate it. After all most recipes were probably considered fusion before they became defining classics." Ixta Belfrage

I am old and really have everything I need, and so when it's birthday or Christmas time, I ask for cookbooks, and my son's family obliged by buying me Belinda Jefferey's lovely book A Year of Sundays. But alas I had it already, and so I was sent off to exchange it.

I deliberated for quite some time. Even if the book (Med) is written by Claudia Roden, do I really need another book on Mediterranean food that includes most of the dishes that I already have several recipes for? None of the Nigel Slater's I do not have were there. Anyway after much hesitation I fixed on this - Mexcla by Ixta Belfrage, Ottolenghi's protegée who wrote Flavour with him and worked with him for five years or so.

My hesitation, I should explain was because Flavour had been full of chilli. So many recipes included chilli and not just any old chilli either. And we all know by now that David will not eat chilli. However, the recipes were different, and sounded interesting, and I had spent far too long on this decision. Besides it was on a one day special, and so I bought it.

I have now read it all - well not every word of the recipes of course, just the introductions and the notes - of which there are many. I was most impressed by these words though in her glossary of ingredients about which she felt she should speak:

"Chillies. I'm a huge fan of chillies and use them - perhaps excessively - throughout this book. That's not to say that you need to love chilli to cook from this book, so please don't skip over a recipe if it contains chilli. Chillies are optional throughout, and I guarantee that these recipes will still have tons of flavour if you omit them, or add less to your taste ... If you want flavour but none of the heat, try subbing chillies with red bell pepper flakes or mild paprika. ... If you don't like chillies but want something punchy to stir into dishes ... simply mix together 150g of grated tomato, half a finely grated garlic clove, 1 teaspoon of lemon juice and 1/4 teaspoon of salt."

Phew! Now I can with a clear conscience leave the chilli out or just sneak in a tiny amount. Or replace with paprika or that grated tomato idea. It's an interesting thing to find. I wonder if Flavour had a lot of criticism because of all the chillies and so she felt she had to give us permission to leave them out?

It's an interesting name Ixta isn't it? Well it comes from a volcano - Ixtaccihuatl. A volcano in Mexico which could be seen from her paternal grandfather's home and where her parents met. My son also gave his firstborn son as a third name a volcano's name - Pacaya - in Ecuador or Guatemala I think, where he and his partner first discovered that she was pregnant. Another romantic volcano. I had never thought of volcanoes as romantic - but there you go - two examples.

Ixta herself has English and Brazilian heritage - the Brazilian from her mother - but spent many years in Italy and in Mexico and eventually in England. Thus the fusion effect. And I think it's the fusion effect that attracts me to my favourite cooks these days. Sometimes they stick to the known and the traditional but often they add at least a small twist - even Delia does this. And I am hoping that this book, like so many others in recent times, will lead me down new and exciting avenues in cooking.

Mezcla also is Spanish for 'mix', 'mixture', 'blend', 'fusion', of which she says:

"It's a beautiful word that has meaning in food and cooking, and also in music and art."

So what am I going to try first? Well maybe that giant cheesy toast from yesterday, and actually there are so many that I could have a go at. So here are three, although only one can be found online at the moment. That one is Sticky coconut rice cake with turmeric tomatoes. Then there is Fish poached in charred tomato broth - this looks like a good fish recipe to try sometime soon, and also, completely picked at random - Roasted, pickled and fried onions - which is rather good looking side dish to try some time.

I should note that when I was looking online for the recipes and for photographs, I noticed that the first two at least, are similar to what is obviously a traditional dish, but I'm guessing that she has rung the changes somehow. If I make them I shall look into it.

Both she and various reviewers however, mention this dish as one that is quintessentially Ixta - Prawn lasagne with habanero oil. Why?

"This lasagna is the purest representation of me, a homage to the countries that have shaped me as a person and a cook. In its original form it was one part Italian (the pasta), one part Mexican (the habanero) and one part Brazilian (the Catupiry). This particular version is simplified. No Catupiry and no prawn head oil, but I hope you'll agree that it's still magical."

Catupiry is a Brazilian kind of cheese. Of course this particular dish will not be made in our house. Prawns are taboo. And yes, of course, there are chillies. Hot ones too - although you could leave them out.

She also has several - well it seemed like several - recipes for plantains and cassava - neither of which you will find very easily here. Well that's partly the Brazilian thing but also the fact that in England there are a lot of West Indians who love these too, which means they are available over there. But then we have other things - like sushi and everything you need to make it. My sister tells me that in her small town in Sussex there are no sushi, or otherwise Japanese establishments. Can you imagine a suburb here without sushi?

Lots of tomatoes - expensive but hopefully they will eventually come down in price.

Overall a tempting book. I'm looking forward to trying something from it. Maybe the fish.


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