When I cook for myself, the only real guideline I follow is the pursuit of flavor — everything else is a suggestion. And sometimes, particularly with a cuisine I’m not too familiar with, this 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 alongside basil, fried shallots, sa tế and lettuce, for wrapping. Usually, it’s in this quest for flavor that I realize what’s actually most comforting for me in a given moment.
Recipe: Melon-and-Cho-Cho Salad
So it’s a joy when a cookbook takes pleasure seriously, especially when its pursuit serves as the book’s compass, as is the case with the chef and musician Denai Moore’s brilliant Jamaican cookbook, “Plentiful.” “Jamaican food is often misrepresented,” she writes, “stripped of its complexity and reduced to being a meat-heavy cuisine.” By focusing solely on vegan dishes, she explores the groove 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 scramble and greens, ackee carbonara, brown-stew noodle soup, rice-and-peas arancini, passion-fruit-glazed doughnuts, jerk “pork” gyoza, a ginger-and-marzipan loaf. They’re the sorts of dishes that might percolate if you gave yourself the permission and authority to know yourself — in lieu of who you’re told to be. The expansiveness and allowance Moore gives us is pretty exhilarating: Flipping through pages, I was giddy. These meals felt new and familiar at the same time, speaking to Moore’s edict: “Eating well, trying new things and being present with the food in front of you.”
It’s 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 seldom the focal point of its oft-exported wares. When I asked Moore why she chose to focus on vegan dishes, she said that going vegan “hasn’t affected my relationship with Jamaican food at all. If anything, it’s made it stronger and deeper. I think going vegan pushed me to become more creative in the kitchen, and recreating the dishes from my culture became a necessity.”
The challenge of introducing a cuisine across cultures is hardly unique, although non-Eurocentric cuisines certainly bear the burden in the United States. It can take the form of a hyperemphasis on the fast-casual or a reluctance to peruse a culture’s wider culinary offerings in favor of what’s deemed less challenging. But there’s a wealth 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 a cuisine expands, its ability to tolerate play can follow. But it’s worth asking which cuisines 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 start their journey, a map and an infinitude of directions to take — and each of us, in our way, can engage in that play every time we step up to the stove. Regardless of the cuisine we’re navigating, we bring our experiences with us. The food and sportswriter Danny Chau, describing in The New Yorker how fusing cuisines has crept into his own cooking, notes it spot on: “Honoring one’s appetite occasionally calls for making unexpected moves.” And there’s a certain sort of holiness in a reverence toward your cravings: merging flavors, memory and experience to find whatever it is in a meal that brings you comfort and then working to share that with someone else or simply enjoying it alone. We really are experts in our pleasure.
Consequently, Moore’s melon-and-cho-cho salad is an exercise in navigating textures and flavors: Chayote, mint, sliced shallot and almonds sit atop one another to form a taste both immediately recognizable and unexpected. It’s a reminder that a home really can be found wherever we would like to make it, if we would like to make it, and that we can bring what we find special in our cuisines with us, adapting and shifting and blending and sharing as we go.
Then again, regardless of our best efforts, flavor often finds us when we least expect it: A little while ago, my boyfriend and I wandered into Mazesoba Shichi, a noodle shop in Tokyo that sits a stone’s throw from Shibuya Station. After we sat down, the flavors recalled dishes oceans away. And the restaurant’s soundtrack — a lilting reggae — stunned me into a slurping silence. But maybe that shouldn’t have been too surprising: It only underlined the many different connections between us, which we may not be aware of, reminding me of Moore’s note in the beginning of “Plentiful”: “I’m a proud novice who wants to explore.”