December 5, 2012

Can You Spice Up Your Veggie Cooking? An Interview With Troth Wells.

Troth Wells is the author of various vegetarian cookbooks which are so exotic and ethno-curious in nature, that one is tempted to call them foodie travelogues.

They are a mine of new recipe ideas, which is essential when you decide to follow a plant-based diet. After I reviewed her latest bookSmall Planet, Small Plate: Earth-Friendly Vegetarian Recipes, I wanted to know a bit more about the way she prepares her books and about her views on the new vegetarian food trends.

Vegetarian cookbooks are sprouting like mushrooms. Even serious meat-eater celebrity cooks like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall seem to have converted to a plant-based diet. Is this just a fad or do you think that these new converts will stick to the veggie lifestyle?

I think we are at an interesting point where many people have realised the potential and diversity of plant foods, moving away from a meat-centered view of cooking. So, I do not believe it’s a fad for many new ‘converts’; although some will retain meat in their diet, they will eat much less of it and perhaps, in time, none at all. And meanwhile, they will enjoy exploring and experimenting with the colours, shapes, textures and flavours of plant foods.

You have published a few vegetarian cookbooks. Do you still get excited about new combinations of spices, herbs, grains, veggies, and beans?

Yes! There is such a huge variety of foods and ways to prepare them. I am always learning new things to do with vegetables, and new combinations of ingredients to try out.

How do you collect your recipes? Do you travel a lot or do travellers come to you and broaden your horizons?

I am lucky that I have travelled quite widely, including to Central America, parts of India, China, Africa and southeast Asia. When I eat or see something I like, I try to ask and note down the ingredients and see how it is cooked and then try it out at home. And yes, I also ask New Internationalist readers to send in their recipes.

Cooks all go through temporary food obsessions. What are yours at the moment?

I guess we get keen on a new flavour combo we’ve come up with…I’m enjoying  seasonal (late summer/fall/autumn) foods at present, like raspberry granita; potato and beetroot salad and of course anything with apples–crumble made with chopped stem ginger is my current favourite.

You write that you love it when people tweak your recipes. Any tips you could give to less adventurous home cooks? How does one gain confidence in the kitchen?

For me, the best way is to follow a recipe carefully when you first attempt it, to gain confidence. If you don’t like that one, or it doesn’t work out well, try another until there is one that you feel happy making. I still make a Delia Smith sultana loaf cake from one of her very first cookbooks–it is my ‘default’ because I am not very good at making cakes! And although I do still follow the recipe, now I feel confident enough to add in different fruit or to change things slightly.

What do you say to meat-eaters who argue that vegetarian food is boring?

It’s their loss…and hard on the planet. But perhaps they have not had the opportunity to eat good veggie food. Not everyone has easy access to fresh produce, or space to prepare different foods. I remember when our kitchen was re-done and I had to do all the veg cleaning and preparation upstairs in the bathroom as the water was off in the kitchen—it made me aware that it is much easier to sling a pizza or sausages in the oven.

Your introduction draws a very good yet non-judgemental picture of why we should all aim towards eating less meat or no meat at all. Could you give us the two most important reasons in your point of view?

Well, for me the key reasons are firstly that the way we currently produce meat is not good for the planet—rearing livestock intensively is not sustainable as it requires huge inputs of food, water and other resources. The world grows enough grain to feed all the people in the world, but about half of it goes to feed animals or to make biofuel, rather than to feed humans.

Secondly, studies have shown that reducing meat intake and eating more fruit and veg benefits people’s general health—so that must be a good thing.

What are your favorite countries for vegetarian food? You mention Malaysia in your book, for example.

Yes, Malaysia does have a good range of vegetable food and it is easier now to find vegetarian dishes. But India is hard to beat for the centrality of exciting vegetarian dishes including thalis; and of course I love the mezze dishes of North Africa and the Middle East, that have inspired my latest Small Planet cookbook. Setting out a range of dishes—from different parts of the world even—can work and make for a great meal. It’s worth trying!

Small Planet, Small Plates is published in the U.S. by InterlinkBooks and by the New Internationalist under the title Small Planet Vegetarian Cookbook in the UK.

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