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Why you should learn to cook an entire cuisine

Jill Hannon

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Do you want to become a better home cook? Knowing how to prepare a healthy meal from a jumble of ingredients is magic and a skill that anyone can develop.

Some anthropologists like Richard Wrangham in his book Catching Fire even argue that cooking is what made us human in the first place. Not only did it give our ancestors better food, it helped the human brain get bigger by increasing the amount of energy that could be derived from food.

We are the “cooking ape” as Wrangham writes, and we all can cook. We just need to learn how to first. And instead of mastering a hodgepodge of recipes from across the internet, I would suggest that you would be better off learning how to cook by learning an entire cuisine.

This is obviously not a small undertaking, and yes, probably not even entirely feasible. Cuisines are immense unwieldy things on which folks tend to have a lot of strong opinions. There will always be more to learn.

I chose Italian and spent a year in cooking school in Italy. I did not go to become a chef but to learn to cook a cuisine that fascinates me. Cooking school is an extreme approach and probably doesn’t make sense for most people. There are many less time consuming options, including classes, blogs, cookbooks, and videos, and of course, travel. Learning to cook another cuisine is a great way to explore your own heritage or another culture altogether.

Here are five reasons that I think every aspiring home cook should take the time to learn an entire cuisine.

1. You will learn to cook without recipes.

Sam Sifton in the New York Times food section calls them “no-recipe recipes”. Christopher Kimball of Milk Street fame calls throwing together a meal, not cooking, but “cookish”. Yet knowing how to assemble a collection of ingredients into a tasteful meal is knowing how to cook, pure and simple. It’s not sort of cooking, it’s cooking.

I often struggle to include measurements when writing recipes on my own blog as they seem random and are, at best, a loose recommendation. Most recipes don’t need measurements. They just need understanding and knowledge.

Yet, as we’ve moved further away from the kitchen, we’ve come to rely more on recipes out of necessity. A recipe is a great way to prepare a new dish or to learn a new technique or flavor profile or dish. I cook from recipes, especially when using ingredients that I am less familiar with or trying new techniques, or when I want to make something “authentic” in a sense — although we’ll all debate what qualifies as authentic.

However, when we learn to cook a cuisine, we learn how to use a specific set of ingredients together, sort of like we use words to build sentences in a given language. Making dinner within the learned rules and context of a cuisine is like writing your own poetry versus reciting a poem written by someone else.

As with languages, the great cuisines of the world were developed over the course of centuries as a community honed techniques to turn available and often cheap ingredients into dishes to keep people fed.

Once you learn which ingredients go together and how, you can cook without recipes. You’ll become fluent in the flavors of the cuisine as if you’ve learned to speak another language.

2. You will reduce food waste.

Learning to cook an entire cuisine can help you reduce food waste and contribute to climate solutions.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) claims that about one-third of the world’s food is never eaten, including 11% that is wasted directly in our households. That’s a lot of wasted food.

Meanwhile, 3.1 billion people don’t have access to a healthy diet and 828 million people go hungry. We need to stop wasting food.

It affects the climate too. According to FAO, “reducing food waste is one of the most impactful climate solutions” as “food loss and waste account for 8-10% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions — contributing to an unstable climate and extreme weather events such as droughts and flooding.” Yeah, let’s not waste any more food.

When I was learning to cook in New York City, I would scour the internet for recipes. I spent a lot of time on Pinterest and popular food blogs, and in the cookbook sections of my local bookstores. Once I found a recipe, I would make a long list of what I needed and head to the grocery store. Of course, for one recipe I would use a little of this and a little of that and likely toss out the remainder after I forgot to use it. The ingredients didn’t always fit with everything else that I already had in my kitchen.

Yet when you learn to cook a cuisine, you use the same ingredients in a myraid of ways. Cooking Italian, I stock my house with ingredients like parmesan cheese and the Italian anchovy sauce known as colatura di alici and use them in most of my cooking. The flavors go together. I learn not by using a little here and a little there, but by learning to master the ingredient itself.

Great cuisines are also often born out of thrift and survival and aim to waste little. In the Italian cuisine, there is no shortage of recipes to use up stale bread, from frying food in breadcrumbs to using old bread as a base for soup to making the surprisingly delicious stale bread salad known as panzanella. Everything gets used.

And it’s not to say that I don’t experiment in the kitchen a great deal as well. I love to buy exotic ingredients and do cook well beyond Italian too but I have a base that I easily return to and keep my kitchen coherently stocked.

3. You will learn the highs as well as the lows.

Cuisines contain meals that I qualify as highs and lows. Highs are the delicious, celebratory foods meant to indulge. This is holiday dining. These are the dishes that leave you awash in superlatives — the best dish ever. My favorite meal. The most delicious thing I‘ve ever eaten. The highs sparkle and look great on social media.

But life isn’t all a holiday and our diets aren’t meant to be either. Cuisines, therefore, also have lows or dishes that we can eat on a daily basis to keep us fed, often on a small budget. The simple pasta dishes, the rice plates, the soups, the polenta.

Cuisine cooking is important as it teaches us to learn the entire breadth of a style of cooking, the party food to wow us but also the daily food to nourish us.

4. You will always have a plan for dinner.

Once you learn the lows and stock your kitchen with the ingredients and building blocks that go together, you will always have an easy dinner solution.

I never worry about what’s for dinner. If I don’t feel inspired or like trucking to the grocery store, I know that I can always make a simple pasta dish like the Italian pasta al pomodoro or pasta with tomatoes in English. [You can find the basic Italian recipe for pasta with tomatoes and 20 variations over here.]

It’s everywhere in Italy, and with good reason too. Quick to make from cheap and easy-to-stock ingredients, it’s healthy, delicious, and decent for the planet too.

I can make it with only five ingredients that I always have on hand— pasta, canned tomatoes, salt, olive oil, and parmesan cheese. Pasta, tomatoes, and salt are all super cheap. Olive oil and parmesan cheese can get pricey but you also don’t use much of either.

The fact that you can store both dry pasta and canned tomatoes in your pantry for years and that they don’t need to be refrigerated also reduces the dish’s carbon footprint. And yes, it’s vegetarian too, and reducing meat consumption is often cited as an easy way to shrink your carbon footprint. Just remember to put a lid on the pot when boiling water to help save energy.

5. Learning to cook an entire cuisine is fun.

Perhaps the most important reason to learn to cook another cuisine is that it is simply fun. They’ve even made movies about it. Remember the movie Julie & Julia based on the blog of a young New Yorker named Julie who set out to cook all the recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one-year? There are over 500 recipes in there. Now that is an undertaking that almost makes cooking school seem easy.

Food and taste are also based on pleasure and sharing. What better way to learn about a people and a culture than by gaining a richer understanding of their joy?

What cuisine do you want to learn?

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Jill Hannon

I'm a Vermonter living in Rome, Italy. I love to eat, drink, and travel. Eat more. See more.