Eating around the world
‘I just get to eat," Nici Wickes says, happily.
Eat, and travel. It's the stuff that most people's dreams are made of, and Wickes - restaurant critic, food writer, and television chef for travel-food series World Kitchen - will be at Nelson's Suter Gallery on Tuesday evening to describe exactly what such bliss is like.
Her newly-released second book, Cook, Eat, Enjoy, contains recipes from six of her "all-time favourite" countries: Mexico, India, Morocco, Spain, Greece and Vietnam. There's also a chapter of her favourite "at-home" meals, which she cooks for herself and her family.
Recipes include bastilla, "the ultimate chicken pie" (Morocco); a Basque-style seafood stew (Spain); pork and ginger meatballs (Vietnam); pulled pork soft-shell tacos (Mexico); dried fruit and nut curry (India); and sweet cheese pie (Greece).
"I'm so proud of it," she says. Rather than taken directly from her TV series, which is now in its sixth season, she says this cookbook has been inspired by travels throughout her entire life.
And how did she land such a fabulous job? "I think I was pretty lucky!" World Kitchen was looking for a presenter/host and somebody who could cook. Wickes, with a background in corporate training, was a trained chef, and could hold a conversation while she cooked; plus, she says, she loves people.
"I'm very curious about people, and I'm very into food and I absolutely adore eating. So really this job for me has been a match made in heaven."
Wickes isn't the sort of person who travels to museums and art galleries for her dose of culture; instead, she's much more interested in accessing a culture through its food.
"I'm always to be found stuffing my face in a market," she says. "It gives you an idea of the surroundings. If you're in Vietnam, all of the food is packed full of fresh herbs, and that's because there's such a lush culture around there where there is loads of coriander, lemongrass, mint.
"People use claypots there because most people don't have an oven. You'll have a gas burner or an open fire, hence the claypot cooking, which I really like."
In Morocco, tagines are used because of the type of meat that's available, in comparison to cultures that select only the best, most tender cuts.
"They might be cooking [meats] like our hogget or mutton or goat, so it needs to be a long, slow, gentle cook with lots of aromatics in there.
"And who's doing the cooking? Is it the men, the women, the whole family?"
She also loves the history of the herbs and spices used in different cuisines, such as cumin, coriander, ginger, or cinnamon, the combination of which could equally be the makings of a Moroccan or Indonesian dish or an Indian curry.
"I really love tracking the similarities as much as anything. It's great."
She says it's "such a privilege" to be able to travel and connect with different cultures through watching them make their food.
"People's eyes just light up when they start being asked about their particular dish or an ingredient," she says.
"There's a shared interest. Sometimes I have not been able to speak three words of the same language, but we can get through a whole instructional recipe that someone will show me, and I'll still gather it was their grandma's. I really love that, and I really enjoy conveying that through writing."
She usually has an idea of the cuisine before she goes - otherwise she wouldn't be visiting - but says she likes to stay open-minded once there. "You really do get surprised sometimes."
Her ultimate goal for the cookbook is to gather all these surprises together and bring them home to Kiwi kitchens, where palates are already well-seasoned to foods from a variety of places, but people may think they need a bunch of equipment or skills to create similar delights for a weekday dinner.
"People in New Zealand eat from a lot of different cultures," she says. "We might have Italian one night and Thai the next night. We're quite used to that, and yet that's actually quite unusual if you go around the world.
"In India you just get Indian food, mostly; and likewise in Morocco. Here, people have a fascination for a lot of those dishes, but I'm not so sure we're cooking a lot of them at home. Perhaps people have the perception that it's difficult to cook a tagine; you have to have ‘one of those dishes'." You don't, she says; she cooks hers in a frypan or a pot with a lid.
"I really wanted to bring those great dishes and those cuisines home to our kitchens at home and I didn't want to make it difficult," she says. "These are meals for people and you can make a great feast of them or knock up a quick after-work dinner.
"It should be a pleasurable experience; that's what I'm hoping."