The verdict is in: For most travelers, good eats are as much of a draw as cultural immersion. And if you can't become a round-the-clock jet-setter, dabbling in regional cuisine is a close second. That's why we're loving the new book Recipes from Many Kitchens by Valentina Rice, founder of online food marketplace Many Kitchens. From Georgia to Germany, Punjab to Provence, the collection is an exercise in eating your way across cultures and continents. We sat down with Rice to talk travel, regional cuisine, and the top must-see destination for foodie travelers.
T+L: Before it was a cookbook, Many Kitchens began as an online marketplace—what was it that led you to start the business?
Rice: I ran the International Sales Department for Penguin Books and was in publishing for 15 years, and my two big loves were books and food. I would travel abroad to sell books, and I used to spend all my free time trying to find the best of the best in each countries—gyoza in Tokyo, chili crab in Singapore—and I started doing that back home in New York as well. I realized there are all these amazing producers who had small, loyal followings, but they weren’t getting a wider audience. So the idea came from that, to try to build a wider audience for all these producers I was finding in the on my travels. So I made the decision to jump off a cliff into the unknown and leave my job to start up Many Kitchens.
What was it that first sparked your interest in travel and food?
I think it’s just a lifelong passion. My parents are both incredible cooks. My mother is Italian, and she will find whatever is in the kitchen and make a feast for everyone. And my father was a bit more about finding these incredible ingredients, being a little adventurous. Growing up, he would take me on these incredible gastronomic tours around Europe where we would go from Michelin starred restaurant to Michelin starred restaurant. That’s how we would plan our road trip. It was a very special way to grow up. I was very lucky to have parents who raised me to travel and eat and try different things. Our rule was that you had to try everything once. You didn’t have to finish it, or ever try it again, but you had to try everything once.
The book has recipes from such a range of cultures. For people who aren’t necessarily world travelers themselves, what’s the value of learning to cook foods from different culinary traditions?
I think it’s that whole armchair traveler thing. Cuisine in America keeps becoming more international and more authentic in many ways. I think everyone is learning more about the rest of the world, and about the food that everyone eats. I mean, I keep discovering things—I lived in Japan for a year and I only just discovered some dish that’s famous in Japan and I had never heard of it. There’s always so much to learn, and food is a good way of discovering the world and becoming more aware culturally.
What do you think the food from a specific region or country teaches these armchair travelers about the area itself?
I think if you like the food there’s a desire to learn more, and maybe even travel. It might pique someone’s interest, and hopefully they’ll want to learn more about the entire culture, not just the food. As I started to put the book together, so many of these producers had an international slant to their food, and not all of them came from that area. There was already a cultural awareness from a lot of these U.S. producers that lent itself to creating these international menus.
Having worked with people from all across the country, did you notice any differences across the U.S. in terms of how the approach to food varies?
That was actually one of the other reasons for starting Many Kitchens. I go up to Cape Cod a lot and they have this Beach Plum jam that I haven’t seen anywhere else, and no one else seems to have heard of it. And it’s the most delicious jam, and you can only find it in Cape Cod. There are such small productions every year that it’s not something that lends itself to mass production. But that sort of piqued my interest, because there are all these little culinary pockets—so often we don’t know what exists in the rest of America. There are these tiny little pockets of gastronomic specialties you couldn’t find anywhere else. I discovered lots of amazing things, and I want to go explore the rest of the country. I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of what’s available.
Are there any particular dishes or recipes that you have a Proustian sort of memory association with? Dishes you just find really transportive to a particular place and time?
So many of them do. As is the case with everyone—the smells and the tastes take you back to a place. I think that’s why I put together these recipes—so many of them were things I wanted from my childhood or my travels. The croquetas take me straight back to Spain. That whole French chapter takes me back to Paris on a trip with my father. The Italian food takes me back to my childhood and my mother’s cooking. The sticky rice with mango—I used to go to Bangkok least once or twice a year for work, and there’s a little place in the airport that has really good sticky rice with mango. I always used to go there when I was leaving. I’ve never found a good one here in the city, either, so I learned to make it.
Did you notice any common culinary threads across cultures as you were collecting these recipes?
I’m always fascinated by how people cook rice. Every culture cooks rice in a completely different way. There’s Italians with their risotto, that they cook slowly with stock until it’s soft, and the Persian way with the fat underneath to get the crisp bottom, and then the Spanish with their paella, the Japanese do it sticky. I found that pretty fascinating. It was a really fun little trip around the world for me, even though it was all done in New York City.
Having done all these food-specific travels, is there a specific place in the world that you think should be on every food lover’s bucket list?
Thailand! Thailand is my favorite. And all those countries where the street food is better than the expensive restaurants—Thailand, Malaysia, parts of Southeast Asia. Japan, too. The food is just incredible. Italian food is my first true love, but Asian food is amazing because it’s so regional. From the north to the south of Thailand the food is so incredibly different. The same goes for most countries in Asia.