Former New York Times food critic and cookbook author Mimi Sheraton shares her six-decade search for the best food pleasures in her new book, 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die (Workman) on sale January 13. In this tour of 1,000 culinary must-haves, Sheraton takes readers on a food safari through 70 world cuisines to create the ultimate foodie bucket list.
What was your criteria for including a food on the list?
The first two things I thought about including were frozen Milky Ways and caviar—and that reflects the spectrum of this book. My criteria was a combination of what I thought was very delicious and something people ought to know about. Overall, I strove for a picture of what the world eats. It was like a jigsaw puzzle. I wanted many parts of the world represented, but balance was not an overwhelming concern. I included lots of everyday fare, though I didn’t strive for that. It just naturally happened. The greatest problem was finding sources for items from remote parts of the world so that recipes could be tried at home. Some may find items bizarre and off-putting: brains, roasted sheep, or calves head—or Vegemite. But they’re really part of what the world eats. I want people to seek them out and try them.
Did you discover any new dishes along the way?
I discovered many new dishes along the way. When I read about a Senegalese restaurant in Harlem called African Kine, I wanted to try that food, which was quite awesome, and I knew it should be included.
How would you define the quintessential delightful food experience?
It’s called WOW! and should be an epiphany, especially if it’s something new.You suddenly experience flavors, texture, temperature—you stop talking. You really need three bites to contemplate: In the first you don’t know what to expect, the second you want to find out the components making up that WOW!, and by the third, you’ve really got it. Teeny portions on tasting menus never seem to me legitimate because you can’t really taste something new and different in one tiny bite.
How might your book change the way people eat or view food?
I hope it will make them more aware. When they eat things outside their comfort zone, they will begin to gain interest in another culture, especially when they eat within the context of, “This is one of the thousand things that defines the world’s food.” Food is a handle to learn about different customs. I’ve done this by traveling, but walking into an ethnic grocery or restaurant dedicated to another of the world’s cuisines is bound to be life-changing. The book opens up doors to another culture, provides a chance to talk to the people, and visit different neighborhoods.
How can individuals who want to experience “the geography of flavor” best prepare themselves? What advice can you offer?
Individuals who want to experience or cook some of these foods will find my book provides many sources for obtaining these foods. It gives help for cooking and going to a restaurant. As you gather ingredients for recipes, or even if you don’t know how to cook, you’ll learn how to experience exotic or new cuisines. For an Ethiopian feast, I describe what the meal is like, so at an Ethiopian restaurant, you’ll know what to order, how to put the meal together, and what to expect. The first time I went to a Korean restaurant, I ended up with four soups! I’ve tried to show you how to get an authentic experience.