I have cooked the food of my New England childhood for over half a century, followed by all things French, a taste of Italian, as well as occasional forays into Mexican, Moroccan, Indian and Asian. My world was mostly northern European fare, a cuisine based on meat, heat, bread and root vegetables. It is a cuisine almost entirely devoid of spices, one that uses a limited palette of herbs, fermented sauces, chilies and strong ingredients, such as ginger. It is a cuisine based on technique, building flavors using classic cooking methods.
Ten years ago, I was driving into Hanoi from the airport. We overtook a sea of motorbikes, some with crates of pigs on the back, one with a middle-aged man balancing lumber on his shoulder, and several bearing whole families precariously perched, grasping hard and buffeted by the wind. It was a foreign shore.
Then I ate the food. Lemon grass with clams. Pho. A breakfast banh mi. Roadside stalls selling grilled foods like eggs in the shell and sweet potato. Mango and papaya. The salads. Hot, sweet, salty and bitter. Broth and noodles. Coffee with condensed milk and raw egg.
The realization dawned slowly. There is no “ethnic” cooking. It’s a myth. It’s just dinner or lunch served somewhere else in the world.
I’m from Vermont (at least my soul tells me so) and I have taken continuity of place and tradition as a tenet for the good life. The happiest among us, I’ve found, usually are from somewhere. It matters. But when it comes to food, let me propose new rules.
We think of recipes as belonging to a people and place; outsiders are interlopers. Milk Street offers the opposite—an invitation to the cooks of the world to sit at the same table.
Milk Street is about that moment in that kitchen in that city and the thousands of other moments we will experience in the coming years. This is a culinary—not cultural—exchange. There are enduring kitchen values that travel easily from Saigon to Kiev to Jerusalem to Quito to London to New York.