Will Skidelsky meets Mina Holland, the Brixton resident on a mission to eat her way around the globe
Mina Holland’s first book, The Edible Atlas, is a round-the-world gastronomic voyage in paper form. In just over 300 pages, it elegantly circumnavigates 39 distinct cuisines, from the close-at-hand (Normandy, Scandinavia) to the exotically far-flung (The Levant, Guangdong).
Part cookbook (there are almost 200 recipes), part travelogue (the author draws on her extensive travels) and part scholarly enquiry (there are footnotes, literary references and interviews with experts), The Edible Atlas is a quirky delight that has been widely praised since its March publication, receiving endorsements from the likes of Yotam Ottolenghi (‘engaging and illuminating’), Rachel Khoo and Russell Norman (‘deserves a place on every serious cook’s bookshelf’.)
For all her culinary wanderlust, however, Mina herself has stayed firmly put in one place most of her life: south London. She grew up in ‘singularly unglamorous’ West Norwood (‘West Dulwich’s poorer cousin’), attended Jags school in Dulwich, and has continued to live south of the river as an adult. As a child, she says, the eating options weren’t great: ‘It was mainly a question of curries or jerk chicken’.
She developed her love of cooking partly because she was a vegetarian when younger (though a fish-eating one) and so was forced into the kitchen in order to eat well at all: ‘The options for vegetarians weren’t great back then and from an early age I took an active interest in developing alternatives.’
While at university – she studied English at Leeds – she spent a year living in San Francisco, an experience she holds largely responsible for making her want to pursue food professionally. ‘Beforehand, my interest in food was very much in the domestic setting. But living in California opened my eyes to the possibilities of restaurant culture, and how it could affect the way people eat at home.’
Back in London, Mina worked for a time in advertising while writing a food blog and setting up a supper club that fused her two main interests: literature and food. The Novel Diner: the Pop-up for Hungry Readers proved to be a short-lived addition to London’s dining scene, but Mina calls it ‘a useful learning experience’.
The Edible Atlas was born, she says, from a sense that there were really only two types of recipe books: ‘those attached to particular restaurants and celebrity chefs, which champion their unique creations – often a kind of fusion cooking – and those that focus exclusively on the cuisine of a single country’. Mina felt there was scope for a book that ‘searched for the pure essences of cuisines but didn’t stay in just one place. I wanted to create a bible of the world cuisines that inform how we eat today’.
The book is certainly impressive in its range: Mina has separate chapters on four Spanish regional cuisines and five Italian ones. Turkey, Israel and Iran each get chapters, as do California, Louisiana and Jamaica. The essays that form the meat of the text are engagingly written and interweave information with tantalizing autobiographical snippets (‘In Madrid, I was frustrated only by an inability to find good hummus and my bra size’).
Each chapter opens with a quote from a relevant literary source, ranging from Proust and Don Quixote to Linda Grant and Jay Rayner. And the recipes – which are never less than appetising – are underpinned by a sense of flexibility that Mina says informs her own culinary approach. ‘I learned a lot from my mother: neither of us have ever followed recipes religiously. That’s one of the things I want readers to take from the book: I want them to use it as a source of inspiration so they can make use of whatever they’ve got in the cupboard.’
So where does mina do her food shopping? ‘I love Brixton Market but I prefer the old market and Market Row to the more hipsterish Brixton Village. Hotspots include the Continental Deli, a Portuguese grocery in the arches which takes deliveries of hard-to-find seasonal veg from the continent; Cannon and Cannon, which specialises in East Anglian charcuterie and cheese; Wild Caper bakery, which does incredible sourdough bread; and Market Row Wines.
‘In Peckham, I adore Persepolis, Sally Butcher’s well-loved Iranian store, which stocks an array of staples from sour fruits to fermented yoghurt and advieh spice mix. And I have to include Beamish and McGlue in West Norwood, firstly because the name rocks and secondly because it demonstrates how much West Norwood has changed since I was growing up. It was SE27’s first ‘posh’ shop but the prices are reasonable. My parents, who moved to Streatham a few years ago, still drive back every Saturday for bread, free range meat and home-made marmalade courtesy of Mr McGlue’s mother in law!’