When was the last time you sat down to a meal of hamam meshwi, a.k.a grilled pigeon, which is most likely found on a menu in Egypt? Or traveled to Oslo, Norway, for a breakfast of freshly caught shrimp? Chances are probably never. However, thanks to former New York Times restaurant critic, Smithsonian contributor, and author Mimi Sheraton's latest book, 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die, your foodie life list is about to get a whole lot longer.
Inspired by Patricia Schultz's best-selling title, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die (which is also distributed by Workman Publishing), Sheraton has rounded up 1,000 must-try dishes, restaurants, markets, cultural feasts, and even some relatively universal foods (such as bananas, olive oil, and whipped cream) that transcend regional categorization. Curated from cuisines around the globe, Sheraton has put them together in one large volume, along with details on historic and cultural context, tips on how to prepare or where to try a particular dish, and even several dozen recipes. It's a project that's been 10 years in the making—one that's as much a wonderful display of Sheraton's vast food knowledge (she's been writing about food for 60 years) as it is an ode to the world's sheer culinary diversity.
Fitting the world's incredible eats into a mere 1,000 entries, however, is no small task. "I actually started with about 1800 entries that I had to weed down," says Sheraton, "All the while, other foods and dishes continued presenting themselves." One of her main goals was showing an equal respect for the dishes of say, Australia, as she did for a culinary powerhouse like China. "Between the United States, France and Italy I could have easily filled the book," she says, "but I wanted to give an overall representation of what the world eats. There are interesting things to try before you die in all parts of the world, so chicken pot pie and strawberry shortcake fell by the wayside to make room for something like East Africa's Zanzibar duck," a braised, clove-scented duck seasoned with lemon.
Nearly the same number of pages as it has entries, 1,000 Foods highlights everything from Chinese hie xian jiang (known in the U.S. as hoisin sauce) to the oysters of Locmariaquer, France. Staples of the dinner table such as pasta run alongside more specific items like the "golden-edged" crepes at Manhattan patisserie Lady M, while other entries focus on iconic restaurants such as Nariobi, Kenya’s Carnivore, known for its unusual variety of meats (things like camel hump, ox heart, or ostrich meatballs) or on food-inspired cinema such as the 1989 dark comedy, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. There's no particular rhyme or reason as to why a food hall may be one entry and Belgium's Callebaut chocolate another, other than simply—it fits. "While there are exactly 1,000 entries, there are actually many more foods, because I found the only way to include something that didn't require a lot of text for itself, but was important in a larger context, was to group it," says Shearton. Some entries group foods together, such as Sheraton's write up on "Spanish Cheeses" and "Rijsttafel," an array of Indonesian rice table feasts that came about during the age of Dutch colonialism.
Sheraton organized 1,000 Foods according to the geography of flavor and culinary style rather than strict geographical borders, so candied apples is listed under the regional heading "American and Canadian" while leberwurst is found in the section titled "German, Austrian, and Swiss." For the most part, traditional dishes that may be popular internationally are still listed according to their region of origin. For example a food such as pizza, despite being an American staple, still falls under "Italy." Likewise, the American Chinese dish chow mein is found in the book's "Chinese" chapter, although it's much more popular in the States. This can be a bit confusing at first, but once you get the hang of becomes easy to navigate. Along with a general index, there's also a special index providing easy access to items such as holiday food, world-class markets, and recipes, the latter of which there are about 70 scattered throughout. But perhaps the book's most helpful perk is that each listing contains information highlighting ways you can actually experience the food, place, etc., yourself. "Everything in the book has to be available to readers some how," she says, "whether you go to a restaurant or buy it at a store or online or even make it yourself, everything there is triable."
Since the connection between food and travel is undeniable, 1,000 Foods is as much an exploration of the world and its people as it is a culinary journey. "For me, food helps define a place," says Sheraton. "Not only does it put me closer in touch with the people who are preparing the food but I also experience the way it is served, the different flavors, etc. I really think that in a world that's becoming more homogenous if you can find traditional foods in their country of origin—like Ukrainian borsht in Kiev, or hairy crab in Shanghai—it's as important as looking at a cathedral or some statue."
In truth, says Sheraton, there's a lot other than food you can find out about from food. Turns out 1,000 Foods is the perfect tool. Despite its tagline, Sheraton's book is much more than a food lover's life list. "There are so many ways to use 1,000 Foods," she says, "whether you're planning to visit a place and want to look up dishes to try while there, or if you're so dedicated you want to find a very unusual dish to try, so you start from the entry and then travel to the place it suggests. As a writer I hope that most people will simply find it to be a good read: dip in and out and maybe strike up an interest that will lead them even further into a certain cuisine or country or customs."
Sheraton herself learned new facts and discovered new foods while writing the book, which is what she says kept her going in a lot of ways. Based on her research she predicts that there are a few North African cuisines—namely Senegalese and Ethiopian—that will have much wider influence as Western palates expand. She also sees a trend toward more western Mediterranean cuisine, which simply put utilizes more spices, while its eastern counterpart focuses on herbs.
While Sheraton has tasted the overall majority of entries listed, there are still a few that for one reason or another have eluded her (but that according to her viable, trusted sources cannot be left out). "As I say in the book's intro, my reach has always exceeded my grasp. But that's okay," she says, "because it gives me something to look forward to."