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Ixta Belfrage: ‘I want to reclaim the word fusion in cooking’

After the release of her first solo book, the Ottolenghi protégé speaks to Prudence Wade about dreaming up recipes, why ‘Mezcla’ is the perfect way to describe her cooking, and how fusion got lost in translation

Wednesday 13 July 2022 12:14 BST
Belfrage’s background and culinary influences are certainly eclectic
Belfrage’s background and culinary influences are certainly eclectic (Stuart Simpson/PA)

While most of us tend to get recipe inspiration from Instagram or cookbooks, Ixta Belfrage has another, more unusual outlet: her dreams.

“I dream a lot about recipe development,” the 31-year-old chef admits. “It’s not about particular dishes, but I’ll dream about combinations. I keep a notebook by my bedside, because quite often I’ll wake up with an idea and I’ll need to write it down, otherwise I’ll forget.”

Many of these combinations will be found in Mezcla, Belfrage’s first solo cookbook (she co-wrote Flavour in 2020 with mentor Yotam Ottolenghi – more on him later).

Belfrage’s friend came up with the title, and it immediately felt right. “It’s the perfect word,” she says of “Mezcla”. “It means mix, blend or fusion [in Spanish], so it’s the perfect word to describe the recipes, and also my background, and me.”

Belfrage’s background and culinary influences are certainly eclectic. She lived in Tuscany, Italy, for four years (“my formative childhood years”), as her father worked in wine. Belfrage has strong childhood memories from this time – mainly related to food.

“My best friend in Italy, her family ran a restaurant, a classic Italian trattoria with incredible food,” Belfrage reminisces. “Her granddad made all the pasta for the restaurant in the laundry room in their family house, and I would always go hang out with him and watch him cook. They cooked for me all the time – it was just incredible.”

There are plenty of Italian-inspired dishes in the book – from different types of pastas to ragus – but there are other influences too. Belfrage’s mother is Brazilian (and she lived there for a year when she was 19), while her father was born in the US but moved to Mexico when he was 14 – that’s where he met Belfrage’s mother.

Italian, Brazilian and Mexican flavours run through the book – along with other cuisines from all over the world – and are part of Belfrage’s efforts to reclaim the word “fusion” in cooking. “I think people used to assume that when you say something is fusion, it was confused and lacked in focus, and the flavours were all over the place and didn’t make sense,” she muses.

“Maybe in the early-2000s or the late-Nineties, that might have been the case with chefs doing fusion cooking” – but she suggests that’s changed now.

“If you really think about it, most dishes were fusion before they became classics. For example, one of my favourite Brazilian dishes is moqueca [a seafood stew] – it’s a classic Brazilian dish but it’s actually a mix of West African, indigenous, Brazilian and Portuguese influences coming together. Even classic dishes were once probably a fusion of other things. When you think about it like that, it makes all the sense in the world.”

While Italian, Mexican and Brazilian cuisines might not have lots in common, what they do share, Belfrage indicates, is “big, bold flavours”. With plenty of Italian and Mexican chains on the high street, many of us have a relatively good grasp of the basics of each cuisine – but Brazilian might be a little bit more unknown.

Like the moqueca dish, Belfrage says: “Most Brazilian cuisine is a fusion of indigenous Brazilian, west African and Portuguese influences, because during the time of the slave trade it was colonised by Portugal, so they brought a lot of influence.” Due to the slave trade’s links to Brazil, she adds: “There’s so much African influence there, and so many incredible Brazilian dishes are full of African soul and ingredients.

“One of my favourite ingredients in the world is red palm oil, which is ubiquitous in Brazilian cuisine. I’m sure a lot of Brazilians assume it’s a Brazilian ingredient, but actually it’s from west Africa, and was brought over by the Portuguese.”

Belfrage’s upbringing and family background isn’t the only thing that influences her cooking. When she was younger and trying to figure out her path in life (which included working as a travel agent, and starting “a couple of degrees that I hated”), she settled on following her passion in food – and with no experience, sent out her CV to a few restaurants asking for a job.

“I didn’t expect anyone to get back to me, but the next day I was woken up by a phone call from a very grumpy chef who was like, ‘Can you come in for a trial?’,” she remembers. “I actually had no idea who was calling me, where they were calling from, and when I showed up it turned out to be Nopi – which is one of Yotam’s [Ottolenghi] restaurants.”

Belfrage spent nine months at Nopi, which she admits to finding “extremely difficult – I was one [woman] of 15 or so men in the kitchen”. While she says things at the Ottolenghi group are different now and there’s much more of an emphasis on a more equal gender split in the kitchen, she was happy to soon find her way to Ottolenghi’s test kitchen – a team of chefs and cooks coming up with new recipes.

“I didn’t even know recipe development was a job,” Belfrage says. “I didn’t know how many avenues there were in food.”

She worked in the test kitchen for four-and-a-half years, and says of her old boss Ottolenghi: “He had an influence on my cooking before I even met him, but working with him was an incredible experience. I don’t think anyone’s ever surprised to hear he really is as kind and wise and wonderful as he seems.

“He gave us the freedom to be creative. When I was working there, one of my colleagues was from Mauritius, one of my colleagues was from Bahrain – it was so great to be able to work with people from all over the world, and experience the culture and ingredients they had grown up with.”

Belfrage wrote Flavour with Ottolenghi during this chapter, and now says of her new solo venture: “I wouldn’t have written this book without him and his support.”

‘Mezcla: Recipes To Excite’ by Ixta Belfrage (published by Ebury Press, £26; photography by Yuki Sugiura), available now.

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