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Bookshelf: Las Islas Bonitas | Listen

Author and documentarian Von Diaz celebrates the traditional cooking techniques of tropical islands in Las Islas Bonitas

For Von Diaz, the food cultures of the world’s islands have something to teach us all. “In a challenging and rapidly changing world, we should look to islanders and their ways of cooking as resources” for honoring history, tradition, and community, she says. The stories and recipes of her newest cookbook, Islas: A Celebration of Island Cooking (Chronicle Books, 2023), help readers do precisely that. Islas is anchored in Diaz’s own experience as an islander—her family originates from Puerto Rico, and she returns there often from her home in the South—and brought to life by her talent as a documentarian as she highlights the history and creativity of tropical foodways and the people, especially women, who preserve them.

Islas CVR Approved

The book is organized around six cooking techniques: marinating; pickling and fermentation; braising and stewing; frying; grilling, smoking, and roasting; and steaming and in-ground cooking. These methods have been passed down generation to generation and have persisted through colonialism, foreign tourism, and ecological change. Each technique is paired with a beautifully written meditation on a different location where they are practiced, from Curacao and Guam to Madagascar, Puerto Rico, and the Seychelles. With recipes for dishes like Seychellois eggplant chutney to Filipino barbeque and Curaçaoan keshi yena (a stuffed cheese dish), Islas is an invitation to home cooks of any skill level to taste real life on the island.

Islas covers so much ground—geographically, narratively, culinarily. How did you decide to write this particular kind of cookbook?

During the pandemic I had time to think a lot about my next project, but it just hadn’t come to me yet. I had this really nice backyard; I was hanging out outside all the time. I had made a big fire and I was preparing something for dinner, cooking something on top of a live fire, and I had this moment where I was like, “It’s the technique! That’s the book!” It was stars aligning. These kinds of science-y books about technique and food chemistry tend to come from men, from male cooks. I wondered, “Is it possible that I, as a woman, as an islander, may look at this differently?” I realized, “I’ve never seen a book about method like this; I’m going to make it! Let me make something I’ve never made before.” That’s how Islas came to be.

shrimp kelaguen v copy

This is a beautiful cookbook that is about so much more than cooking. What sorts of ideas and possibilities do you want people to take away from it?

[The book] is a new way to point to climate change, an incredibly urgent issue for our planet. It’s an issue that leaves people feeling afraid, confused, and hopeless. Islanders have a tremendous connection to earth and weather—because they have to. We know from the historical record that weather events have been happening for all of time. As a result, people who have lived for generations on islands have literally thousands of years of information and resources that informs how they cook. We should be looking to them for ways that we can eat, ways we can cook differently, ways that will sustain us.

What’s one recipe from the book you want to highlight?

Literally every single recipe in this book is delicious. I will never publish a book that has recipes I don’t want to eat. But there’s a dish called romazava, the national dish of Madagascar. It is quintessential Malagasy cuisine: some kind of aromatic, some kind of protein, eaten with rice. This dish has pork belly cooked down with beef, with simple spices—pepper, oil, onion, garlic, ginger—with jalapeños, tomatoes, and broth. The pork belly gives it a really velvety quality. And then they add a large helping of greens, often spinach or arugula. It’s delicious and it illustrates history and culture. You can see all the things that grow on the island to make this really filling, nourishing dish.

Get the Recipe: Kelaguen Uhang (Citrus-Marinated Shrimp with Coconut)

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Kelaguen Uhang (Citrus-Marinated Shrimp with Coconut) heading-plus-icon

yields

Makes 4-6 servings

    ingredients
  • 1½ pounds fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 2 cups unsweetened coconut, finely grated
  • 1 cup green onions, thinly sliced white and green parts
  • ½ cup lemon juice, plus more as needed
  • 3 red birds eye chiles, stemmed, seeded if desired, and minced (optional)
  • ½ teaspoon salt, plus more as needed
  • Steamed white rice, tortillas, or tostadas for serving
steps
  1. Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a pot or kettle. Meanwhile, finely chop shrimp into small pieces. Once water is boiling, transfer shrimp to a fine-mesh sieve, then pour boiling water over them, shaking sieve to ensure shrimp are evenly heated. Shake a few times and let drain.
  2. In a large nonreactive mixing bowl, combine coconut, green onions, lemon juice, chiles (infusing), and salt. Add shrimp and toss well. Cover and transfer to refrigerator. Chill for at least 1hour before serving.
  3. Toss again and add more salt or lemon juice as needed. Serve with steamed rice, tortillas, or on a tostada. Kelaguen uhang will keep in the refrigerator for several days.

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