Flip through the pages of Mi Comida Latina and you may quickly fall under its spell. The pages of this cookbook beckon with vibrant watercolor illustrations and recipes written in the kind of delicate hand lettering that make us mourn penmanship as a dying art. The end result combines the charm of a children's book, the promise of a tasty meal and the intimacy of a journal.
Which makes sense, because the book was inspired by the sketchbooks that author and illustrator Marcella Kriebel kept starting in 2004, when she took her first of many trips to Latin American countries. She started going to improve her Spanish, but kept returning after she fell in love with the cultures she encountered. And for her, food became an important way to connect with those cultures. As she watched family cooks prepare meals in their homes, she jotted down notes and illustrations.
"Once I got there, I became incredibly inspired by the warmth of the people ... and the vibrancy of the cultures [that] can be found in many different things — the visuals and the smells and the cuisine itself," she says.
Those journals might have remained private had Kriebel not lost her job as an art installation technician in a D.C. museum in 2012. That provided the catalyst for her to transform her travel notes into a cookbook, published last year.
The pages of Mi Comida Latina document recipes from her travels throughout much of Latin America, including Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Puerto Rico and Mexico, to name a few, along with recipes from family and friends in the United States. Kriebel — who is not Latin American — hopes readers who pick up the book will see food as she does: as an invitation to explore the world.
I recently chatted with Kriebel. Highlights from our conversation follow, edited for length and clarity.
What is your most vivid food-related memory from your travels?
Well there's one that I'm reminded of every time I cut an onion. One of my host parents in Quito, Ecuador, his name was Marco Fiallo, he taught me an efficient way to cut an onion, and it's a skill that I use all the time. So the memory is that, you know, I wasn't cutting an onion correctly, or so he said, so he took the knife from my hand and showed me this sequence of steps. And it was kind of that magic moment, that, "Aha! Here's how easy it can be" moment. That memory in particular is something that is really important for me, because it's a skill I use [practically] every day.
Do you have a favorite recipe from the book?
They're all my favorite recipes because they're in the book, you know. ... All of them are things I make here on a regular basis. But one thing in particular that I think is pretty distinctive and is really colorful and beautiful is llapingacho. That is [an Ecuadorian] potato pancake that's fried, and there's cheese in the middle and it melts, and then it's served with a fried egg on top with a marinated beet salad, hot sauce and avocado. It's also often accompanied by a sausage.
Why the decision to do all the hand lettering and hand illustration? I imagine that was pretty labor intensive.
I think it's because it started as a journal project. I think it's pretty accurate that it's really a refined version of this sketchbook journal experience. So I wanted to retain that level of authenticity and first-person [point of view]. But as you can imagine, it was an incredible task to hand write a whole book, and the editing really was a meticulous task. I mean, it's very much equal parts art project and cookbook. As a person who is first and foremost an artist, and someone that loves to cook and loves to share recipes, it really is a very special thing for me to share with the world.
What do you want readers to take away from the book?
I want them to be inspired to travel and to try new foods. I hope that people realize that with Latin American cooking, it's not as absolute in terms of the portions of salt and spice. So I want to inspire people to get in the kitchen and experiment and try new things. There's a whole world out there, and it's exciting that food can kind of be a motivator to experience the world and learn about people. Food is a lens to experience culture.
Are there any other long-term projects that you're working on?
I just signed a contract to do another book, and I'm doing lots of research right now. I'm going to do a book about Cuba. I've never been to Cuba and I'm set to go in March. It's actually going to be a collaboration between Maria Gonzalez and myself. She is a Cuban-American who will be doing the technical writing of all of the signature dishes of Cuba. And so it'll be still through my lens, but I'm excited to bring on Maria to kind of illuminate all of these classic Cuban dishes. It will be heavily illustrated, watercolor and all about Cuba.