SHARJAH: Food speaks heaps of history and a chef has been lucky enough to blend her passion for cuisine and culture with the creative art of writing cookbooks.
“I make it a point to write something about the recipe so that people will know what the food is all about and how it came to be,” said Amy Riolo.
The New Yorker and current Washington, D.C. resident is an author of three cookbooks and is in the UAE as a guest at the ongoing Sharjah International Book Fair.
On Monday, The Gulf Today caught up with her at the Victoria International School of Sharjah (VISS).
It was the second day of her week-long mentoring to food technology pupils of the Australian educational institution.
On that day, Riolo demonstrated to Grade 8 pupils how to cook to perfection the palatable white bean tomato soup with pasta and the mouth-watering bruschefa (french bread toast brushed with olive oil and smothered with pureed artichokes spiced up with seasonings, olive oil and cheese).
She reminded them of the basic do’s and don’ts in cooking — such as keeping the saucepan covered for less boiling time.
Riolo also let the children know another side of her — that of being a cookbook writer.
According to VISS deputy principal/Secondary School head, Dean Pyrah, Riolo’s interaction with the children went a long way in the formation of well-rounded individuals who, at an early age are taught the basics in life such as culinary arts and creative writing and learn to appreciate these.
Early on and while preparing the ingredients at the pantry of one of the huge kitchen laboratories of VISS, Riolo gamely shared her journey into the two different yet related worlds of kitchenomics and cookbook authorship.
It all began with her family, originally from the south of Italy and as typical Italians, are not only gourmands but great chefs as well.
A great-grandfather served as cook to the military during World War II while a grandmother was famous for her specialities for the sweet tooth like the good-smelling freshly-baked breads and cookies as well as flavourful desserts.
“If other families had fun time together watching TV and movies, it was the kitchen for us. Each family member has his own speciality,” she said, adding it was at age 14 when her mother tasked her to take charge of the kitchen.
The only child intimated: “My mom had to work and so she told me it was time for me to cook for the family.”
From then on, self-discovery recipes were jotted down neatly on notebooks along with her treasure finds of appealing menus from various periodicals and cookbooks.
The collection immensely increased when her mother was diagnosed with diabetes and Riolo was able to convince her that they work on inventing recipes, which are healthful for the diabetic.
“I told my mom that we must not concentrate on the food that she must not eat,” she said.
Later on, her mother showed the collection to her doctor who approved of it.
Married to an Egyptian, Riolo, who started doing regular visits to the Middle East 16 years ago, has so far authored Nile Style, about Egyptian cooking and culture; The Mediterranean Diabetes Cookbook, winner of the 2010 Nautilus Award (Humanitarian Category); and Arabian Delights.
“I was told that Egypt has many things and food is not one of them. Well, that is not true. Food is really good,” she said.
“Their food is an interesting influence of Islam, Judaism and Christianity,” Riolo added.
With her Egypt experience, she found herself conducting a cooking class at the Egyptian Embassy in the US capital, where an editor introduced herself to her. Riolo never thought of donning the chef’s white garb, saying she stereotyped this to be for the men and so she studied Textiles in the university, dreaming to be a fashion director some day.
Accustomed to making her own lunch pack every day, she got praises from her colleagues regarding her meals.
They even encouraged her to venture into the catering business.
“But, I do not want catering,” she said.
Her love for history, culture and cuisine began to interweave with one another, a decade ago.
Today, her cookbooks are laden with trivias.
For instance, in her The Mediterranean Diabetes Cookbook and as a header to the Corsican Prawns with Chickpea, Riolo wrote a brief on the French island of Corsica near Italy.
In Nile Style is an essay on the Ramadan Pre-Dawn Breakfast.
Riolo, who is currently working on the cuisine and culture of Azerbaijan as her fourth cookbook and who believes that conducting cooking classes for adults and professionals is her way of spreading out a legacy, deeply ingrained from childhood, said: “Food is the best way to learn about a culture.
“Writing cookbooks the way I come to learn and love about one’s food and culture is one way of sharing a treasure I have earned,” said the chef who claimed a new trend among their bunch is the discovery of new recipes for a healthy life.