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Q & A

Mark and Talia Kurlansky cook their way around the globe

Sylvia Plachy

For Mark Kurlansky and his family, dinner is more than just eating a meal together and catching up on the day’s events. The author and his daughter Talia, 14, began cooking together when she was young and eventually developed a Friday night ritual of “international night,” in which they explored a new cuisine each week. “Food is a great way to learn about the world. Along the way you also learn about geography, history, and people,” says the dad.

Over a three-year-period, the New York-based father-daughter pair researched and prepared dinner from 52 different spots, including Tanzania, Japan, Cuba, and Norway. Mark and Talia have collected recipes as well as background on each location and family cooking tips in “International Night: A Father and Daughter Cook Their Way Around the World.” Mark, 65, has worked as a chef and is the author of many books including “Cod,” “Salt,” and “The Basque History of the World.” Talia, who was 9 when they began the project, is in the ninth grade.

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Q. How did international night begin?

Talia: We just would spin a globe and I closed my eyes and wherever my finger would land would be where we picked.

Mark: It kind of evolved into more and more of a game. Talia got into making costumes from each of the countries from makeshift stuff she found around the apartment. We’d tell stories and give my wife, Marian, hints on where dinner was coming from that night.

Q. How did that evolve into a book?

Mark: I kept good notes on all the dinners, so at some point I realized there was a book in it. I wanted to capture the arbitrariness of it. Spinning of the globe determined the order that we cooked.

Q. Go through the process of creating a dinner.

Mark: The first difficult part was finding the recipes. Some places I knew very well and had a lot of recipes from. But other places I didn’t. I tried to do things where the ingredients were not too difficult. We cooked together, which was the original idea.

Talia: I’ve always been cooking with my dad. As I got older, he started giving me more and more responsibilities in the kitchen.

Q. Did your approach to the dinners change after you started working on the book?

Mark: I started with the idea that we don’t all like the same things and kids don’t all like the same things. For example, since she was young, Talia always loved fresh grilled sardines, which is not every kid’s dream. Sometimes there’s this tension between authentic and good. On Mongolia night, which is a country I have been to, they have these pastries called “shoes.” They fill the pastries with yogurt and put horrible, cheap hard candy on top. This is the real Mongolian dessert. But I didn’t think that we or anybody else really wanted that. I thought why not vanilla ice cream instead of yogurt? And instead of candy, why not caramel sauce? So it’s not very authentically Mongolian, but it’s a bow to Mongolia. And it is really good.

Q. How do you suggest that kids get past the fear of eating things like sardines?

Talia: I think a lot of kids’ problems with eating fish is that they picture live, slimy fish. Honestly, I think they’re really tasty. If you could just eat blindfolded, things would be a lot different for kids.

Mark: For some reason some kids have a fear of food. Some adults do, too. The best cure for that is to try a lot of different kinds of things. The more you try, the more experiences you have.

Talia: It really won’t hurt to just try something. If you don’t like it you can quickly swallow it or spit it out, but at least you tried it.

Q. What food or country was your favorite discovery?

Talia: I’d never had flan before. It’s been at least a couple years since the first time we made it and I keep thinking of it. I loved it. It had a little caramelized orange on the bottom. It made a big impression on me.

Mark: I think our Romania night was one of our best nights. I never think of Romanian food as anything great, but it was a really nice meal. We knew that Provence and Naples nights were going to be good, but some of these things really worked out well and surprised us.

Q. Do you still have international night?

Mark: What we’re doing now is going back and doing favorite dishes like Sicilian sardine pizza. We do Moroccan dishes a lot. Pastelito de guayabas (guava pastry), a dessert from Cuban night, is a pastry I make often now for breakfast.

Interview was edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at michaelfloreak@gmail.com.
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