Jess Damuck’s childhood was defined by milk products. As an Italian American, it figured into many of her meals, from manicotti to cannoli to cappuccinos. Damuck’s grandfather even made his own ricotta for the holidays, heating up milk and adding lemon juice to transform it into curds, to use in homemade pastries and cakes.
Milk and dairy products are central to many cuisines, beyond just Italian. In India, milk is a prominent part of desserts like payasam and kheer. Mexican cuisine relies on milk for arroz con leche. Georgian food spotlights khachapuri and matsoni. So many beloved dishes from around the world, from lassi to lasagna, elevate dairy to a starring role. But for those who need to modify their diets — and that includes Damuck, a recipe developer who found out she was lactose intolerant in high school — a new generation of foodies is reinventing recipes without losing any of the tradition in the process.
Translating traditions in the kitchen
Translation is an inevitable part of any cuisine: There’s a beauty in taking the food of one’s heritage and adapting it to new circumstances. It’s how we ended up with delicious creations like tacos filled with Korean barbecue and French onion soup dumplings. It’s also how Grace Ramirez, a chef and the author of the cookbook La Latina, is able to honor the food that she grew up with while keeping dietary sensitivities in mind.
Ramirez grew up on Venezuelan food laden with crema agria and milk. She says crema agria, the Venezuelan version of sour cream, was “on the table for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” eaten with everything from plantains to arepas.
“Even our café con leche, you drink every day,” she says, referring to the milky coffee consumed regularly in Venezuela.
When she attended culinary school, Ramirez hid her lactose intolerance. “I felt like it was something wrong with me,” she says. Quickly, though, she shed the shame, especially after finding Lactaid dairy products. “It was a relief,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, okay. That means I don’t need to completely cut [dairy] out from my diet.’”
One of Ramirez’s all-time favorite Venezuelan desserts is mousse de parchita, a rich passionfruit mousse traditionally made with queso crema. Ramirez makes the dessert with Lactaid cottage cheese, and she says: “It doesn’t feel like I am losing anything.” For reina pepiada arepas, which are stuffed with avocado and mayonnaise, she uses mostly avocado with a little Lactaid sour cream. In the process, she found that she prefers the dish her way, with the avocado front and center. “I don’t feel I am compromising the flavor at all,” she says. “On the contrary, I am just making a different variation that to me is tastier, brighter, and lighter.”
Adapting, not compromising
Damuck says that as a recipe developer, her dietary needs have inspired her to take on classic Italian dishes that call for milk and dairy, and get creative. “I’ve been trying to figure out ways for a long time that I can get that texture, that flavor, that creaminess,” she says. For example, she wanted to enjoy gelato: her favorite frozen Italian treat. Initially, she tried a number of non-dairy alternatives and was mostly disappointed. But Lactaid, given it’s still “traditional” milk, could be curdled into ricotta or churned into ice cream. She’s been able to make perfect gelato, too, flavored with citrus, sweet basil, and Italian forest honey.
For Ramirez, adapting a recipe you hold dear is about knowing what’s “non-negotiable.” In other words, how do you come up with your spin while maintaining the soul of the dish? With her reina pepiada arepas, for example, using garlic that’s been mashed in a mortar and pestle is a must, as is fresh cilantro. In other areas, there’s room to play.
Of course, there’ll always be the squabbles in her family over who makes the best, or most “traditional,” version of a dish. After she published La Latina, Ramirez says many of her relatives questioned why she made certain adaptations to streamline a classic recipe, but she notes that mentality is slowly shifting. “My family understands that I am going to make my version, and it is not going to be like grandma’s,” she says. “It is going to be my version.”
‘Tradition’ for a new generation
To Ramirez, recipe translation is crucial because everyone has unique constraints — whether it’s dietary needs or preferences, or simply not having the capacity to make a time-intensive sofrito from scratch and buying it jarred instead.
As a Latina chef, Ramirez says it can feel like there are very few seats at the metaphorical table. “You always feel like you have to defend it with armor and a shield and a dagger. Right? It’s like, if it is not traditional, it is not going to work,” she says, “but I think we’ve have to learn that we have to adapt.”
And as Damuck points out, adapted dishes are no less special than the originals, even if they tell a slightly different story. “Being able to put my own spin on it,” while being able to eat big bowls of pasta and pizza, “is also really fun and exciting,” she says.
“It’s not always totally reinventing the wheel, but being able to add a little something special, adding a new flavor, or a new element of freshness,” Damuck says. “I think it brings so many new dishes into the world, but also it adapts to what current food trends are.”
Today, Damuck’s able to partake in her family’s culinary traditions, while also contributing some of her own. Food is “such an important way to share,” she says. “It’s a place where borrowing and exchanging ideas makes for amazing things.” Adapted recipes are a reminder, to her, that the best food traditions aren’t static. They’re dynamic.