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The World Is Her Oyster

Sheila Lukins talks about her cookbook, inspired by the assignment of a lifetime: a two-year culinary tour of 33 countries

PAGING through Sheila Lukins's new book is a bit like taking a peek through someone's travel scrapbook. There are postcards, notes, lists, photos, drawings, diary entries - and 450 recipes.

During the past two years, Ms. Lukins traveled to 33 countries to bring back flavors, ideas, and seeds of inspiration for her latest book: ``Sheila Lukins Around the World Cookbook,'' (Workman Publishing Co., 591 pp. $18.95).

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This is the first solo effort for Lukins, food editor for Parade magazine and co-author with Julee Rosso of the highly acclaimed and successful Silver Palate Cookbooks and the New Basics Cookbook.

``What can I say? The world was a knockout,'' Lukins exclaims during a breakfast interview at the Copley Plaza hotel in Boston.

From Russia, where her grandparents were born, to Jamaica, where she ``ate tons of jerk,'' Lukins sums up her travels with one word: ``fabulous'' - culturally and culinarily speaking. ``I could talk to you for hours,'' she says.

Some of the 33 countries Lukins visited in 730 days include: Indonesia, Australia, Japan, Thailand, Turkey, Greece, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba (yes, Cuba), Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland, France, Italy, Ireland, England, Morocco, Mexico, Martinique, and others. Just when she mentions how much she loved one country, Lukins switches to another: ``Oh, I really loved India.... I spent a lot of time in Japan. I loved Japan.''

Inasmuch as Lukins followed her tastebuds around the world for this cookbook, she is quick to stress that ``this is an American cookbook.''

``The recipes are not traditional,'' she explains, but rather were inspired by the countries visited. Taking the ``essence'' of certain dishes, Lukins did a lot of adapting and assimilating for the American kitchen.

``When I returned from each trip, I developed palettes for the countries I had visited, based on the predominate aromas, colors, and tastes that make up the distinct flavors of their cuisines,'' Lukins explains in the book. ``I began my recipe development by reviewing the palettes. Some days I became the alchemist and others the artist. I discovered that when the palettes fuse, magic happens. That is how I created the recipes for this book. For me this has become the most exciting way to cook.''

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Lukins describes herself as a home cook even though she studied at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in London, spent time in Bordeaux, France, working with chefs, founded a catering company, and co-founded the Silver Palate gourmet take-out store in Manhattan.

Not surprisingly, she found that most of her inspiration came from the colorful outdoor markets. She vividly recalls one day in particular.

``This is why India might be my favorite country,'' she says. Picture this: A bustling marketplace with colorful produce beautifully displayed. You meet a vendor who has sacks and sacks of rose petals.

``They are brimming - falling out all over - just brimming with rose petals; thousands and thousands of rose petals, red and deep pinks. Next to them are sacks and sacks of marigolds....

``Next, he takes out an armload and gives them to me, and then, I look over my shoulder, and there's a camel who has all this cilantro in his mouth! Here I am with my head in these rose petals and the camel over my shoulder.

``That's what everything was like. It was so beautiful, it was so amazing, it was dream-like,'' she remembers.

Not that everything always went as planned or was particularly pleasant. Political unrest forced her to change itineraries several times; she didn't get to Tbilisi in Georgia, for example. In Russia, the supermarket shelves were almost bare, while the mafia-run central food market was filled with wonderful produce. That was sad to see, Lukins says.

Two places she wishes she could have squeezed in are Egypt and Vietnam. Still, it was the assignment of a lifetime.

Lukins also considers the project a personal triumph since in 1991, just before the trip, she suffered a serious illness, followed by extensive therapy.

Just as the Silver Palate books and New Basics exemplified the gourmet tastes of the 1980s, ``All-Around the World'' represents the global-thinking '90s. The time was ripe for such a cookbook, Lukins explains.

``Number one, I think we've whetted or excited our palates with American regional [cuisine], but Americans are very fickle in their eating habits. I think we're certainly ready for something new,'' Lukins says. ``International'' ingredients are easier to find and tastes are becoming more global, she notes.

``Also, we are eating healthfully,'' she continues. ``It's not a fad, it's a trend that will become the way we eat. We're going towards the plant-based cuisines: More grains, more vegetables, more noodles.''

Lukins contends that the ``hot ingredient'' of the '90s will be spices. ``Herbs will always be lovely, but we mostly use them in the summer. Spices are where it's at.''

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