The chef, food writer and co-author of Ottolenghi Flavour, Ixta Belfrage, sits at the epicentre of three electric cuisines, fusing the simplicity of Italian fare with the vibrancy of Mexican and Brazilian food, creating dishes to excite and delight.

In her first solo cookbook MEZCLA, Belfrage pays homage to her potpourri of culinary influences, hence the book’s namesake, which means mix, blend or fusion in SpanishFrom tossing prawns into a lasagne with habanero oil to serving pineapple with chicken and ‘Nduja, Belfrage takes us on an odyssey through Italy, Brazil and Mexico and shows us how we too can become masters of fusion cooking. 

Ixta Belfrage’s ascent to culinary stardom began under the shade of Tuscan olive groves. Her father’s job involved cultivating relationships with Italian wine producers, and so at the age of three, Belfrage and her family moved to Italy to live in the old servant quarters of a quintessential 15th century villa.

“I was lucky to grow up in the food mecca of the world, and from an early age, I was exposed to very good food and eating very well,” she says. “My best friend’s grandfather ran a restaurant and I remember spending a lot of time watching him as he made fresh pasta in the laundry room of their house. I would insist on hanging out with him all the time as he made the best lasagne in the world.” 

During her time growing up in Tuscany, Belfrage revelled in the rustic flavours of the country, eating chicken liver crostini, tagliatelle with duck ragu, fritto misto of rabbit and courgette flowers with sage leaves. But it was also the time spent in Brazil and Mexico that would carve Belfrage into the cook she is today.

“My mother is Brazilian, and so I grew up with a lot of fresh fish, plantain and black beans spread out on the table,” she says. “And then I would spend holidays in my father’s father’s house in Mexico. Although I never met him, we still visited the house where his wife lived, and the food there was simply incredible.”

The story of Belfrage’s parentage deserves a book in itself. Her father was born to English parents but grew up in the Bronx. When he was 14 his father was accused of being a communist, so he was deported and found settlement in a halfway house for political refugees in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

In a twist of fate, Belfrage’s maternal family had also fled the Brazilian military regime and found sanctuary in the house in Cuernavaca, which is where her parents would first meet. What’s more, from the garden of the house, you could see the volcano Ixtaccíhuatl, where her parents found inspiration for the name Ixta. 

Belfrage would return to this beloved house in Cuernavaca with her family, and she would watch studiously as the cooks stuffed and fried chile rellenos (stuffed peppers), rolled corn tortillas and pounded chilli and spices for moles.

When she returned home, she found herself hankering for the bounteous Italian, Brazilian and Mexican spreads she grew up on. “Back at home, food was a bit plain,” Belfrage says. “My mother was a nutritionist, and so we eat very healthily. I was so obsessed with food that I realised if I wanted to recreate these flavours, I would have to do it myself.”

After graduating from school, Belfrage spent a year travelling in Brazil, completed an art foundation course and spent some time in Sydney with a then-boyfriend. In essence, she was pivoting and felt blindsided as to what to do next. “I’d always loved cooking, but it took me a long time to realise that that’s what I wanted to do,” she admits. “Then my sister turned to me one day and just said, ‘why the f**k aren’t you a chef, and so that was a bit of a light bulb moment.”

Belfrage started firing off CVs to a bunch of restaurants but expected no responses owing to her lack of industry experience. “I got a call one morning, and it was from Nopi (Ottolenghi’s restaurant) as they had a chef walk out and I assume just needed to fill the position quickly,” she explains. “But, to be honest, I didn’t do a good job there. I was one out of fifteen men; I constantly felt overwhelmed, I was working 60 to 70 hours a week, and I wasn’t eating or sleeping properly. It wasn’t for me.”

Belfrage then discovered a trial at the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen (OTK) and leapt at the opportunity to work alongside the likes of Yotam and Noor Murad. For half a decade, Belfrage finally had the freedom to do what she wanted as long as it fitted in the “Ottolenghi ethos.”

During her time at the OTK, Belfrage worked with Ottolenghi to write the best-selling cookbook Flavour. “Yotam is a great person and boss, and he really brings people up around him, so I was very lucky to be given a chance to co-write Flavour,” she says, full of praise. “Yotam is very honest about the people he has developing recipes with him, which is rare to find in the industry.”

Writing her own cookbook had always been at the back of her mind, but when Flavour was released, the publishers approached Belfrage with a golden opportunity. After securing Yotam’s blessing, she began stoking the coals for a cookbook that could encapsulate her fusion style of cooking.

“The premise of MEZCLA is about mixing ingredients, but it is also about my mixed heritage and how that has shaped me as a cook,” she says. “I’ve always got a million recipe ideas jangling around my head, and when I wrote them all down, I realised I had 150 strong ideas and that was that.”

The book is divided into two parts; “everyday” recipes for when you want quick meals and “entertaining” for when you feel like investing more time. MEZCLA has recipes that range from Chiles Rellenos with salsa Roja risotto, giant cheese on toast with honey and Urfa butter, brown butter sea bass with tangerine dipping sauce to whipped yoghurt with roasted strawberries and peanut fudge sauce.

Belfrage confesses that her personal favourite is the prawn lasagne with habanero oil. “It’s a nice representation of the spirit of the book,” says Belfrage. “The habanero oil is Mexican, the prawn is Brazilian, and the lasagne is Italian.”

She adds, “I also love the cornbread and coffee ice cream. Typically, cornbread can be quite dry, but this is moist and has actual fresh corn in it and on it. Whereas the coffee ice cream requires no-churn, you literally put it all into a mix, whip it up, and the texture is great — I’m proud of coming up with that one.”

For Ixta Belfrage’s last ever supper, she picks a starter of ceviche with local fresh white fish and loads of tomato, coriander and lime. For her main course, she decides on a Tuscan-style ragu with rabbit, dried porcini, black pepper and chilli. For her pudding, tiramisu and to drink, a mezcal margarita (on the rocks).

Ixta Belfrage’s recipe for brown butter curried cornbread (serves 6)

Cornbread is usually a supporting act, but this version is good enough to take centre stage at the dinner table and will probably end up being the dish around which you plan the meal. The corn that bejewels the surface is best just out of the oven when it’s a little crispy from the butter, and a little sticky from the maple syrup. That’s not to say you need to eat it all in one go; it will still be delicious the next day, heated up. To heat, either pan-fry, or place the slices on a tray in a cold oven, turn the temperature up to 150°C fan/170°C and warm for about 10 minutes. Serve with plenty of butter on the side.

Extracted from MEZCLA by Ixta Belfrage (Ebury Press, £26) All photography by Yuki Sugiura 

Ingredients

140g unsalted butter, plus extra to serve 500g frozen corn kernels, defrosted and patted dry
150g Greek-style yoghurt
2 large eggs
1 Scotch bonnet chilli, finely chopped (optional, see notes)
1 spring onion, finely chopped
5g fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
1½ teaspoons medium curry powder
1½ teaspoons finely grated lime zest
100g quick-cook polenta
80g plain flour
½ teaspoon fine salt
6 tablespoons maple syrup, plus extra to serve
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
flaked salt, to serve

Method

I use a whole Scotch bonnet, and its flavour and heat is quite dominant. I love that, but you can of course add less, removing the pith and seeds, or just add a pinch of regular chilli flakes for milder heat.

Preheat the oven to 200°C fan/220°C. Grease and line a 20cm cake tin.

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over a medium heat for 5–6 minutes, stirring often until the butter foams and then turns a deep golden-brown. Add the corn and bubble away for 4 minutes, stirring every so often. Remove from  the heat and leave to cool for 10 minutes.

While the corn and butter mixture is cooling, put the yoghurt, eggs, Scotch bonnet, spring onion, ginger, curry powder, lime zest, polenta, flour, salt and 3 tablespoons of maple syrup into a food processor, but don’t blitz yet.

Once cool, set aside 140g of the corn and butter mixture in a small bowl to use later. Add the remaining corn and butter to the food processor, then add the baking powder and bicarbonate of soda.

Pulse about 3–5 times, just until the mixture comes together. Don’t overmix, you want a textured batter with small chunks of corn, not a smooth batter.

Transfer the batter into the prepared tin, then spoon the reserved corn and butter evenly over the surface.

Bake for 20 minutes, then evenly drizzle over the remaining 3 tablespoons  of maple syrup and bake for another 15–20 minutes, or until crisp and golden brown on top.

Leave to cool for 15 minutes. If you have a blowtorch, use it to char the corn in places. Drizzle over some more maple syrup (I like a lot!), sprinkle with flaked salt and serve with a slab of butter alongside.