Meet Ixta Belfrage, the breakout star of the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen

Flying the flag for fusion: British chef Ixta Belfrage.
Flying the flag for fusion: British chef Ixta Belfrage. Photo: Stuart Simpson

If you looked in Ixta Belfrage's fridge right now, you'd find all the ingredients to make a prawn lasagne, one of the showstoppers from her first solo cookbook, Mezcla. 

Though she tested the recipe endlessly while writing, she's about to test it again, this time for her book launch party, which is happening in London in a few weeks. Luckily, the 31-year-old is used to going through many rounds of tweaking and tasting after years working in the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen, arguably the most famous development kitchen in the world. 

Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage.
Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage. Photo: Jonathan Lovekin

She says it's the most quintessentially "Ixta Belfrage" dish of the book because it combines her three culinary north stars of Italy, Brazil and Mexico.

Inspired by the lasagnes of Brazil, which skip finicky bechamel, Belfrage's dish also features a habanero oil and a spicy ragu of prawns, her favourite seafood.

Raised by a British father who worked in Italian wine and a Brazilian mother who was a nutritionist, with grandparents who lived in Mexico, she shuttled between all four countries. Meals at home were driven by health considerations, but eating out was an opportunity for discovery, expanding Belfrage's growing library of flavours that today are her arsenal.

I'm not a big list or plan-maker. I'm not a plate-spinner. I think that things just happen and that's how I like to live my life.

Chef Ixta Belfrage

When she joined the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen in London in 2016, she brought an appetite for chilli and a familiarity with plantain and other South American ingredients to the team's recipes.

After spending her 20s trying art and design degrees and running a London taco stand, all the while avoiding culinary school, she finally applied for restaurant jobs. The first place that said yes was Nopi, the upmarket Soho member of the Ottolenghi restaurant family. That led her to her happy place, the test kitchen, where she worked for five years, leaving in 2021 to complete the book.

And it helped her to become one of the most exciting talents in food today.

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Belfrage's cooking pulls no punches. She roasts plantain in garam masala, tops polenta with curried onions, and cooks cannelloni in an enchilada sauce.

While she says there are no obvious similarities between her culinary touchstones – Italy, Mexico and Brazil – she deftly sprinkles chipotle flakes on eggplant parmigiana and regularly uses tangerine, lemons and lime together. And all of it looks wildly fun and delicious.

A free-wheeling spirit runs through Mezcla, which is named after a Spanish word that means fusion. It also translates to mix, mixture or blend.

Ixta Belfrage's new book.
Ixta Belfrage's new book. Photo: Supplied

"It's the perfect word to explain the premise of the book, but also my upbringing," she says on the phone from London. "It's also just a beautiful word."

Belfrage's choice to label her cuisine fusion is a bold move. It's a word that's been derided in food circles for the past 25 years, thanks to a wave of bizarre dishes from chefs in the 1990s. Displaying a grab-bag of cuisines, this first wave of fusion screamed "globalisation!" while showing little care or respect for a dish's foundations.

Today, a growing number of chefs and authors are aware of issues of appropriation and are going to greater lengths to acknowledge the source material of their dishes, treating it honourably.

Fusion's not a dirty word for Ixta Belfrage.
Fusion's not a dirty word for Ixta Belfrage. Photo: Stuart Simpson

Belfrage says she feels like a global citizen and that combining culinary influences is really just a natural reflex of her mixed heritage.

"None of the recipes in this book should be considered as an attempt to recreate traditions that I'm not versed in," she writes.

"These recipes celebrate how different cultures inspire my cooking, and how it would be nothing without that inspiration."

The Mezcla recipe for chiles rellenos, stuffed peppers filled here with salsa rojo risotto, deliberately uses the traditional dish names to avoid erasing the sources of inspiration that led to the final product. It's not a faithful rendition of either dish, but it is 100 per cent Belfrage.

Working with Yotam Ottolenghi (including co-authoring the 2020 book Flavour) taught Belfrage many things, but she says the most valuable lesson was patience and determination when writing recipes.

"He would often tell us, 'Don't give up on it, because there's always some sort of element of it that you can use'."

Perhaps that's how she arrived at pairing roasted cabbage with a mango-harissa salsa, or serving a charred red pepper sauce over omelette "noodles".

In true Ottolenghi fashion, vegetables take centre stage in Mezcla, with fish and meat recipes placed towards the back of the book, and frequent suggestions of how to make dishes vegetarian or vegan.

Those daunted by trying to skip meat should try to treat vegetables in the same way, she says, charring them, saucing them or turning them into tartare. Present them as the star.

"If you are finding that difficult, then sometimes it is good to try and make a dish where meat used to be and realise that it is just as special."

Her roasted kohlrabi with a Mezcla-style meuniere sauce (it's spiked with miso, garlic and chives) is a prime example. The vegetable's "softness and the sweetness really does echo the flavour and texture of a fish fillet", which is the sauce's traditional partner.

After Mezcla is given a riotous and colourful launch party that befits its pages, with the prawn lasagne headlining the menu, Belfrage has no immediate plans to drag out her notebooks and scales for another book. 

"I'm not a big list or plan-maker. I'm not a plate-spinner. I think that things just happen and that's how I like to live my life."

There may be a YouTube series featuring food from Mezcla, writing recipes for brands such as Gozney and hosting pop-ups, something she loves to do (although a restaurant of her own is not on the cards, sorry).

She advises home cooks who want to broach fusion cooking to, firstly, be considerate and, secondly, think about the role an ingredient plays.

"Break it down into the flavour profiles of an ingredient and that will actually give you more confidence to be able to experiment."

She adds chipotle to short ribs – a no-brainer – but it also appears in a chocolate ganache inside a strawberry-cream layer cake, bringing complexity to the sweet flavours.

Perhaps the reason why Mezcla works now, why we might be ready for a revisiting of fusion, is because it so aptly reflects the way many of us encounter food today.

Our phones serve us a feed of images, tastes and ingredients from all over the world, some of them clashing, others sympatico, and nearly everything is easily ordered or cooked via a few simple taps.

Is Belfrage's style meeting us where our eyes and appetites already are?

I think so. And I know there are many of us happy to get a more respectful take on fusion, with rich ragus that contain no meat, a giant version of cheese on toast drizzled with chilli butter, or a simple dessert that leans on crumpets and flavours of Black Forest. Here's to Mezcla.

Quick-fire corner

What's in your fridge right now?

You can always find Calabrian chilli paste, miso, parmesan and tomato paste. I love tomato paste; I use it all the time in salsas, pasta sauces, salad dressings, stews. I always have loads of citrus, so limes, lemons and tangerines, which I quite often use all together. Right now, there's also a big pot of soup. I hate eating my own food when I've been testing it three, six, eight times. I often end up eating bone broth, veg and brown rice noodles to give my digestive system a break.

Your favourite after-midnight snack? 

Soft-boiled eggs with crispy chilli oil and soy sauce.

Desert island dish? 

Prawn lasagne.

Weapon of choice in the kitchen? 

Microplane. I use it for grating and zesting but also for crushing garlic – no need to remove the skin!

What chilli condiment could you not live without?

I love thin hot sauces, similar to the way Tabasco is. There's one by a brand called Encona that's really good. But I think my number one is Calabrian chilli, which is more like a finely chopped condiment in a jar, and you can chuck that into so many things. You can loosen it into more of a dipping sauce by adding lime juice and lemon juice and some oil. Or you can just stick a spoonful in a soup or a stew or a ragu.

Your favourite cheese right now?

I love a hard goat's cheese.

Ice-cream flavour?

I'm not really an ice-cream eater; I don't just have ice-cream in the freezer. But if I'm on holiday or whatever, coffee ice-cream is one of my favourites. Or pistachio. Or chocolate. I mean, OK, preferably all three.

Spice?

I really love curry powder, which is obviously a blend, but I just adore the combination. And dried chillies, if that counts as spice. Sniffing a bag of dried habaneros is like catnip for me; it's an otherworldly experience.

Cocktail?

A really good Mezcalita with mezcal, plenty of lime and very little sugar. I'm really annoying when I order a cocktail. I'm like "Can I make sure that it's just mezcal or tequila, and please don't put too much sugar in it". I do like a bit of spice in there as well. If it's shaken with a jalapeno or a scotch bonnet chilli, that's ideal.

Pastry or baked good? 

My mum's a nutritionist, so I wasn't allowed bread or gluten growing up and I have a bit of a guilt complex about it [now]. But my favourite would probably be a pain au chocolat. Or there's a place round the corner from me that does a peanut pain au chocolat.