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When renowned foreign affairs expert Fareed Zakaria isn't writing best-selling books, interviewing President Obama or hosting his own program on CNN, he's drinking Greek wine and traveling all over the world. Here, the journalist and author on his first wine splurge and the secret to replicating Chinese takeout.
You used to write a wine column for Slate, quite a departure from foreign affairs and politics. How did that start?
My first boss at The New Republic, Mike Kinsley, was starting up Slate magazine [in 1996] and asked me if I would write a column on foreign affairs. But I had just agreed to write a column for Newsweek. So I said, "I'll tell you, there's something I know as much about as I know about foreign policy, which is wine. Do you want me to try that?" I was so nervous about it that the first two columns were actually pseudonymous.
What was your pseudonym?
This will mark me as a nerd forever. It was George Saintsbury. George Saintsbury was the first great wine writer. He wrote a famous book [in 1920]—famous in the obscure world of wine—called Notes on a Cellar-Book. I still use his name as my handle every now and then on the theory that nobody would have taken it.
What first sparked your interest in wine?
The master of my college at Yale was interested in wine and he would hold tastings for students. He was a history professor, so he was able to talk about the history and geography of the wines, and I just loved that. And then as a bonus I really liked the taste.
So from then on I was interested in wine. I remember the first expensive case I bought. It was a 1982 Château Mouton Rothschild and it cost $420. I was a scholarship kid in college so I had a work/study program at the library. I went to the librarian and I said, "Would it be possible for me to make an additional $400 or $500?" It only took me two or three months of extra work and I bought the case. I have, I think, two bottles left. And they're worth over $1,000 a bottle now.
What's your plan for those last two bottles?
If you don't hurry up and enjoy the stuff you can wait and wait and then you will be stuck with a bunch of bottles that are over the hill. The way I think about it is, if I'm with somebody who'd really enjoy it and perhaps might not have a chance to have a wine like that, that's when I'm more likely to open it.
You are also an excellent cook. How did you get interested in food?
I've always liked good food, but when I was in graduate school living in Boston, I ended up teaching myself how to cook quite well. I learned by watching Jacques Pépin and Julia Child on Boston Public TV; they would do reruns on weekends. I just got fascinated with the complexity and discipline of French cooking.
What I liked about it was, there I was working on a dissertation, which is psychologically a difficult thing because it's unending. Six years later you're going to have a PhD, but day-to-day there seems to be no visible progress. But at 5:30 or 6 I could take a break and start cooking, and by 7:30 I would have a complete meal that was pretty darn good, and I'd invite somebody over or I would just eat it myself. That feeling of tangible accomplishment was one of the great benefits of cooking. I still find that I'm the kind of cook who likes instant gratification.
Do you have any specialities?
For my first date with my wife I made Osso Buco with saffron risotto. But nowadays, especially with kids, my cooking is much more simple. There's a Chinese takeout restaurant close to our house that my kids like the broccoli from. It's the only way they'll eat broccoli. So I have figured out how to simulate that. The most important thing is you need cornstarch to thicken the sauce so that it coats the vegetable.
And you eat a vegan lunch every day, right?
I have a vegan breakfast and lunch. The New York Times writer, Mark Bittman, has this VB6 idea—Vegan Before 6. I'm so annoyed by him because I had the same idea but I never wrote a book about it.
You were born in India; do you cook Indian food a lot?
I started out not cooking Indian food because I found that it would never come out the way that I remembered it tasting at home, and it would frustrate me. But over the years I have come up with a limited repertoire of things: chicken tikka, chicken curry, chickpeas, things like that. I do maybe 20 percent Indian food, but mostly it's French and Italian.
Do you travel to India or the Middle East often for work?
I travel everywhere. I find that you really have to go places to understand what's going on. What I find is, you may think you understand a country and a situation and then you go there and very quickly you realize it's different. Maybe the things that you thought theoretically were possible are different on the ground, or there's a cultural or political nuance that you missed.
With everything going on in the world, do you think there's one dish that could, at least symbolically, unite people in some way?
Gosh. I think maybe it would be a Middle Eastern mezze platter. The Israelis consider all that stuff Israeli food; the Egyptians consider half of it Egyptian; the Lebanese consider it Lebanese; the Turks consider it Turkish. But you'd see the commonality in all these civilizations and countries. I know it sounds corny, but it is true: With things like food, you approach life as it's actually lived, not in ideological or theoretical categories where everybody is distinct and different. Life, really—we're all living it together. We're all mixed up.