Food: How risotto is just khichdi and other culinary tales
An Indian foodie married to an Italian man writes about how Indian and Italian cuisines are better partners than we think
I am Indian and my husband is Italian, but the kitchens we grew up in? They’re much the same. For example, although the students at one of my cooking workshops laughed at me for killing the romance of a risotto by comparing the consistency to our desi khichdi, the concept of both dishes is the same—raw rice cooked and another significant element, cooked with a fluid consistency that allows every grain to remain separate.
Having grown up in a Marwari home, I have memories of warm bowls of bajre ki khichdi, a seasonal winter dish that fulfils the same comforting role as a warm risotto in an Italian home in winter.
As a kid I would watch my grandmother making hara dhania chutney, laboriously grinding the ingredients on a stone base.
A few thousand kilometres west, the nonnas or grandmothers of Italy lovingly make batches of pesto in mortar and pestles. Yes, the ingredients differ based on the local produce and taste, but both are sharp herbal condiments brimming with flavour and nutrition.
The palak ricotta connection
Ricotta and paneer—or more specifically, chhena, the fresh soft paneer made at home—are cousins. I have seen my in-laws make fresh ricotta at home in Naples and my first reaction was, “oh, that’s how we make chhena!” In southern Italy, most sweets and cakes are made with a sweet ricotta filling. Reminds me of the decadent sandesh, rasgullas and chamcham of Bengal which are made with fresh chhena.
In the Indian kitchen, our beloved palak paneer is a star of our culinary prowess. So, did the Italians steal this formula from us and turn it into their ricotta e spinaci (spinach) coalition or was it the other way round? I make a classic Italian dish of ricotta and spinach dumplings draped in a luscious tomato sauce. To convert this into a paneer kofta, I just add masala, onion and garlic!
I will confess that I am not overly fond of dal. However, I do relish a very homely Italian dish of pasta with kala masur dal (called pasta con lenticchie in Italian). Visiting friends in southern France this summer, I learned that a simple sauté of this dal with onions, garlic, tomatoes and herbs gives you a nutritious bowl of comfort. The Greeks make a sumptuous lentil and grains salad, which I now whip up regularly. So, if you thought dal was a native of India, it clearly has roots elsewhere as well.
Naan the better
A true Naples style pizza crust is not crispy but chewy and doughy with large air pockets inside and black charred patches on the surface. Sounds similar to a naan? Not surprisingly, the basic dough recipe and shaping techniques are similar. Sure, one is made in a wood-fired oven and the other over hot coals in a tandoor, but both techniques serve the same purpose of providing a deep smoky flavour.
So, here’s what we do in our Indo-Italian kitchen—we enjoy naans with dal and sabzi and then the next day, we convert a naan into a succulent pizza.
Keeping it conservative
We all love our homemade achaars. Well, guess what. Italians also have pickles called ‘sottolio’, which literally means ‘under oil’ using seasonal vegetables, garlic, chillies and herbs. Typically, this bottling is done in late summer with the aim to enjoy the season’s bountiful produce in the cold winter months. Exactly the reason aam ka achaar is made in kilos by my mother in summer!
Gatte to gnocchi
During one of my initial attempts at making gnocchi, my cook gave me a hand, doing an efficient job of it. “Didi, this is the same technique of making gatte ki sabzi (a Rajasthani dish of besan dumplings),” she said. Given that my humble cook can churn out gnocchi as well as gatta, we definitely have much in common with the Italian kitchen.
Saunf far, so good
The first time I tried fennel, a green, crunchy vegetable, I was puzzled. It tasted just like saunf! Then I learnt that saunf is the seeds of the fennel plant and the vegetable forms the base bulb of the plant. It is interesting that two different cultures both consume fennel in some form as a mouth freshener but I wonder why, in India, we never consumed the fennel bulb.
There was a time I thought these parallels in our culinary culture were bizarre. However, on reading Vir Sanghvi’s book, The Indian Pantry, in which he digs into the origin of various elements in the Indian kitchen, I learned that, globally, the food we eat is all connected as a result of migration, conquests and colonisation. So, the next time you feel disconnected with another culture, look into their kitchens!
Natasha Celmi is a chef and food writer. She is the author of the award-winning cookbook, Fast Fresh Flavourful. Her mantra is smart cooking: minimal effort, maximum flavour using fresh local produce.
From HT Brunch, October 17, 2021
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