Food in Italy: Same As India, But Different
- An Indian foodie married to a man from Southern Italy draws parallels between the cuisine and culture of the two nations
Text and photos by Natasha Celmi
Some places are good for a bucket list: one short visit and you can happily check them off your list. But Italy is not one of those places. It has the alluring charm of a long time lover.
I live in Bangalore with my southern Italian husband and before the pandemic hit, we visited a different part of Italy every six months. Finally able to travel again this year, we have just returned from a beautiful holiday after visiting our family in Naples and Sorrento.
The Kolkata of Europe
Naples or Napoli is usually a hop-off point for travellers who arrive at the airport and immediately leave for the popular Amalfi coast. But I was introduced to this charming city by my husband many years ago and fell in love with it instantly. Yes, it is chaotic. Yes, it has some dodgy areas where you have to watch your wallet. But hey, every city has a dark side.
Napoli, in fact, has a lot in common with the artistic city of Calcutta where I grew up. The people are warm and friendly. Life works at the pace of dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing) and romantic poetry, folk music and dancing are everywhere. This city is where you get a real taste of culture, tradition and history. Haphazard driving and honking — this is all part of the fun, right?
The words ‘Italian’ and ‘food’ are synonymous and when in Italy, I literally eat my way through each day. Breakfast starts with an array of sweet pastries. Every morning I look forward to heading down to the bar (Italian word for café) for a cornetto (nothing to do with ice cream) or croissant washed down with a strong Napolitano cappuccino.
When I say cappuccino, I am not referring to a large cup of milky foam where you have to search for the coffee. This is real flavourful coffee which will leave you licking the spoon! Sfogliatella and baba al rhum are are some of the other quintessential pastries on my ‘must have’ list.
This time we stayed at an apartment by the lungomare, the central seafront promenade, with spectacular views of the Gulf of Naples and the mighty Mount Vesuvius volcano. We spent some memorable evenings at the buzzing bars and restaurants that line the stretch, starting off with aperitivo cocktails of Aperol spritz and bubbly prosecco and then moving on to a pizza or seafood dinner.
Naples, incidentally, is the motherland of pizza. This was originally a humble peasant flatbread with some tomatoes and cheese, which was introduced to the city by immigrant labourers from Persia. Even today, the old pizzerias in the centre of Naples are basic no-frills places. But rather like Indian dhabas, their food means serious business. One of these rustic places featured in the movie Eat Pray Love, in the scene where Julia Roberts devours the most succulent slice of pizza. Yes, la Pizza Napoletana is unique and I guarantee you will crave another the very next day.
But even before heading for pizza, I need to sink my teeth into a big ball of mozzarella di bufala. Italy’s Campania region is the home of the fresh mozzarella cheese made from buffalo milk. Every Neapolitan family has their trusty cheese maker who makes this milky spongy goodness fresh that very day which must be consumed by the next day. This is really no different from what our desi paneer is to a Punjabi family, right?
Bring on the baingan
Our next stop was Sorrento, a 45-minute drive from Naples, where we stayed in Massa Lubrense, a tiny village nestled in the hills above Sorrento. Our house was perched on a slope amidst citrus trees, olive groves and tall pine trees, giving us long, scenic walks to the sea, kicking a football or two with the kids along the way. Getting back meant hitching a ride up the steep road with some kind soul.
The local farmers’ market made me feel like a kid in a candy shop. A bit of ham, a bit of cheese, a few juicy tomatoes, a drizzle of aromatic olive oil on crusty country bread and voila, a satisfying lunch. Simple can be special.
Summer is the season for sweet, succulent tomatoes in Europe, ranging from green and yellow hues to vibrant orange, vermilion and crimson tones. This is when whole families, including ours, slow cook kilos and kilos of the ripest tomatoes to make fresh tomato sauce or passata that will be bottled for the rest of the year. Of course, plenty of jars are given as gifts, for each family prides itself on its secret cooking technique, quality of ingredients and labour of love.
Italy is as regionally diverse as India, and each region boasts of its own dialect and culinary culture. In Campania, seafood is at the heart of the diet along with the most vibrant vegetables. We enjoyed the regional delicacies of gnocchi alla Sorrentina (potato dumplings draped with a luscious tomato sauce and baked with oozy mozzarella), ravioli alla Caprese and the delish Melanzane Parmigiana (eggplant parmesan). When I first came here with my husband, I was surprised by how the humble baingan is savoured. My desi family was quite appalled when they learnt of pizza with eggplant and still cannot digest the idea of ‘pizza pe baingan’!
My top dish to eat here is the risotto al pescatore — a seafood risotto with a melange of shellfish brought together in a harmonious broth. Baccala or cod is a popular fish served as the second course and I love the firm, meaty flesh. Spaghetti con vongole (mussels) is a classic, homely dish that tastes of the sea. Fritti or fried seafood is one of my favourite appetisers to nibble on with a chilled prosecco.
When life gives you lemons
Naples and the Amalfi coast are famous for their fragrant lemons. These lemons are mildly tart and have a distinct flavour with a heady aroma. Homes in the area have lemon trees in their backyard and you just go pluck a ripe lemon when you need one in the kitchen, which reminds me of the banana and coconut trees in homes around South India. My father-in-law taught me how to eat the less tart variety just like an orange. And when life gives you such glorious lemons, you make limoncello! Today, this yellow citrus liquor is made commercially, but traditionally people make limoncello at home, cooking the best of lemons with sugar and alcohol. Our family makes its own limoncello too and we bring bottles back for friends in India.
Wine is an integral part of daily life and it is amazing how the flavours of the food are not complete without that sip of wine. In fact, wine is considered to have medicinal qualities — a glass of warm mulled wine is the classic medicine for the flu and a glass of red wine a day is the secret to a healthy heart. The Campania region features some of the best wines of Italy and I like the Falanghina, a crisp edged wine with a delicate bouquet. For a robust full bodied red, the Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio, which is cultivated on the slopes of the Mount Vesuvius, is the star. How romantic is the very name which means ‘Christ’s tears’.
There are so many similarities and parallels between Indian and Italian cuisine, which make me marvel at how we are all connected through food – same, same but different!
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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.
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