Growing up, the only exotic cuisines I was exposed to were Chinese (Indo-Chinese to be precise) and the so-called Continental food, a blanket term referring to foods from the continent of Europe. It was only in the past few years that Kolkata has seen an increased influx of global cuisines, including “Italian food”.
Even then, the term seems confusing. Italian food in India is a subset of the continental dishes comprising little or no spices, a few exotic ingredients like broccoli or zucchini, and more often than not, lots of cream or cheese. The most common examples are pastas and pizzas, and although the latter almost always comes out of an American fast food retail chain.
I’ve never been to Italy, but I’ve read a lot about Italian food and gorged on numerous documentaries. Italian cuisine is rich and complex, and at first glance it seems like an entirely different, exotic cuisine. Spices are sparingly used, and the staple ingredients of Italian cuisine like a good quality olive oil and aged parmesan cheese are either very difficult to find or ridiculously expensive. The ingredients are different, and so are the dishes.
Some aspects of Italian food do share some superficial resemblances with Indian food, like ricotta cheese and chhena, or the subtle notes of spices in certain Venetian dishes thanks to trading relations of the Byzantine Empire with the East. But such resemblances are few and far between. In fact, if flavour profile was the only criterion, then Indian food seems to be much more similar to Mexican or Middle Eastern food than Italian food.
Yet there is something about Italian cuisine that to me feels very familiar. So, what was it that ties these two apparently disparate cuisines together? The answer, paradoxically, lies not in the food, but elsewhere. Both India and Italy are peninsulas, bounded by mountains in the North and opening out to seas in the south. This causes a very similar gradation of food as we move from north to south, with heavier meat based stews in the North to lighter seafood dishes in the south and all over the coast. So it is wrong to put such an immense variety of dishes under umbrella terms like Indian or Italian cuisine.
In India, Kashmir’s lamb rogan josh and Lucknow’s nalli nihari give way to Kerala’s meen moilee and Bengal’s machher jhol. In Italy, the Bolognese ragu and Ligurian pestos of the north give way to Sicilian caponata and Neapolitan spaghetti vongole. This is a gross oversimplification, but you get the idea. There is way too much happening to be put under one definition, and when you try to do so, you end up with so-called Indian restaurants in the West serving rich curries like butter chicken and lamb korma, which to a great extent accounts for the cliché that “Indian food is super hot”.
And the same problem happens with Italian food in India. The bolognese and pesto probably sounded more familiar than the caponata and the vongole. That too is because of a similar bias for the rich, heavy dishes of the hilly North. That is primarily because most of the Italian food landing on Indian shores comes via America, whose Italian-American cuisine is full of heavy dishes like spaghetti and meatballs and chicken parmigiana. Italian food in India has become synonymous with tomato sauce and rubbery mozzarella.
Such stereotypes are gross oversimplifications of two infinitely complex cuisines. But many cuisines are complex. There’s French cuisine, which boasts of an incredible variety of dishes from the rustic cassoulet to the classy filet mignon au poivre, and China’s food keeps changing from province to province, with Sichuan cuisine being incredibly different from Cantonese. No, it’s not just variety which ties India and Italy together, and to see this other difference, let us turn to French cuisine.
French cuisine has an intricate and elaborate culinary tradition, with its numerous sauces and intricate pastries. Many of these take incredible skill, and certain dishes seem like little more than ways of showcasing technique, like a souffle, a confit duck or a macaron. Although this snooty, high-end side of French cuisine is well balanced out by rustic bistros that serve simple rustic dishes like ratatouille, cassoulet or boeuf bourguignon, that level of implied aristocracy lingers on, more than two centuries after the fall of the guillotine.
Italian cuisine is no-nonsense, honest cooking, and by nature is incredibly rustic. All it takes is good quality local produce and a passion for food. This is very similar to Indian cooking, where a few simple ingredients can create wonders. It is these simple dishes that get lost in the blanket terminologies of restaurants. Nobody is going to serve aloo sedhho or uchchhe bhaja in a restaurant at a posh Indian restaurant, much like a bowl of minestrone or pasta fagioli seems out of place in a high-end Italian place.
But we do see minestrones on menus of Italian restaurants in India. The reason for the high price and elevated status is not the dish itself, but its exotic nature and the fact that procuring some of the traditional ingredients like parmesan and white beans is labourious and expensive. Pasta fagioli is a great example of cucina povera or poor man’s food back in Italy, which is why I’m sure an Italian would frown at the Indian guy spending 700 rupees for a hearty bowl of pasta fazool at a posh Italian place in New Delhi just as much I’d sneer at that plate of 12 dollar fish curry from some Bengali restaurant in New York.
Both Indian and Italian cuisines belong to the grandmother. There is no fixed recipe, and wars have been fought over what should and shouldn’t go into an Italian tomato sauce, similar to the controversies that rage over whether or not to put mustard paste in a shukto. Although there are variations, Italians stick religiously to their recipes (Go ahead, serve an Italian grandmother a plate of carbonara made with garlic. I dare you). Compare this to the rigidity of classical French cuisine, which spells out countless variations on the five mother sauces, or the laborious technique of making an incredible complex puff pastry, clockwork style. And it is this restraint which makes this dated style so very tedious for many modern French chefs.
Italian cooking, much like Indian, is rooted not in academic rigour but in family tradition. These are recipes obtained not from dusty 19th century cookbooks, but from time spent in the kitchen with your dida or nonna. Every time an Italian chef talks about the first time his grandmother taught him to make spaghetti vongole, it rings a bell. The close-knit family is at the heart of both cuisines, and it is from here that most recipes spring, which is why both are incredibly rustic by nature.
And this is why something feels very off when modern chefs try making roulades of butter chicken and deconstructing a bolognese, but dishes like these are mere adaptations, for the original dish almost never seems to make the cut for poshness as effortlessly as a French dish does. It is very difficult to “elevate” an Indian curry or an Italian pasta. Both dishes share honest flavour profiles that work best when given the old-school treatment.
It is similarities like these that have made me fall in love with this cuisine. Firmly rooted in family tradition with dishes that vary from one household to another without family constraints, both cuisines produce a vast compendium of honest dishes which if made well, remind you of home. It is such intangible but profound similarities that make my incredibly traditional Bengali friend working at an Italian restaurant say : “that is why I find so much peace in working with this cuisine……because even though I’m not Italian……for those 13 or 14 hours a day……I feel as though I am.”