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Pasta-parantha resonance

Despite the diplomatic tension between the two countries, there’s so much in common between Italy and India—especially in the kitchen

By Anoothi Vishal

One of the most interesting things a researcher on cuisines does is to
trace patterns. Cooking can be an art: An expression of each
civilisation’s, each community’s, each person’s unique creative urges. But however distinctive a cuisine is, it never flourishes in isolation. There are always parallels and resonances that make for gratifying cultural study.

Italy and India are, of course, two ancient cultures, disparate, a continent apart. And yet they can be dizzyingly similar— loud families, bad traffic, laissez faire attitudes, adult men who continue to be taken care of by their mothers and, of course, mamma’s cooking! More astonishing than these cultural parallels are the culinary ones. Pasta and parantha may not have much in common. But delve a little deeper and you’ll be surprised.

There is no one Italian cuisine just as there is no one Indian cuisine. Regional cuisines that play upon seasonal, local ingredients are the basis of both. In fact, the world’s oldest cookbook by Marcus Gavius Apicius (we get the term “epicure” from him) in the 1st century A.D, De re coquinaria (On Cookery), has specific directions on how to treat each ingredient.

Today, we all recognise the quality of “Parma” ham, cheese from Cremona, olives from Puglia, white truffles from Piedmont et al but even ancient times had their famous regional produce—much like in India: the wild boar of Tuscany, onions of Pompeii, asparagus of Ravenna… The cuisines of Rome, Sicily, Naples, Venice, Umbria etc centred around these products are completely different from one another — just as in India, where regional cooking is varied.

In the era of the globalisation of the palate, however, certain ingredients become national stereotypes. We have tomatoes and garlic dominating the ubiquitous Italian kitchen today —
much in the same way that tomato-onion-garlic masala does the pan-Indian kitchen. It is not really hard to see the similarity between a tomato-butter-cream makhni gravy and tomato-cream-cheese pasta toppers! But tomato as an ingredient began to be used in Italian kitchens so prominently with pasta only by the 19th century. It came to India around the same time via colonial connections.

Much before the colonisation of the East, trade meant that even ancient and medieval cuisines never flourished in isolation. Venice was a rich and powerful merchant-state
controlling the spice trade and its evidence is still found in the saffron-flavoured Milanese (Milan is part of the Veneto region) risottos we still have. Pepper, nutmeg (used as both a
sweet and savoury spice in ravioli) and even coriander seeds, intrinsic to Indian cooking, are commonly used in Italian cuisines. And there are other East-West connections.

In Spoleto, in Umbria, I was surprised to come across a soup made of what we in India know as masoor dal — pink lentils. Masoor is one of the oldest Aryan grains. It has also been found in early excavations in Iran and Turkey. The Italian lentichhie-with-spinach soup could well be our dal. Did the grain travel from India/the Middle East via Egypt during the Roman empire?

Basil most certainly did. Native to India, it turned into the sweet basil of Italian cooking by strange twists and turns of history and geography. But perhaps another Indian import to ancient Italy is the water buffalo!

The soft, fresh buffalo-milk cheese Mozzarella became popular in southern Italy only in the 18th century but the water buffalo has been in Italy for much longer. There are many theories as to how it got here, including a likely one that suggests the Arabs introduced the Asian buffalo to Sicily after their 8th century invasion.

In a reverse connection, dairy farmers from the Punjab are today helping make a lot of Italian cheese. In Cremona, a small town in the Po Valley, I came across burly, Italian-speaking Punjabi farmers who make grana padano, parmesan and other cheese. A recently built Gurduwara, the largest in Europe, bears testimony to how this is home for the community — just a couple of hundred kilometres outside Rome but so different from it.

The 8th century Arab invasion of southern Italy changed its cuisine and culture– just as the 10th century invasion in India did. Both countries have Arab- inspired dishes. Pasta being one. The theory that Marco Polo brought it from China has been discredited. Dried pasta undoubtedly has Arab connections in the same way vermicelli/seviyan do. But even in Roman times, there is mention of lagane (origin for lasagne), a flour-water dough that could be rolled and baked. Much like the tandoori rotis. Pasta and parantha do have cultural resonance the end.
(The article appeared in the Financial Express on Sunday in my Column)

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