When Indians opened their taste buds to global flavours, one of the first cuisines to be embraced was Italian. But the irony remains that not even a fraction of the population understands traditional Italian cooking or flavours.
For most of us, the pizzas that fast food companies churn out or the ‘white sauce’ and ‘red sauce’ pasta available at every food court is what defines Italian cuisine. Nothing can be farther from the truth.
To understand Italian cuisine in its entirety is a lifetime’s work. Just like Indian cuisine, the food of Italy varies from region to region based on lifestyle, availability of ingredients, culture etc. There is so much more to Italian cooking than outlined here; consider this a basic crash course with some fundamentals of this cuisine while dispelling a few myths along the way.
If there is one ingredient that Italians cannot live without, it is tomatoes. This glorious ripe, red vegetable is used in several incarnations throughout the year in Italian dishes; be it pastas, pizza, ragu, salads, sun dried or as passata.
1. Passata – now that’s the staple tomato sauce of Italian households! It is basically a puree of tomatoes that is usually prepared in bulk during the tomato harvest season. Passata forms the base of the so called ‘red sauce’ that we are familiar with. Making passata is an age old tradition in Italy where families gather every summer; the tomatoes are cut, boiled and then passed through a special device to remove the skins and seeds. It is then bottled (always in beer bottles, a tradition that continues even today), sterilized and then stored for use through the year. Italian take their passata very seriously and most households engage in this activity every year no matter where there are in the world.
2. Antipasto – Italians always begin their meal with antipasto; which is often a selection of cured meats, cheese, olives, artichoke hearts etc. Cured meats and cheese hold a revered status in Italian cuisine and is incorporated into the food in so many interesting ways. Though many of these cured meats and cheese are not available in India yet, a few are imported and available at gourmet food stores.
Mozzarella is one of the popular ones available easily in India. And apart from using it on pizzas, there are so many interesting dishes that you can prepare with it. Ritu Dalmia, often hailed as the queen of Italian cooking in India serves this gorgeous Mozzarella in Carrozza at her famed Italian restaurant ‘Diva’ in Delhi.
Or perhaps, if you are looking for something lighter, try this refreshing Insalata Caprese (Tomato Mozzarella Salad), a traditional salad loved by Italians.
Now the Italians love their sauces; there are plenty of these but there are a few basic ones which are used in everyday cooking.
3. Napoletana Sauce – this is the simplest sauce not just in Italy but perhaps, in the world itself. This basic sauce can be used on pizzas, pastas and also in stews. This basic sauce is prepared using tinned or fresh tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, basil, salt and pepper. Often used on its own but also a building block for more complex sauces. Add red chilli peppers to this and you get the much loved Arrabbiata sauce. Onions, herbs, spices, capers and a dash of red wine would transform the humble Napoletana to the intensely flavourful Marinara.
4. Alfredo Sauce – Most people confuse the Bechamel with the Alfredo sauce. While the former is a French mother sauce, the latter is the Italian ‘white sauce’ that most of us are familiar with. In traditional Italian cooking, this sauce is made using milk, butter, parmesan, salt and pepper but heavy cream is used regularly these days to add more thickness and richness to the sauce. Fettucine Alfredo is a classic Italian pasta dish made using this sauce.
5. Pasta is to the Italians what rice is to the Indians! Generally pasta is cooked ‘al dente’ (to the tooth) which literally means having a bit of bite left and not completely mushy. But this would vary greatly for household to household and remains a topic of much debate. Most Italian households would prepare fresh pasta which tastes so so much better than the dried ones that we are used to. The dough consists of plain flour, durum wheat flour, salt and eggs; prepared in a similar manner to kneading our chappathi dough.
Unlike popular belief, Italians do not eat their pasta swimming in the sauce. The sauce must be just to dress the pasta and there are plenty of dishes which do not have a sauce but just one or two ingredients in season. This warm summer pasta with tomatoes, olives and salami is a good example.
6. Ragu – Another Italian term to be familiar with is ‘ragu’; which is the meat based sauce or stew. A ragu is usually prepared by braising red meat and then slow cooking it in a tomato based sauce flavoured with onions, herbs, spices and sometimes red wine too. It can be served with bread or with pasta. The Bolognese sauce (who doesn’t know Spaghetti Bolognese) is also a type of Ragu using meat mince and is not just used with pasta but also to prepare lasagna, the delicious, layered pasta dish.
Italian dishes can be easily adapted to suit our taste buds. So instead of Spaghetti Bolognese, try this Rigatoni Chilli Bolognese next time you need to appease your Italian appetite.
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