The Italian proverb “A tavola non si invecchio” meaning “at the table one never grows old” sums up the Italian view of food. Food in Italy is a wholesome experience, a time of celebration and happiness along with the family. It is impossible for one to think of Italy without the images of mouthwatering food. In Italy, sharing the meal with family and friends is an elated affair. Food and the kitchen form an inseparable part of an Italian’s life. Family and food are integral to Italian culture, as it is to India.
We as Indians cannot think of a festival where food is not involved. Each state and festival has its own specialty for which it is known. Even a fast involves food, before and after. Likewise every celebration is centered on food as it is with the Italians.
Chinese is past
I recall in the 80’s and 90’s, when the idea of eating out was when the family went to a Chinese restaurant for the ubiquitous “Indian Chinese food.” Today, “Italian food” has by and large replaced the “Chinese food” of yesteryears. Italian food is considered to be one of most popular cuisines in India, so much so that the Indo-Italian Chamber of Commerce is collaborating with the Italian Culinary Institute to train students in Italian cuisine.
Three decades back, my grandmother used to call biscuits, “Biscot.” I then learnt that “Biscotti,” which refers to a popular Italian biscuit was favoured in India amongst those who could afford it. Popular Italian specialties like Cappuccino, Espresso, Pizza, Pasta, Tiramisu etc. are now part of the Indian lexicon.
The popularity of Italian cuisine in India in recent times can be attributed to the tremendous exposure of Indians to worldwide influences through travel, television, magazines and so on. This still does not explain how Indians went for Italian and not French cuisine. Vir Sanghvi, a popular talk show host perhaps gave the most plausible explanation. He explained saying Italian food was based on carbohydrates a trait that was similar to Indian food. Italian food like Pastas, Breads, Indian food like Rotis and Chapatis are based on carbohydrates. Whereas, French and other Western cuisines are predominantly protein- based like meats, poultry, fish with carbohydrates in the form of various breads, as an accompaniment.
In addition, Italian cuisine is lighter, and has a huge number of vegetarian options, which in a country like India, with a large vegetarian population, is extremely important.
Very much like Indian cuisine, Italian food differs widely from region to region and also has many variations. It has its roots in the colonising effect of the erstwhile Roman empire, with Jewish, Arab, ancient Greek, African and some amount of Asian influence. Indo-Roman relations were built on trade. Roman trade with India began with overland caravans and later by direct maritime, and there are some who say that the Mozzarella di Buffala [buffalo Mozzarella] was influenced from our shores. References to cheese products prepared from water buffalo milk appeared for the first time at the beginning of the 12th century. Buffalo mozzarella became common all over the south of Italy from the second half of the 18th century, prior to which it had been produced only in small quantities. However, there is nothing to support the contention though the Asian Water Buffalo is not a native of Italy.
With the advent of the global village, and borders being blurred, Italian food is gradually gaining a place of pride in the world. The flip side of this popularity is commercialisation, as it has already happened with Pizzas, and is getting into all other areas of Italian cuisine too. This phenomenon has no doubt enabled Italian cuisine to make a substantial impact on global level. I was surprised a few years back when I saw, a recipe for ‘Pasta Al Curry’ in the Silver Spoon, a much read Italian cook book. Consequently, India will see Italian food being spiced up, more saucy and Indianised over a period of time.
Sophia Loren, a popular Italian actress, once famously commented, pointing to herself, “All that you see, I owe to Pasta.” In most urban Indian houses, Pasta is a favourite amongst children, and with DINK [double income no kids] couples. Easy to cook and delicious to eat, Pasta being rated as the world’s favourite food is not surprising and that above Meat Rice and Pizza!
Italian ingredients, such as Balsamic Vinegar, Olive Oil, Olives, Pasta, Sauces, Cheeses and so on fly off the shelves of retail stores in urban India on a daily basis. Almost all Indian supermarkets offer all ingredients needed to cook a great Italian meal. Many are locally produced and grown whilst some are imported. The ready-to-eat pasta market in India is still a growing one with a handful of organised players. According to an Ernst & Young report, the instant noodles and pasta market in India would be worth Rs 1,500 crore in the next five years. Estimated at Rs 40 crore, it is growing at 25 per cent per annum, according to the same report. The overall pasta market in India has been pegged at Rs 100 crore.
Pizza, heavy creams, and cheese, this was all Italian food, was to most Indians. Not anymore, the perception that Italian food is healthy is gaining ground. It is a simple cuisine, with simple flavours, and an emphasis on the facility to savour an individual herbs/spice, unlike Indian food that has a combination of several of them. Italians rely mainly on the quality of the ingredients rather than on elaborate preparation. Ingredients and dishes vary by region.
The one thing that seems slow to catch up is the Italian Pasticceria. This word, meaning simply, pastry shop, is like a magic kingdom, hiding within its walls, untold of temptations. Dolci, [or sweet] is an integral part of Italian cuisine. Every Italian town has a small Pasticceria, quaint and inviting, with arched windows, and overflowing shelves of Pastries, Cakes, Bignole, Semifreddo, Tartlette, Baba, Canolli, Crostoli, Sfogliatelle. The last three are favourites of mine, and I make it a point to enjoy them and perhaps overindulge a bit as I have a sweet tooth, whenever I am in Italy. The sheer number of Italian sweets would assuage the needs of every family member and to me that has been quite fascinating.
Gelatos, in other words ice creams, are gaining ground. Cassata is age old in India. The Tiramisu will surely have completion in the hearts and minds of India when the variety is unveiled. I do hope it will be soon. We are finding the advent of the Italian desserts, but I will be happy when there are dedicated Pasticcerie in the country, doing justice to the vast variety of the amazing world of Italian food.
(The writer is executive director, the Pasta Bar Veneto)