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Food cultures and traditions: East meets West

Pasta and parantha: Is there a connection? Delve into the histories of Indian and Italian kitchens and you’ll be surprised at the culinary parallels

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, unique creative urges. As such, each
cuisine --- and each cook’s showing in the kitchen --- is distinctive.
Which is why even the same dish cooked by two different people never tastes the same. In India, we totally believe in haath ki baat, when it comes to cooking—the magic of hands. And a talented cook is one with “good hands”. But despite such individualistic notions, it is also true that cuisine, however distinctive, never flourishes in isolation. There are always parallels --- similarities and linkages that bring together different dishes and cooking traditions. And these make for gratifying cultural study.

Italy and India are, of course, two ancient cultures, disparate, not the least because they are a continent apart. And yet there are many jokes as to how similar they really are — loud families, bad traffic, a laissez faire attitude to many things, adult men who continue to be taken care of by their mothers and, of course, mamma’s cooking. But more astonishing than these cultural parallels are culinary ones. Pasta and parantha may not have much in common, you’d think. But delve a little deeper and you’ll be surprised.

For one, 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 his name) in the 1st century A.D, De re coquinaria (On Cookery), has specific directions on how to treat each ingredient.

In India, the basis of the entire culinary tradition is, in many ways the Ayurveda, the “science” of life that examines each ingredient on the basis of its properties and reactions on the human body (milk, thus, is a sweet “cooling” food that soothes the body and so on, garlic, on the other hand, is a “hot” food that excites and inflames the blood). Practices and concepts surrounding seasonal ingredients and diets continued to be developed under this philosophy over centuries and were codified in books such as the Charaka Samhita (which has accretions till as late as 400 AD).
With the globalisation of the palate, Indian cooking may be veering towards year-round ingredients, often coming from deep freezes rather than local fields but the underpinning of its traditional cuisines has always been the seasonal and the local. In Italy, of course, more than in any other culture, we see how the local is prized and the fame of the likes of “Parma” ham, cheese from Cremona, olives and olive oil from Puglia, white truffles from Piedmont et al is built on this.

Early texts praise the likes of the wild boar of Tuscany, the onions of Pompeii, the asparagus of Ravenna and semolina of Campania. The cuisines of Rome, Sicily, Naples, Venice, Umbria and so on, centred around these, are completely different from one another — just as in India, where regional cooking is so varied. The food from Bengal in the east will taste totally different from the food of landlocked Delhi which is again different from the coastal cuisine of the west and south.

But despite the variety, certain dishes or ingredients become national stereotypes. We have tomatoes and garlic dominating the ubiquitous Italian kitchen — much in the same way that the tomato-onion-garlic masala has taken over the pan-Indian kitchen. Besides, it is not really hard to see the similarity between a tomato-butter-cream makhni gravy coating butter chicken in India and tomato-cream-cheese pasta toppers!

What is surprising though is that tomato, as an ingredient, is not really intrinsic to either Italian or Indian cooking. It travelled from south America to Europe only in the late 16th- or 17th century and began to be used in southern Italian kitchens, prominently with pasta, only in the late 18th century, coming to India a couple of decades later via colonial connections.

Much before the colonisation of the East by European naval powers, trade meant that even ancient and medieval cuisines never flourished in isolation. Venice was a rich and powerful merchant-state controlling the spice trade from the east and its evidence is still found in the saffron-flavoured Milanese risottos we still have.
Saffron-flavoured sweet rice is an entirely different-yet similar dish in northern Indian cooking, particularly from Kashmir, and Delhi and often the rice-meat savoury biryanis are coloured with saffron. In Italy, spices such as Pepper, nutmeg (used as both a sweet and savoury spice in ravioli) and even coriander seeds, so intrinsic to Indian cooking, are commonly used.

If spices were used to flavour food, so was oil. Italy, including the Mediterranean, has had a rich tradition of using freshly pressed olive oil in its food; the oil prized for its flavour as much for its vitality. As a commodity, it is only now finding its way to coonsumers in India and Asia.

But as a tradition, cooking with different kinds of flavoured oil is not new to the Subcontinent. The Hindu kitchen traditionally considered cooking in fat to be a ritualistic way of "purifying" food. Thus only food that had been immersed in hot oil and cooked was considered to be "pucca" or pure food, to be consumed by the high castes. Perhaps that was also a way of preserving food in the heat.
But oils (from mustard to coconut to ghee) have always been prized in the Indian kitchen for their flavour and specific ingredients were to be cooked in specific oils: Fish in mustard oil as also vegetables, a dollop of ghee on dal and so on. Cooking with refined, flavourless oils is a relatively new practice that has come up in the last 30 years. And perhaps this is what olive oil marketeers trying to get a foothold in India need to remember.

There are other commonalities too. In Spoleto, a tiny medieval town 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 lentils mentioned in Aryan literature (KT Achaya), and grown in India from ancient times. It has been also found in early excavations in Iran and Turkey. The Italian lentichhie-with-spinach soup (not to mention with sausage) could well be the Indian dal done another way.  Did the grain travel from India/the Middle East via Egypt during the days of the Roman empire?

Basil most certainly did. Native to India, where it has been grown and worshipped as tulsi or holy basil for more than 5000 years, it turned into the sweet basil intrinsic to Italian cooking by strange twists and turns of history and culture undoubtedly. And perhaps another surprising Indian import to ancient Italy has been the water buffalo--- the mozzarella creator!

The soft, fresh buffalo-milk cheese Mozzarella that we know of today 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 that the Arabs introduced the Asian buffalo to Sicily after their 8th century invasion and from there the Normans brought it to the rest of Italy around 1000 AD.

But there are more modern culinary/cultural connections too, especially where cheesemaking goes. India has never had a tradition of making cheese even though it is one of the biggest consumers of dairy and dairy products in the world. But what is little known today is the fact that dairy farmers from the Punjab are now helping make Italian cheese.

In Cremona, a small town in the Po Valley in northern Italy, as I visited cheese factories making grana padano and other varieties, I came across burly, Italian-speaking Punjabi farmers who have made this region home for a few decades now. They follow Bollywood, try to speak Punjabi to me, and have recently built the largest Gurduwara in Europe (Sri Guru Kalgidhar Sahib) in the area but this is very much home to the community — just a couple of hundred kilometres outside Rome but totally different from it.

The 8th century Arab invasion of southern Italy changed its cuisine and culture in many important ways – just as the 10th century invasion in India did. Thus both countries have an entire range of dishes inspired by the Arab world. Pasta being one of them. The theory that Marco Polo brought it from China has been discredited.

Dried pasta undoubtedly has Arab connections in the same way the vermicelli/seviyan that we cook in India, albeit differently has. But even in Roman times, there is mention of lagane (origin for lasagne). This was perhaps a flour-water dough that could be rolled and cooked in the oven. Much like the oven-baked breads, the modern tandoori rotis we have in India. Pasta and parantha do have cultural similarities in the end.

More importantly, culinary connections just serve to remind us that however much we prize our exclusivity, no culture has flourished in isolation. The rich tapestry has been woven because we continued to exchange ideas, ingredients, money, people… with different parts of the world.

by Anoothi Vishal
06 may 2013, Food & Fun > Gastronomy

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