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Italian-Indian food will also earn respect one day

It was having lunch at the café at Delhi’s Italian Cultural Centre that got me thinking.

The café is part of the Cultural Centre, which itself is part of the Italian embassy. So its daily clientele is about 60 per cent Italians and 40 per cent other nationalities, of which, Indians are the highest number as you would expect.


The Italians come for the food, which is authentic and reasonably priced. I have even heard it described as the best casual Italian cuisine in Delhi.


   Though you can hear Italian spoken all around you (by the guests) nobody speaks Italian in the kitchen. All of the staff—servers, cooks, pantry-workers etc—are Indians. Most of them have never ever been to Italy. Very few (if any) even went to catering college. Some started out at the very bottom of the kitchen hierarchy; many can barely speak English.


   So here’s my question: if these guys can turn out food that is so authentic that even Italians flock to eat it, why is so much of the Italian food in India so bad?


   The more I thought about it, the more clear it seemed to be. It is hard to get authentic Italian food in India not because it is difficult to cook. It is because Indians don’t really want authentic Italian food. They want to eat Indian-Italian. The restaurants serve what the market desires. The chefs don’t bother to learn to make the real thing.


   Just as we have Indian-Chinese, which bears no resemblance to real Chinese food, I think we now also have Indian-Italian. It’s a cuisine that consists of heavily tweaked dishes with flavours that are influenced by Italian food but which have now become basically Indian.


   This is not as shocking as it may sound. Just as most countries have their own versions of Chinese food, they also have home-grown Italian cuisines. The trend started in America, where Italian immigrants first tried serving the food they ate at home and then abandoned that to give Americans something that suited their tastes more.


"Just as Indian-Chinese has become a cuisine in its own right, I imagine that Italian-influenced Indian food will also earn respect one day."

    A new cuisine developed, full of such dishes as Spaghetti with Meatballs, the recipe for which was created in America. Even the pizzas that were popularised in the US bore little resemblance to the Naples pizzas immigrants had left behind.


   Something similar happened in the UK, where Spaghetti Bolognese (based only slightly on a ragu served in Bologna) became the most popular Italian dish. Later, in the Sixties, when Italian became the trendy cuisine in London, many Anglo-Italian dishes were invented by two former waiters, Mario Cassandro and Franco Lagotella, who became famous for serving such dishes as Chicken Sorpresa (Chicken Kiev with an Italian accent) which were unknown in Italy.


   There is a difference, though. The American-Italian restaurants had Italians in the kitchen and pretended they were serving real Italian food.


   In India, we don’t pretend. Indian cooks (many on the streets) have taken some key elements of Italian cuisine and built a new cuisine around them. Chief among them is cheese. It used to be found in India at pizza places but now cheese turns up everywhere: from dosas to patties to samosas to pao bhaji to momos.


   So it is with the tomato. In the beginning it was just chopped tomatoes added to sabzis or dal. But now, rather like the Italians, we buy Italian-style tomato puree and tomato sauces and add them to all kinds of dishes.


   Just three decades ago, who would have thought that the basic ingredients of pizza and of many pastas—cheese and tomatoes—would come to dominate many of the newer dishes that are being created on the street and at snack bars? The creators of these new dishes just purloin Italian flavours and ingredients and place them in an Indian context.


   Italian ingredients are used in ways that Italians themselves would never use them. In Italy, the point of a pasta dish is the pasta. In India, the sauce is required to overwhelm the pasta and taste of tomatoes or cheese or both.  The ingredient quantities have to be Indianised. Spaghetti Aglio e Olio has to have Indian-style heaps of garlic. Pasta Arabiatta relies on the marriage of too much tomato and too many chillies.


   I make no value judgments about all this. Just as Indian-Chinese has become a cuisine in its own right, I imagine that Italian-influenced Indian food will also earn respect one day. (It already has popularity.)


   The price we pay for this is the same as the price we pay for the popularity of Indian-Chinese. It is now difficult to get authentic Italian or Chinese food at most restaurants in India.


   The only authentic Italian restaurants that flourish cater to a tiny sliver at the top. And of course, there will be places like the Italian Cultural Centre Café. All the more reason to value them!



Posted On: 17 Feb 2023 10:56 AM
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