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What Makes Indians Go weak in the Knees for Italian Fare?

Italian is the second most popular international cuisine, after Chinese, in India. Here we find out why.

On a visit to Sicily, many years ago, I was agape at the similarities between Indian and Italian (Sicilian to be more accurate) culinary sensibilities. Preliminary research unearthed the fact that The Moors strongly impacted the Sicilians, hence the love for aubergines, paprika and pistachios! It is these uncanny similarities between diverse countries and cultures that often leaves the observer and chronicler in me exploring more about the journey of two cultures and the bond that develops. The huge popularity of Italian food in India is such a tale.

The popularity of Italian cuisine and restaurants serving hearty Italian fare in India cannot be complete without a mention of Little Italy. For those not in the know, the year 2019 marks three decades of successful operations of the all-vegetarian Italian food brand. Their first restaurant was simply called La Pizzeria. Since its inception, the restaurant has garnered unwavering loyalty; people still swear by their garlic bread. By the late 90s, Little Italy had established itself as the go-to place for Italian food. Mid to late 90s was also the time when international brands such as Pizza Hut and Domino’s Pizza made an entry into India opening up ‘Italian’ food to more people.

Also Read: How to Become an Italian Pasta Master 

An Uncanny Success
The journey of Italian food in India has been nothing less than spectacular—from a successful experiment at five-star hotels dominating French or generic continental fare to becoming a mainstay and a bankable cuisine for restaurateurs and diners alike! Italian is only second to Chinese as India’s favourite international cuisine.
 


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The reason being the many similarities that India and Italy share—dynamic and rich history, diversity, familial bonds, and fresh produce. Their common affinity towards similar flavour profiles distinguished by the use of tomatoes, garlic, chilli and more. From carbohydrates that get prime focus in both cuisines—risotto and pasta in Italy—and roti and rice in India to fresh vegetables that form an integral part of a meal in both countries. Both the countries boast of rich regional diversity of cuisines, which has evolved due to geographies, as well as historic trade associations. This best connection between India and Italy is best described by Chef Ritu Dalmia in her book ­Italian Khana: “It would be wrong to say that Italian and Indian are very similar in taste, but there is something about both cuisines, which is able to fill that hole in our stomach. It’s the simplicity of the Italian kitchen, its warmth and heartiness that really connects with our taste buds.” Italian cuisine offers itself as an interesting study, keeping in mind that Indians are wary of the ‘blandness’ of other European cuisines. It is the rich burst of flavours and ingredients that is reflective of the cultural and geographical diversity of the nation that makes Indians partial to Italian cuisine.

Also Read: Pizza is a World Dish

The Common Thread
Ask popular chefs what makes Italian cuisine so special amongst Indian epicureans and the specialists of the cuisine pin point the cause for its rising popularity: “Italian cuisine is incredibly diverse. There are a few characteristics that tie it all together, including the emphasis on fresh, local ingredients that speak for themselves without too much fuss. Italian cuisine is easy to cook, and the end result is generally impressive,” says Chef Roberto Zorzoli, Head Chef - Romano’s, JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar. And while it may seem that localisation of Italian dishes with a liberal dash of garam masala and green chillies is counterintuitive, “these variations have paved the way for a larger audience to start with, who have grown to gradually appreciate a cuisine that was once foreign to them,” adds Oscar Balcon, Delhi-based Artusi Ristorante. Balcon's Artusi outpost in Gurgaon was nominated for the best Italian restaurant in LF Epicurean Guild Awards 2019.

International travel, social media and accessibility of information has helped Indians move away from the generic colour-based red, white and pink sauces for pastas. Chef Uchit Vohra, Executive Chef at ITC Gardenia, Bengaluru explains the phenomenon, “Pastas and pizzas should be given maximum credit for the popularity of Italian cuisine in India which has evolved to other delightful Italian fare such as soups like minestrone, tiramisu, Italian cheese, and cold cuts.”


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A lot of this evolution can be credited to the Italian expatriate chefs hired by five-star establishments for their Italian restaurants, who pushed the envelope with Italian cooking, and have led to developing the palate of modern gourmands. “These chefs took it as their job to popularise unusual and interesting Italian foods. They also ensured a fair flow of knowledge through their cooking techniques, recipes and notes on culture,” says Abhishek Bindal, VP Operations at CinCin, Mumbai. To bring authentic flavours and taste to the food they cook, the new breed of young chefs prefer getting trained in Italian cuisine in Italy to gain better understanding of the cuisine.

Also Read: In The Land Of Pasta, Ham And Automobiles

A Variegated Evolution
With the focus shifting to ingredients and how they can offer a more authentic taste has paved the way for the introduction and appreciation of regional Italian cuisine in a manner very similar to Indian cuisine. 

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“Italy was a collection of very small independent principalities with different cultures, languages and cuisines. The climatic differences between Northern Italy and Southern Italy have greatly influenced the products available and thus the region-specific cuisines,” explains Balcon.

Italian regions have built on their distinctive culinary styles based on the produce, climatic condition and culture, which differs from region to region. “Regions in Italy are known for celebrating their uniqueness distinctively through their food,” explains Bindal. Regions have lent their names to their food through cooking styles and techniques such as the Neapolitan pizzas and the Gnocchi Sorrentina that is an Amalfi take on Gnocchi which differs from the Gnocchi Pesto that has its roots in Genova.

Also Watch: Step-by-step Gnocchi Pesto Salad

Experiment and Experience
As Indians, we understand the importance of regional differences in cuisines very well. Demonstrating this vital culinary talent, chef Roberto Zorzoli took the risk of executing a special menu entitled ‘The Flavor Chain’ at Romano’s, JW Sahar Mumbai recently. Every dish on the menu was designed to allow the diner to experience the seven distinct taste profiles—salty, sweet, sour and bitter, along with umami (savoury), astringent and pungent—one dish at a time.



Experiments such as these herald a time when India will become a serious player in international cuisines. However misrepresented, authenticity has a big role to play in this movement. “There’s a progressive revolution from old style cuisine (in recipes and cooking techniques) towards a lighter cuisine focused on simple and recognisable tastes and fresh, local ingredients and regional traditions,” says executive Chef Satbir Bakshi and Italian Masterchef Francesco Francavilla at Vetro at The Oberoi, Mumbai. Bakshi and Francavilla are spearheading new innovations at award-winning Italian restaurant Vetro—including bringing Italian cuisine specialists to showcase and offer a taste of the nuanced and varied regional fare of Italy. Vetro, winner of LF Epicurean Guild Awards 2019 for Best Italian Restaurant in India, most recently hosted Sicilian Culinary Showcase with Chef Agostino D’Angelo, Executive Chef from Ristorante Olivier at the acclaimed Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea.


While the street-side pizzas with ketchup and capsicum have their devotees, there is an equally curious set of gourmands who want to taste more authentic Italian fare. “Italian cuisine is progressing at a very good pace and it has to keep evolving with respect to presentation, new innovations, use of better technology, and the need of the customers,” says Chef Vohra.


To sum up, it’s the simplicity of Italian cuisine and its regional variation that is giving way to its rising popularity. One that will continue riding the waves of popularity in India for a foreseeable future.

 

Images courtesy: CinCin Mumbai (Featured, first and second image) and JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar

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