food

The world on the table: creating an expatically correct menu

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I never thought there could be a correct way to set a menu. Food is food, it just has to be good, right? Then one day, several years ago, a bunch of Belgians looked down on me when I served them polpette (meatballs) covered in marinara sauce. I had spent a whole afternoon making them out of beef, pork and veal and cooking the freshest tomatoes in order to achieve the healthiest and tastiest possible outcome. It turned out meatballs, in Belgium, are considered a student’s food. The sort of stuff you gulp down without thinking with your flatmates at 22. Definitely not something fit for a grown-ups’ dinner table.

I barred meatballs from my home dinners. The following time I went for a home made green lasagna followed by roasted veal, sauté vegetables and pudding. The Belgians guests ran for the lasagna, had a couple of servings and then looked at me puzzled and terrified when I came out of the kitchen with the rest of my carefully planned Italian dinner. Nay. Apparently no one can master a whole Italian meal. “We thought lasagna was the dinner”, one girl said. Ok, fine, I keep learning.

A standard Belgian dinner is composed of a soup (usually in the form of a velouté, i.e. blended vegetables with sometimes a hint of almond paste to add texture), a meat or fish main course accompanied by vegetables and/or potatoes and a dessert usually consisting in crème caramel, fruit crumble or ice cream. Something simple and fresh, practical and easy to put together. I obliged and am now strictly following this sort of menu anytime I invite locals.

The problem is that it doesn’t work for everybody else. Italians will feel dismissed if presented with some blended vegetables followed by a portion of meat and an unoriginal, everyday-style dessert. They will think I made no effort because I don’t care enough about my guests. For them, I lay out the big weapons. The whole big fat Italian dinner.

French will expect cheese to be served after the main course, just before dessert. I don’t like cheese. I had to spend a whole afternoon in a smelling cheese shop with a Parisian friend and note down which sort of cheeses you should always offer and in what quantity. If there’re French around, I go through my little cheese and salad memorandum and I look at my phone to check the time every ten seconds. A tour of cheese after meat and before dessert makes a dinner just a tad too long.

Spanish friends will have endless drinks before finally settling for dinner so you should fill your little cups with plenty of tapas.

Of course, one could just serve whatever is in the fridge and stop caring about respecting individual food sensitiveness. But I am Italian after all and feeding people is in my genes, so I spend time composing the expatically correct menu.

One of my close friends rang me today to ask me to be her caterer for her daughter’s christening. Her first choice – a professional chef – bailed on her and since she can’t fry an egg, she called me to rescue.

A few years ago I was so interested in the food business that I taught Italian traditional cooking for a semester, twice a week. I had more time then and a lot of fun though most of my Belgian students were more interested in having a well deserved glass of wine at the end of a long work day than in learning the basics of a good mamma’s meal.

At the end of that experience I realized I didn’t have the necessary patience to teach but I started toying with the idea of starting a catering business. I never did, fearing that the transforming my hobby in a profession would mean the end of my love affair with food.

These days I cook less and less and I seldom approach Italian traditional dishes. But I can’t resist a call to the kitchen. So I’ll do it. The real challenge will be now to compose the perfect international menu, staying faithful to classic Italian staples everybody likes yet revisiting them to suit a Northern European palate. I’ll keep you posted about my culinary mission.

What did you learn about food while living abroad? Which classic dishes you stopped proposing because your guests misinterpret them? 

PS. In case you were interested in those meatballs I talked about, my fellow blogger and friend camparigirl posted a great recipe.

What I do miss about Italy

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The other day I was chatting with an Italian friend on Whatsapp while doing other things and apparently my answers weren’t long enough or articulate enough to satisfy his curiosity. (Not that we were having a meaningful conversation but he was kindly asking how I was and I didn’t have the time to say much more than “well and you?”). At some point he said, exasperated: “At least in Italy we are warm people, you don’t even take the time to make an effort and be nice”. I get that told a lot. As if I weren’t Italian too.

I wouldn’t say that Italians are warmer than other people but they certainly are generally more determined to express their feelings – good and bad – during human interaction. My friend’s remark nevertheless stayed with me for some time that afternoon and made me think that despite the fact that I have never been a very outgoing person, I might have changed according to my expat environment.

I don’t care much about nationalities but there’re a few things I really miss from home, when I start thinking about it.

The generosity, first. Italians are generous people. Extremely generous. Excessively generous compared to some more measured northern Europeans. They will go a long way to make you feel at home – should you be their guest – and will carelessly spend a whole afternoon cooking and selecting the freshest ingredients for the upcoming dinner. They won’t expect you to clean up afterwards or to see you working in the kitchen. They truly want their guests to have a good time and would feel ashamed of not celebrating enough your visit. Of course, this means sometimes that you will feel overwhelmed by the food and attention and desperately seeking a way out but everybody should experience once in their life a big, welcoming, Italian dinner. I think of that every single time I find myself in a home where a sick-looking roast is thrown on the table accompanied by some overgrilled frozen potatoes and a plastic-tasting salad, because it is soooo chic not to waste time on the bare necessities. After all – most Belgians think – the point is spending time together, right? Not obsessing on something as low as food. And-you-know-we-are-all-busy, you won’t imagine the lady of the house sparing her precious time to prepare dinner, won’t you?

The widespread knowledge of classics. Beside Italians, I have only noticed something like that in Greeks. It has maybe to do with the past glories of our countries and the subsequent lack of contemporary successes but common people, in Rome and Athens, will throw some ancient literay quote in their everyday conversations. Taxi drivers in Greece talk of Socrates with nonchalance as an Italian factory worker can surprise you quoting Horace. That happens because public schools (till my generation, at least) used to put great emphasis on an accurate knowledge of ancient poets and philosophers, despite the future career orientation of the students. It might not be strictly useful in life but I miss it. I miss people valuing culture for the sake of it, independently from their daily occupation.

Clean food. Some traditional italian recipes are good for making you die of a heart attack at 32 but you can actually order grilled chicken breast at a restaurant and have it served on your plate as it is: no suspicious sauces, butter or mushy vegetables. It.is.a.chicken.breast. After a while you become sick of playing the crazy lady who specifies three times that she only wants a grilled chicken breast, but grilled with olive oil and not butter and please, no sauces and also no butter vegetables on the side. Do you have any grilled vegetables?

The flexibility. It is irritating as it is sometimes useful but, as you might have noticed if you have ever spent at least a day in Italy, everything can be discussed there. There are rules but no public officer or employee is scared of studying your specific situation before deciding how and when to apply them. Italians like to decide on a case by case basis.

The free compliments as you walk down the street. This doesn’t only happen in Italy but is a staple of the Latin world. Any woman of average looks – young, old or middle-aged – will receive a free compliment, at least once a day. In South America they call it piropo and it indicates a flirtatious yet innocent remark paid to a woman. Eleven years in Belgium and I could as well be transparent. I now have to rely on my girlfriends to get that little tiny compliment that will make my morning. If I were feeling blue in an Italian city, I would just put my sunglasses on and take a stroll. Someone would call me pretty for sure.

The cappuccino. I am dairy intolerant yet I have gulped down Venti Lattes for years. I am used to the taste of lait russe (Russian Milk, the Belgian version of the classic Italian cappuccino) and lait renversé (swiss version) as well as to the German Milchkaffe. Truth is, no matter how much you can invest in the latest coffee machines and milk foamers: it will never taste as good as in Milan. It has to do with the water, they say.

The yellow light. Take an average sunny day in central Italy: the light is yellow. It’s a warm and flattering light completely different from the off white one you notice in the North. I sometimes miss that particular shade of the sun.

And you, fellow expats,what do you miss of home when you think about it? 

The Fake Italian

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As a typical Italian, I need a fix of my childhood food on a regular basis. Even better if it comes with a proper setting, proper accents and proper faces.  That’s why every Wednesday  I meet with a fellow Italian-expat-who-married-out-of-the-tribe and we treat our pale, half-blooded children to a real pizzeria for lunch.

Everything looks right there: the staff speak with a southern Italian accent, they run around with more plates than any human being could keep on two arms and affectionately scold the kids when they become too loud. The pizza is the right balance of crisp and fluffy, the tomato sauce yummy and they happen to have very-close-to-the-real-thing cannoli, filled with sweet ricotta and topped with a tear of chocolate fudge.

I look forward to going there every week with the same enthusiasm and it’s become for the kids too a special moment of Italianness. “You know, papa – they tell their father – we go to this restaurant with mummy where everybody speaks Italian. You can’t come, though. It’s only for Italians like us”. 

Last Wednesday, unfortunately, they didn’t have a table for us, a merry little crowd needing buggy space close to the table. We waited a little bit, hoping for someone to ask the check and go but no one was moving. So we decided to take the offspring to the pizzeria next door, where we had never been before.

We had just closed the door behind us when something looked, sounded and smelled clearly wrong. We were welcomed by a woman with a Snow White-meets-Sophia-Loren look (chalk white skin, ultra-black hair and red lipstick) who at the sight of the three boys and the baby girl in the pushchair shrilled: “OOOOOOOH, ‘a famiiiiya” with an accent and intonation that reminded me more of a background actor in a third-class American movie than of an authentic southern mamma.

A look at the tables confirmed my worst doubts: little roses as centerpieces, fake-chic setting, even faker pictures of famous Italian places all around and not a single Italian among the patrons.

I looked at my friend hoping for her to read my mind, which was shouting: “RUN! I am not having fake pizzas!”. Luckily they didn’t have a highchair for the baby and we had the perfect excuse to get away. The counterfeited Sophia Loren proposed us even take away pizzas but no, no, we forgot something and have to go.

And then I thought of all the times I have been naively eating at a fake Japanese restaurant, run by smart Chinese who understood quickly that Europeans weren’t so keen anymore on greasy Peking duck.

How do you spot a fake Italian restaurant?

1. There are no Italians inside

2. If it looks too authentic to be true it probably is. (beware especially of too many Godfather’s references in the decor or on the walls)

3. If the owner greets you speaking Italian, he probably isn’t. (He would do so only to a known patron)

4. If the menu contains too many variations to the “spaghetti with meatballs” theme, run away.

5. If the decor looks more French than Italian (brocade tablecloths, stiff chairs, elaborated centerpieces) it’s never a good sign.

What are your tips to spot “fake” restaurants all over the world?

When childhood memories are not enough: how expatriation can change your palate

Can you stop loving the smells and tastes of your childhood? Can you stop losing yourself in sensorial memories just because a certain flavor suddenly seems outdated? Would we have the Recherche‘s seven volumes, had Marcel Proust been an expat?

It might be a consequence of cutting the cord but I don’t seem to enjoy my mother’s food anymore. It’s been a slow process completed over the past years but this time I can say it loud: I don’t like it. It looks and tastes exactly the same as 20 years ago but it’s not palatable anymore. And it’s not her fault: it’s me.

For years I travelled looking for that certain flavor: a well-known, reassuring taste that would make me feel at home. As a tween language student in England, I would walk miles to find a jar of Nutella (In 1990, I assure you, globalisation didn’t exist yet. You couldn’t find anything anywhere, apart from McDonalds) and eat it slowly, spoon by spoon, every time I felt homesick (and needed to stock up on calories, since I couldn’t stomach the noodles with ketchup we were presented with everyday at the school’s canteen).

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I went to Vietnam with a secret stash of whole crackers I didn’t dare to show my travel companions. I ended up eating fried noodles with snake but before getting there, I ate several packets of those Italian crackers in my bed at night.

the crackers I devoured at night while adjusting to south-east asian food

the crackers I devoured at night while adjusting to south-east asian food

I literally rushed into a McDonalds restaurant in Casablanca after two weeks of couscous, stuffed pigeons and a cumin overdose. It wasn’t strictly childhood food but it was utterly familiar and took away the dizziness as soon as the burger reached my blood flow.

It's McDonalds but it tasted like home

It’s just McDonalds but it tasted sooo familiar

There’s nothing extraordinary in this, it’s part of the Italian DNA. I read somewhere that Italians are the only people of the world that declare with an astounding majority (something like 80%) to prefer their national food to any other alternative. They might be well-traveled and open minded, they might have walked the desert or climbed the Everest but when it comes to what they put in their mouth they really are all the same: can’t go very long without a dose of prosciutto, bresaola, culatello or their daily fix of expresso.

Unless you close yourself into a fellow nationals bubble, though, you will be exposed to different tastes and smells at some point. For certain countries, with a colonial history or an history of immigration, it’s become natural. New Yorkers are familiar with Pastrami, Pretzels and anything Italian as Londoners consider Chicken Tikka Masala a national recipe. For countries who built their reputation on their cuisine, as Italy and France, it’s less obvious.

I discovered the virtues of cilantro and cardamom as an adult but I couldn’t go long without them now. I learned to put on the same plate meat and vegetables and some carbs after getting married (in Italy you eat meat alone, then veggies alone and carbs always come first) and I took ideas here and there, from friends and magazines and books coming from all over the world. My taste has opened up and my childhood food, simply, seems me dull and colorless now. I tried to introduce my mother to the wonders of toasted seeds in salads, oriental dressing and avocado but it doesn’t work. It can’t. Food is the greatest Italian taboo. We don’t discuss heritage. The kitchen is off-limits to me during holidays and I can feel the tension building up every time I totter around opening jars and giving a piece of my mind on the abuse of tomato sauce.

Ottolenghi, the perfect example of Italian food with a middle-eastern, international twist

Ottolenghi, the perfect example of Italian food with a middle-eastern, international twist

What’s your favorite childhood food? How expatriation modified your palate? What particular flavor would you look for when struck by homesickness?