Wednesday, October 20, 2010
“TO ACCUSE us of racism is outrageous,” declared councillor Filippo Candelise. “All we are doing is protecting the culinary patrimony of the town.” Mr Candelise is a councillor in the Tuscan town of Lucca, which early in 2009 became the epicentre of a small gastronomic earthquake when it declared a ban on new ethnic food outlets opening within its ancient city walls. As reported in the Sunday Times, this was the head-above-the-parapet moment for a growing movement within Italy to resist the increasing influence of global immigration on its most sacred institution, the kitchen. According to the newspaper this comes from the very top, “backed by the centre-right Government of Silvio Berlusconi” and underpinned by the rather further-right North-South separatist party Lega Nord. This latter supplies the then Minister of Agriculture, Luca Zaia, who is reported as declaring that he had never consumed a kebab. “I prefer the dishes of my native Veneto,” he spits. “I even refuse to eat pineapple.”
Our Northern champion tragically ignores the glaring fact that the Italian cuisine so under threat is an ever-evolving thing of beauty, adorned with exotic foodstuffs brought here over milennia, by adventurers, conquerers, traders and immigrants of every hue. Once sown in Latin soil these somehow become Italian products, and with such profusion of wonderful home-grown ingredients who indeed would need to look beyond this nation’s 9226km of coast for inspiration?
Me, that’s who. The brilliant autumn sunshine has recently been elbowed rudely aside by strong northerly winds and squally rain. It is hardly October UK-style, but I felt cold and miserable, suffused with the kind of heaviness best blown away by a good, warm Thai curry. Thanks to a recent UK visit there were pots of green and red curry paste in the fridge, while a recent forage round a budget German supermarket yielded a good supply of creamed coconut. None of these can be found in my local shops, because they are simply not Italian. There are of course Thais in Italy, and people originating from many other parts of what used to be called quaintly ‘the Orient’. These enterprising souls open food shops to deal with the local lack of what they deem essentials. They do have an annoying tendency to stick to large cities though, and my food hunting has yet to turn up a supply near to home.
I was faced with two choices: put up or shut up. Italy itself hardly lacks for ‘native’ warm, spiced comfort food. Its 1185km length puts its toes in Africa and its hoary head in Alpine territory, and this has a direct impact on cuisine. But the embers of obsession were swiftly being fanned into a raging inferno, the kind that only a Massaman curry would quench. This is a good candidate for Thai pretenders, being a bit of a mongrel. It hails from the southern end of Thailand but draws on influences brought to the region by traders from India and the Middle East. Bay leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg are cumin are all things found on my spice shelf, thanks to the excellent Asian-run shops in the UK. I got them out, along with a couple of onions, some garlic and some pickled sushi ginger which I thought would substitute for the fresh root variety.
What lovers of Thai cuisine are drawn to is its mingling of heat, sweet and sour, notes given depth by the richness of coconut yet sharp enough not to come over all lardy and indistinct. This balance of opposites is the secret of its global success. Thai cooks achieve the collection of flavour by a combination of fast cooking and careful, if unsubtle preparation. It is not uncommon for me to visit my friends Andy and Kannika at their UK home, finding the latter and Thai half of the couple sat on the kitchen floor, bashing ingredients into submission with a massive pestle and huge stone mortar. Apparently known as a kruk, this combination is a key part of the Thai kitchen and was imported by Kannika with catastrophic consequences for her baggage allowance. Scents of chilli, lemongrass, ginger and – sometimes but not always – garlic, float around the room, transporting it briefly to a patch of cleared jungle somewhere near the Thai border with Cambodia. Fortunately I once stayed for several months with this couple. I learned much, and every bit of the resource would be deployed now as I improvised. In painting terms I was aiming for impressionism rather than realism, but there lurked the ever-present danger of the whole enterprise taking a turn for the cubist.
This being a cold-weather dish, I sliced potatoes and set them to par-boil. Starch was called for. Then I set up my kruk. I haven’t got one of these stone-age marvels yet, so I settled for second-best and plugged in a liquidizer. The onions, garlic, sushi ginger, dried red Italian chilli (plus some of Kannika’s mother’s home-grown version for good luck) were reduced to a paste in short order. Normally I would add some Thai fish sauce, but one of the evening’s diners was to be a fish-hating vegetarian. So instead I added some vegetable stock. In a moment of inspiration, after wondering what to do about the sullen lump of grease that a block of coconut cream presents as, I threw that into the liquidiser, too. I also grated a lemon in, then added the juice. I didn’t have that delicate beauty lemongrass to hand, so this would have to do.
Actually making the curry from this point on was child’s play. I stir-fried finely-sliced bell peppers, carrot and green beans for a short while, then tipped in the curryish gloop from the electric kruk. The potatoes followed, with the assortment of sub-continental spices listed before. Once the vegetables were soft, my Massaman was ready to eat. Rice made an ideal accompaniment, steamed with some caraway seed to give it an aniseed tone.
In a land far, far away, a person sat on their kitchen floor. As monkeys screamed in tall trees outside they worked spices into a paste with hard wood on stone. They created something beautiful and literally reeking of authenticity, which was both nourishing and a huge pleasure to eat. In an Italian kitchen recently several people gathered to enjoy a translation of this, a warm, complex dish which brought cheer despite the downturn in the weather. Culinary patrimony remained outside in the cold.