Ecco, an overly simplified stereotype about Italian cuisine – that it is uniformly pizza and pasta. But we know that there are regional cuisines. In the North, the key ingredients are rice, butter and cheese but in the South, they are pasta, olive oil, tomatoes and peppers (Smart, 2021).
In my city, which was influenced by the mass Italian emigration of the 1950s-60s, many Italians came from Calabria, Sicily and Molise (Carbone, 1993). This settlement pattern can be seen at the largest Italian grocery store in my city. A wall is lined with pasta, another with tomato sauce and the meat shop mostly has sausages seasoned with chili peppers. Although, the ingredients for southern cuisine are what is available in my city, I can not relate to this cuisine very well. This is largely due to my dietary restrictions and my Asian DNA.
Simply put, my relationship with Italian cuisine is complicated. Due to an autoimmune condition and food sensitivities, I can not eat ingredients from the following groups of food:
Nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers, chili peppers, eggplants)
Coffee (espresso, cappuccino, etc.)
Wheat (pasta from durum wheat flour, pizza dough from wheat)
It would seem that there is close to nothing Italian that I can eat. However, with some adaptation, I have found a few things that I can eat such as brown rice pasta, decaffeinated espresso and basil. However, the main dish for me would be risotto.
I have a recipe where I use arborio rice, chicken or beef stock, onions, no cheese and margarine instead of butter. This dish goes very well with the cold Manitoban winters which are not that different from the winters in Northern Italy where it can be -20 to -30 degrees Celsius (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italy#Geography ).
There is another reason why risotto is my main dish. It ties with my Korean DNA. There is bap which means “rice”, but it also means “meal” in Korean. There is an everyday expression that Koreans use “bap meok eoss eo?” literally it means “did you eat?”, but it also is an instrumental expression for “how are you?” and in another sense, the expression signifies “Are you taking care of yourself?”. Then, there is the Italian equivalent. There is risotto which comes from riso, or rice. As a pun, there is riso and sorriso. The first is used as the past participle of smiled, as in ho riso or I laughed and un sorriso or a smile. Sometimes, a Korean speaker will answer to “bap meok eoss eo or how are you” with a smile and a hum.
The way risotto is cooked continues to impress me. To start, the onions are cooked first, rice is added and then continuous amounts of broth are added. It takes around 40 minutes to cook the rice. What I see from this process is that nourishing food takes time and effort- constant stirring, adding, adapting.
This is very different from the Korean way of making rice, which depends on rice cookers or the stovetop and little to no intervention. In the Korean method, the rice simmers and there is no intervention once the cooking starts.
To me, making risotto is a bit more beautiful, in the sense that projects take time. They need to soak up water, but they also have broth (some type of variety) added to them, are sometimes moved (like the stirring) and require constant attention.
One thing that makes me laugh is hetbahn or instant rice. This is dehydrated rice that can be re-hydrated in the microwave in 90 seconds. There is a joke in Korea that bachelors, poor university students and candidates preparing for the civil service exams are the ones that eat hetbahn. When I lived abroad in Korea and I was living between two rental leases, I lived in an apartment with few kitchen supplies. I recall eating the instant rice for a month. Every morning and evening, I would see the shiny white rice that looked too perfect. At times, I thought I was eating plastic. Once I moved to the new apartment, I splurged on a high-pressure rice cooker vowing to never eat instant rice again.
It makes me smile to know that although I can not eat most Italian cuisine. I smile because Italian food is a cultural artifact that ties the learners of the language to Italy. I also smile because Italian food is the key for national and cultural identification but I can not participate. It is only through the baptism and transformation of my Korean rice that I can eat risotto.
Carbone, S. 1993. The Streets Were Not Paved With Gold: A Social History of Italians in Winnipeg. Manitoba Italian Heritage Committee, http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/29/winnipegitalians.shtml
Smart!, C. and Tomalin, B., 2021. Italy - Culture Smart!. Chicago: Kuperard.