If you think Italian food is just spaghetti Bolognese and pizza, think again. In fact, Italian food is so diverse that it would be a great disservice to consider Italy purely pizza and pasta country. If Italian food has to be categorised, it is best demarcated by regions. From the southern islands of Sardinia and Sicily to the mountainous Piedmont that borders France and Switzerland in the northwest, each region has its own specialties.
Regional Italian cuisine employs local produce and ingredients in its dishes; in the shadow of the Italian Alps, dishes tend to be more substantial – dairy products and cured meats feature more heavily here, while along the coasts and on the islands, it is the bounty of the sea that goes into the cooking pot. Here, we travel through Italy’s many regions, discovering the lesser-known signature dishes which showcase the diverse flavours of Italy.
ABRUZZO is a mountainous region in central Italy that stretches from the Apennines to the Adriatic Sea. On the coast, fresh catch often go into maccheroni alla chitarra, which literally translates into ‘macaroni on guitar’. The seafood and tomato-based pasta dish derives its name from chitarra, a wooden box-like instrument with strings, used to cut the pasta.
BASILICATA, a region of craggy mountains in Italy’s south, may not be on every tourist’s itinerary, but its simple fare characteristic of la cucina povera (peasant cooking) will have you back for seconds. Lagane e ceci or pasta simply tossed with olive oil, sautéed garlic and boiled ceci (chickpeas) is one of the region’s most beloved staples.
FRIULI VENEZIA GIULIA in Italy’s northeast is a small region that borders Austria and Slovenia. As expected, its cuisine is a hybrid of Italian, Slavic and Austrian culinary traditions such as gulasch, a beef stew flavoured with hot peppers, onions, paprika and tomatoes; and strukli, a savoury strudel with a potato and ricotta cheese filling. A simple but tasty snack eaten here is frico, a wafer made with shredded local Montasio cheese and potatoes.
LAZIO home to the country’s capital has a culinary favourite that may be older than Rome itself: abbacchio alla Romana, pan-cooked spring lamb with garlic, sage and rosemary seasoned with salt-cured anchovies. Fear not, the anchovies used here add a subtle layer of flavour.
LOMBARDY is home to rice fields where Arborio and Carnaroli varieties are grown in abundance. Risotto alla Milanese, saffron-infused risotto (rice cooked in stock) is the region’s culinary claim to fame. This dish is often accompanied with braised osso bucco (veal shank). In the old days, the marrow from the veal shank was incorporated into the rice dish, adding to the risotto’s creaminess and decadence.
PIEDMONT in northwest Italy is renowned on the food map for two things: its tradition-bound cooking and use of ‘rich’ ingredients such as salumi (Italian cold cuts) speckled with fat and creamy white truffle sauce. Locals, however, can’t do without their bagna caôda, which translates into ‘warm dip’ in Piedmontese, a dialect once widely spoken here. This garlicky dip is made by slow cooking chopped garlic in olive oil and butter until the mixture emulsifies before more olive oil, anchovies and peeled walnuts are added. Traditionally served in a terracotta pot, this concoction is excellent with breads and vegetables.
VENETO or Venice needs little introduction but many may not have heard of the must-try dish here – risi e bisi. Literally meaning rice and peas in the Venetian dialect, this soupy rice dish is made with just a few ingredients – pancetta (fatty, cured pork), onions, rice and peas cooked in a vegetable broth – in classic cucina povera style, yet fit for a king or in this case, the doge (Venice’s chief magistrate).
An Italian meal is often preceded by aperitivo, a drink to whet the appetite. The word aperitivo originates from the Latin aperire or ‘to open’ – hence its appetite stimulating properties. Though its origins are uncertain, the tradition of aperitivo became popular in the 1920s. Most Italians have their favourite aperitivo and the beverage usually includes either Campari or Aperol liquors, or both. Popular aperitivo include Americano – Campari, soda and vermouth; Negroni – Campari, gin and vermouth; and Spritz – Aperol or Campari, sparkling white wine and soda.
Did you know that there’s no such thing as spaghetti Bolognese in Italy? What most people outside Italy consider spaghetti Bolognese is actually ragú Emiliana, pasta with a meat-based sauce that originates from the Emilia-Romagna region, where the city of Bologna is located. There are hundreds of variations of this dish across Italy, using different vegetables, stocks and meats for the sauce. Just ask for ragú if you’re at an Italian restaurant and craving ‘Bolognese’. And by the way, ragú is almost never served with spaghetti. In Emilia-Romagna, the pasta of choice for ragú is fresh tagliatelle (flat ribbon-like pasta).
This charming restaurant and deli in Kuala Lumpur’s Bukit Ceylon enclave specialises in authentic Italian cuisine served in a cosy setting. Décor is unfussy and minimalist with dark wood shelves stocked with Italian wine and specialty ingredients. The extensive menu showcases a selection of regional dishes such as pappardelle al cinghiale (pasta with wild boar ragú) and spaghetti chitarra in sugo di pesce (tomato-based seafood pasta) with bottarga (salted, cured fish roe common in Sardinia and Sicily) as well as ingredients like senza glutine (gluten-free rice pasta from Piedmont). Neroteca prides itself on serving rustic Italian dishes that are prepared sans MSG. Vegetarian options are also available at this eatery. www.neroteca.com
BRANZINO IN CROSTA DI SALE (Salt-crusted sea bass)
A whole sea bass, gutted and cleaned
- 1000g rock salt
- 10g garlic, crushed
- 5g fresh thyme sprigs
VEGETABLE SIDE DISH
- 200ml vegetable stock
- 200g new potatoes
- 200g fennel
- 40g olive oil
- 50g butter
- Salt and pepper to taste
LEMON BUTTER SAUCE
- 60g butter
- 60g fish stock
- 30g white wine (can be substituted with apple cider vinegar)
- 30g lemon juice
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Stuff the sea bass with garlic and thyme.
- Spread a thick layer (about 1cm) of rock salt on a baking tray and place the sea bass atop the bed of rock salt.
- Completely cover the fish with the remaining salt.
- Bake in an oven at 180 degrees Celcius for about 45 minutes or until fish is cooked to your liking.
VEGETABLE SIDE DISH
- Peel potatoes, slice into wedges and boil in salted water until cooked through.
- Clean fennel bulb and slice into wedges. In a pan, sear the fennel with olive oil until the vegetable colours slightly.
- Add vegetable stock to the fennel and braise in a covered pan for half an hour or until tender.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste and emulsify the pan sauce with butter.
- Serve with the potatoes.
LEMON BUTTER SAUCE
- In a pan, reduce wine by half.
- Add fish stock and reduce by half again.
- Add butter to the reduction, a little at a time, whisking until the butter emulsifies.
- Season with lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste.
Note: Gently tap the salt crust open to remove it before serving. The crust should come away easily with the fish skin. To serve, portion the fish into neat fillets and plate up with the vegetables and a drizzle of lemon butter sauce.
RECIPE COURTESY OF THE ANDAMAN LANGKAWI
This month, Chinese communities around the globe celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival on September 27. The annual festival has been held on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month (usually falling in August or September based on the lunar calendar) since the early Tang dynasty (AD618 to AD907).
The festival, also referred to as the Mooncake or Lantern Festival, is traditionally observed to give thanks for a good harvest. Because the festival coincides with the day of the full moon, it is also a time for appreciating the beauty of the moon.
During the Tang Dynasty, spherical fruits such as pears and pomegranates, representing the full moon, were offered to the gods in celebration of bumper crops.
The tradition of mooncakes, full moon-shaped pastries traditionally made with lotus seed paste, began in the reign of the Yuan dynasty (AD1271 to AD1368). Today, moon-viewing parties and lantern processions are held to celebrate the occasion, and mooncakes, now in flavours as diverse as chocolate and durian, are often enjoyed with friends and family.
All this month, The Lounge at Hilton Kuala Lumpur offers diners the opportunity to sample its Mooncake High-Tea, a twist on the traditional British staple. Here, high-tea offerings include savoury springrolls, homemade durian cream scones (the less adventurous can substitute them for plain) and five mooncake varieties. At Hilton KL’s award-winning Chinese restaurant Chynna, mooncake lovers can indulge in the outlet’s signature mooncake for 2015 – Fiery Phoenix – a unique savoury and sweet combo with a filling of dried shrimp, chicken floss and lotus paste, and its top-selling Heavenly Gold, a snow-skin mooncake with a luscious durian filling. www.life.hiltonkl.com
Traditionally, tea is the beverage of choice to savour with mooncakes. Choosing the right tea to complement the sweetness of mooncakes, however, is best left to the experts. Fortunately, luxury tea brand TWG Tea has done the research for us and selected the perfect teas to enhance the mooncake experience. The brand’s top picks for the season include Weekend in Hong Kong, a delightful combination of green tea and wild rhubarb with subtle malty toffee overtones, and Ti Kuan Yin Imperial, a tea delicately fragranced with fresh flower blossoms. www.twgtea.com
Premium chocolatier GODIVA celebrates Mid-Autumn with a limited edition collection of chocolate-y ‘mooncakes’. Highlights include Petit Mooncake Lait: Matcha–Mandarin that combines chocolate mousse with mandarin-infused milk, roasted Valencia almonds and matcha ganache, encased in a creamy milk chocolate shell and, Petit Mooncake Noir: Black tea–Kalamansi, a creative combo of black tea ganache and kalamansi-flavoured white chocolate mousse in a guilt-free dark chocolate shell. www.godiva.my
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