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With an extraordinarily rich history, classical art and architecture, ancient cities and villages, glorious landscapes, a coastline well served by beaches and the world’s most accepted cuisine – Italy is a dream destination for every person on this planet! Italia is the word from which the name Italy evolved, literally means “calf land” because of the bull that was the symbol of Southern Italian tribes.

There are very few countries where everything stops for a midday meal. Italy is among these. At noon, the streets fall silent in every town. From inside the houses drift distant sounds, the clinking of glasses, laughter and raised voices. In Italy, meals are never simply about eating. They are important social occasions which can stretch for hours, an opportunity for families and friends to come together to catch up on gossip and the day’s news, for jokes, arguments and table thumping. Italians love celebration and they love to eat, so every meal becomes a celebration. This sure is a wonderful way to live life!

Italian cuisine is world’s most popular cuisine and the reasons are very obvious. The Italian food is all about its splendid landscape, people and the food markets which are alive with the freshest of produce, ready to be lovingly cooked. The food varies from region to region and it is a collection of regional cooking styles reflecting the climatic and geographic variety. Cooking techniques are often very simple, but this straightforward approach combined with the best ingredients is at the heart of the taste, appearance and aromas of true Italian cuisine. Thus, carefully prepared, strikingly simple with flawless ingredients – that’s what food in Italy is all about! Endlessly adaptable, the Italian cuisine can be used to rustle up quick and appetizing meals whenever there is a need which makes it super suitable to the modern lifestyle.

Cooking with olives, both as the fruit and in the oil form, is one more major part of Italian cooking. The widespread use of olive oil is common to all the varying regional cuisines, and it imparts flavour to a multitude of dishes alongwith aromatic herbs such as basil, oregano and mint. Basil is the protagonist of the popular pesto sauce which is prepared by crushing basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, pecorino cheese, marjoram and parsley bound together by olive oil. This sauce forms a major part of many soups and pasta dishes.
The Indian connection

Indians have a particular affinity for Italian food. It is said that Indians are Italians of Asia and every Italian has a bit of Indian in him and vice versa. The importance of meals in Italian culture, the passion thrown into cooking by them, the treasuring of granny’s special recipes, the big smiles, the family ties. All of this is so parallel to the Indian culture.

From the slightly bitter marzipan which tastes so similar to the Indian badam barfi, the crispy, salty Panelle which is so similar to the bhujia to the Farinata di Ceci amusingly resembling the very Indian besan pooda – it can be rightly said that though the tastes differ, there is a peculiar similarity between both these cuisines.

The land of pasta

Pasta happens to be the national dish, which is an extraordinary invention that has given Italian civilization an unmistakable character and an eating habit that has persisted over the centuries and is known worldwide. It has existed in one form or another since the days of the Roman Empire and it remains one of the most versatile ingredients in the kitchen. It can be combined with almost anything from meat to fish, vegetables to fruits. Also, the delicious pasta can be served with simple herb sauces.

There is an enormous range of different types of pastas that are available. Many are available both dried and fresh. But nothing beats the fresh pasta that is made at home. It takes a little time, but is quite easy and well worth the effort.

The most popular types that are available in the Indian markets are

•Penne rigate – tube shaped
•Farfalle – bow or butterfly shaped
•Fusilli – spiral shaped
•Macaroni – pencil shaped
•Spaghetti – noodle shaped
•Conchiglie – oval shaped bowls
•Lasagna sheets – wide, flat sheets of pasta

There is a popular term that is used especially while cooking pastas – al dente, that literally translates “to the tooth” or “to the bite” is extensively used in Italian cooking. It means that the pasta has been cooked only that much so as to be firm but not hard. 

Italian culinary zones

Italy has two main culinary zones

The wine and olive zone, which lies around Umbria, Linguria and the south.

The cattle country, where the olive tree does not flourish – Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy and Veneto – but where milk and butter are widely produced.

However, there is an exception with the region of Tuscany which uses both butter and oil in its cooking because both cattle and olive trees are in abundant here.

The Umbrian inlands are famous for pork, and the character of the cuisine is marked by the use of the local fresh ingredients, including lamb, game and fish from the lakes. Spit-roasting and broiling is popular, and the excellent local olive oil is used both in cooking and to pour over dishes before serving. Black truffles, olives, fruits and herbs are plentiful.

All along the Italian Rivera excellent trattorias can be found which produce amazing fish dishes flavoured with the local olive oil. Pesto sauce flavoured with basil, cheese and pine nuts comes from this area, along with other excellent sauces. Fresh herbs are widely used in many dishes, including famous pizzas.

Tortellini and lasagna feature are widely seen, along with many other pasta dishes, as do saltimbocca and other veal dishes. Parma is famous for its ham, prosciutto di parma, thought to be the best in the world. Balsamic vinegar is also produced here.

Milan is home to the wonderful risotto named after the city and also the Milanese Soufflé flavoured strongly with lemon. Veal dishes are specialties of the region. The lakes of the area produce a wealth of fresh fish. Rice and polenta are popular, but pasta also appears in many guises. The famous sweet yeasted cake Panettone is a product of this region.

Polenta is served with almost everything here. Pasta is less in evidence, with gnocchi and rice more favoured. Fish, particularly shellfish, is in abundance and especially good seafood salads are widely available. There are also excellent robust soups and risottos flavoured with the seafood and sausages of the area.

Tuscany has everything – splendid fish, hills covered in vineyards and fertile plains where every conceivable vegetable and fruit grows. There is plenty of game in the region, tripe cooked in a thick tomato sauce is popular, along with many liver recipes; beans in many guises appear frequently, as well as pot roasts, steaks and full-bodied soups, all of which are well flavoured. Florence has a wide variety of specialties, while Sienna boasts the famous candied fruit cake called Panforte di Siena.

The Italian courses

There are majorly four courses with a rigid construction that form the base of a typical Italian meal, which is followed all over Italy – from homes to local restaurants to big hotels.

Antipasto (appetizers)
This term refers to the beginning of a meal and usually consists of soups, cheeses and other little dishes made of meats, fish or vegetables. All the dishes in an antipasto are eaten with freshly baked crusty breads. Some of the common dishes include stuffed, fried or baked sun dried tomatoes, olives, courgette flowers and other vegetables, grilled aubergines, frittata, bruschetta and small tarts.

Primo (pasta)
After the antipasto, there comes the primo which consists of a pasta dish usually eaten with bread.

Secondo - Pesce (fish), Carne (meat)
Third in line is the second where either fresh fish or a piece of fresh meat is grilled and served with lemon. Various accompaniments that can be had with this are cold or grilled vegetables drizzled with olive oil, salads, fried potatoes, etc.

Dolce (dessert)
The last but not the least is the dolce which literally means sweet, to end a meal with. The Italian dessert includes everything from fresh fruits to cakes.

Popular ingredients of the Italian kitchen

Besides pasta, a lot of other ingredients are very common and must have’s for a true Italian. Some of them from the huge list are

Rice plays a very important role in Italian cuisine, mainly as a dish called Risotto as a primo or the first course. Special rice types called Arborio and Carnaroli are used for preparing a supreme Risotto. These rice grains take a longer time to cook as compared to the Indian Basmati.

Fish from Italy’s vast coastline also plays key role in an Italian meal spread. Cooking fish in Italy is very simple, usually grilled or baked with olive oil and lemon. Local fishes include the red snapper, bekti, pomfret, sole, singur, king fish, sea bass, mackerel, etc. Fish Soup is a familiar dish found in every coastal area.

Shellfish like prawns and shrimps, cooked in salted boiling water, can be used in many ways as sauces for pastas, grilled on hot coals, pan fried, etc.

Meats with the most popular being veal is another part of an Italian cuisine. Other meats include chicken, lamb (mutton) and pork.

Vegetables in their freshest forms are used to cook a variety of dishes. Common vegetables include carrots, beans, cauliflowers, tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlics, zucchinis, asparagus, leeks, etc. Lemon is another ingredient which is used extensively in Italian dishes as zest or juice.

Cheese is another important ingredient in Italian cooking. The various types include Parmesan (Parmigiano Reggiano), Mascarpone, Gorgonzola and Ricotta.
Parmesan cheese is the king of Italian cheeses which is had best with a glass of wine and pastas. It can also be eaten with marmalade as a dessert.

Mascarpone cheese is the heavier version of cream cheese useful in pasta sauces and various desserts. Best Tiramisus are said to be made from this cheese.

Gorgonzola cheese is a blue-veined cheese which can be eaten on its own or can be used to make sauces or on cheese platters.

Ricotta cheese is a light and grainy one that resembles crumbled cottage cheese (paneer) and can be used in desserts, pastas or for antipastos. 

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MasterChef Sanjeev Kapoor

Chef Sanjeev Kapoor is the most celebrated face of Indian cuisine. He is Chef extraordinaire, runs a successful TV Channel FoodFood, hosted Khana Khazana cookery show on television for more than 17 years, author of 150+ best selling cookbooks, restaurateur and winner of several culinary awards. He is living his dream of making Indian cuisine the number one in the world and empowering women through power of cooking to become self sufficient. His recipe portal is a complete cookery manual with a compendium of more than 10,000 tried & tested recipes, videos, articles, tips & trivia and a wealth of information on the art and craft of cooking in both English and Hindi.