Dairy, spices, carbs - what's not to like?

Why Italian food appeals to the South Indian glutton in us
Features Food Thursday, January 26, 2017 - 11:30

Deepa Harishankar

While French food is the blue blood of the culinary world internationally, it doesn't have much currency in South India (barring Pondicherry). Chinese food has always been popular in the South but Italian cuisine is rapidly conquering that territory.

South Indians, when they decide to venture outside idli-dosa-parotta-saalna-briyani-meals and the occasional paneer butter masala, are increasingly exploring Italian food. Even restaurants that do not specialise in Italian cuisine seem to have at least one or two Italian dishes in their menu. Mexican food is a distant second choice while only the experimental kind go further. Why does Italian food enjoy such a fan base here?

Say cheese

South India loves its dairy and Italian food is a cheese lover’s paradise. Parmesan, mozzarella, mascarpone, ricotta, Gorgonzola, Quattro Formaggi...the variety is mind-boggling. Cheese finds its way into anything Italian, fine dining with Chianti or a humble Domino’s pizza when you watch an IPL match and want to call it a pizza night with friends. Karthik from Bengaluru is a pizza joint fan, not only for the main course but the appetizers and sides on offer too. "I love Toscano for their jalapeno poppers and salads," he says.

Spice it up

The South likes its spices. Arrabiata literally means 'angry', and while it’s nowhere near setting the Chettinad food lover’s tongue on fire, the piquant flavour makes it a hot favourite in the South. Italian food is seldom served without pepper grinders and oil diffusers. Oil, pepper, tomato, onion and olives. What’s not to love? Nandhini from Chennai is mother to a toddler and a frequent visitor to Italian restaurants. "I love ravioli in fiery red sauce. My favourite Italian joints in the city are Dario’s and Jonas," she says, adding that while she prefers spicy food, there's always mac and cheese for her child. Pasta in white sauce is a lunch box favourite among school kids, too.

Rice to the occasion

Italy celebrates rice as much as South Indians do. Risotto has everything we aspire for, in a plate. Rice, check. Starch, check. Indulgent cheese, check. Vegetables, check. Meat, check. Heck, it’s biryani’s long lost Italian cousin and you could even try pairing it with raitha! If you like Kerala’s matta rice, arborio rice is sure to appeal to you. 

Committed to carbs

However much the carb haters preach, South Indians are committed to carbs. It's a frenemy relationship that's tough to call off. Pasta, pizza, and risotto have enough carbohydrates to keep the rice eating South Indian happy until their next meal.  

Italian, on an Indian visa

Like Chinese cuisine in India, Italian food has amalgamated with Indian masalas to give us very interesting treats. Many South Indians prepare pasta with garam masala - this might offend the purists but quite a few swear by the taste!

If you have Italian food in mainland Italy, you might be puzzled by the full eggplant placed on a pizza, or the octopus which finds its way to everything - from entrees to ice cream - in Sicily. The Italian food we eat in India is usually "adjusted" to suit our tastebuds but who's complaining? Bring on the fusilli fused with Indian spices, vegetables and sauces!

Restaurant chain Cream Centre has a very good Italian-Indian menu to entice the Indian from the usual order of chhole bhatura. Chains like Little Italy, Toscano and Tuscana have outlets in Chennai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad. These chains have a customised Italian menu well suited for the Indian patron. They are also vegetarian friendly.

Desserts

One simply does not say no to the tiramisu. In fact, the Italian menu in coffee loving South India is complete with just that one dessert. It's ecstasy dipped in coffee, liqueur, chocolate and Michael Corleone. Pannacotta and cheesecakes are other popular options in the South. 

 

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