[Thoughts on the Table – 96] What makes a dish Italian? With Eva from Electric Blue Food

In this new episode of Thoughts on the Table, Eva from Electric Blue Food is back to help me break down a massive topic: What makes a dish Italian?

To non-Italians, Italian food may be what appears on the menus of Italian restaurants or anything tagged as Italian that goes viral on social networks, like Carbonara, Amatriciana, Neapolitan Pizza, egg-yolk ravioli. To the Italians, Italian food is what they naturally cook at home, and maybe the only thing they are able and equipped to cook. These are potentially two very different things!

With many cuisines, we see a set of iconic dishes that become famous around the world through some kind of selection (like Pad Thai, Chicken Vindaloo, Salmon Teriyaki). Despite helping to make those cuisines accessible to many, these dishes are really just a small sample of the foods originating in their native regions. Eva and I argue that the (often ill-formed) quest for “the original” or “the authentic” version of these recipes may contribute to weeding out all variations of those dishes except for their dominant ones. This is probably why abroad there tends to be only one kind of Tiramisu (the coffee/cocoa one), whereas in Italy important spin-offs happily co-exist.

Join us in this episode to hear more about the true cuisine of Italy by going over some unexpected Italian dishes, such as Mostarda, Bagna Cauda, Prosciutto and Cantaloupe, as well as evidence of many dishes sometimes labeled as “non-authentic” that are eaten daily all around the Peninsula, like Spaghetti alla Bolognese, Gnocchi al Pesto, Lasagne al Pesto, Carbonara with Pancetta, and Strawberry Tiramisu.

Finally, Eva describes her experience with the Polish cuisine of her grandmother and her encounter with Blueberry Pierogi, a sweet variation of the iconic potato dumpling that is equally unexpected outside of Poland.

You can learn more about Eva by visiting her website Electric Blue Food. You can also follow her on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter. Please also check out Eva’s interview in episode 87!

Paolo Rigiroli

Author: Paolo Rigiroli

Now based in the UK, Paolo is an Italian who lived in Canada for nearly 18 years and blogs about Italian food and its many aberrations.

7 thoughts on “[Thoughts on the Table – 96] What makes a dish Italian? With Eva from Electric Blue Food”

  1. What makes a dish Italian? Simple answer, a dish that is well known in a particular area – which has not changed over the years, and was probably made by a ‘nonna’ in the past! If Nonna made it that way, why change it! (and she will have made food for the family, with love.) That is what we try to do in our Italian comfort food Supper Clubs! People can do what they like with Italian recipes, but they will not be original! If one has not lived in Italy, and eaten real Italian food, they will not realise what it should taste like – as probably only eaten in tourist restaurants.

    Happy to support you.

    1. Thanks, Jill for stopping by. You have some good points, of course. I do think one can learn the essence of a particular cuisine, but it’s certainly easier (but not necessarily sufficient!) if one is born and raised there. Hope you enjoyed the episode!

  2. Paolo, an episode after my heart! Thanks for the mention, first of all, and I could definitely talk all day about this and share so many similar examples from my life or otherwise. I feel as though all of us have these “inauthentic” interactions in our upbringings that maybe we don’t want to admit because supposed faux pas are considered to originate outside of Italy. For example, my Italian born and raised mother introduced me to making polenta in the slow cooker which is fantastic, and I don’t know how to admit that on my instagram yet but it works and is great! 😛

    I think the point of how NON-Italians call out these “mistakes” is extremely important because I agree that the (delicious) strawberry tiramisu is seen in Italy semi-frequently and the response Eva received isn’t uncommon in that regard. I have a similar story of my own, incidentally also involving tiramisu. I make a pretty classic tiramisu with savoiardi and I love to make it for gatherings because it’s always a hit and easy to prepare. I brought in a tiramisu to a potluck one of my college classes held at the end of the semester and one of my NON-Italian classmates said, “Now the question is, did you make the cake layers yourself or did you use store-bought cookies?” and I wanted to explode laughing as I explained to him that it’s completely traditional and normal in Italy to use savoiardi/Pavesini rather than make a cake from scratch. My father disagrees and always makes pan di Spagna for tiramisu, but he’s actually an anomaly compared to what I’ve observed from other Italians. He also fears uncooked eggs so my Roman father never made carbonara (and I use pancetta because I can’t find guanciale anywhere).

    I find the shock or denial of these “inauthenticities” by non-Italians especially is rooted in them being at the start of their journey into Italian food. They are at level 1 with about 99 levels to go, but the cachet that comes with being the custodian of “truth and knowledge” that is too hard to resist. Somewhat like how I have American friends who’ve told me, “Wow, I made fresh pasta for the first time and I’ll never eat dried pasta again!” I can’t blame them to an extent because, as we’re discussing, anglophones don’t have a lot of access and exposure to this real life, homestyle cooking translated outside of the Italian language. It doesn’t sell as well, same as the international food vogues occurring in Italy. Here in the US we have this reputation as a “melting pot”so pierogies are considered part of the history of certain areas of the country that received higher concentrations of Polish immigrants, but other countries such as Italy aren’t viewed in a similar way.

    The egg yolk raviolo, too, is an example of a restaurant created food that charmed the world even before social media, but isn’t representative of the food people regularly eat at home which perhaps is not as glamorous. For example, as a cat owner vitello tonnato will never look as appealing in a photo (though perhaps it’s no longer in fashion, all I know is that my 60s born mother thinks it’s delicious).

    I’ll stop here because I could ramble on, but this was definitely a stimulating episode for my angles in this crazy food world. I’m glad to be introduced to Eva’s content as well because that photography is gorgeous and the recipes no doubt delicious and not worthy of the ire of the under-educated. 😀

    1. Thanks, Diana! So many interesting points! I agree completely with your explanation – it’s a common cognitive bias to feel infinitely more knowledgeable when we go from not knowing anything to knowing something about something. And it’s mathematically true! But that may still be very, very far from knowing everything about it. Another bias is to see patterns where there aren’t, so for instance to think that hand-made has got to be more authentic than store-bought because hand-made clearly came first. So this “has got to be the case” for fresh pasta or Pan di Spagna tiramisu. I do have another example! A friend of mine from China told me not to have liked the Italian pizzeria I recommended in Vancouver, Canada, because they failed to make a proper Margherita. He said: “Margherita should have 3 toppings: mozzarella, tomato, and basil and the pizza I was served didn’t have any basil on it. WHAT?! I felt my blood boiling in my veins! I’ve had countless amazing basil-less Margherite in Italy and also many awful basil-full Margheritas in North America…

  3. Four or five years ago when I was in the midst of learning everything I could about Italian food and cooking in general, I followed a very strict interpretation of the “the rules” of Italian food. I’ve found myself loosening up in recent years as I get more confident and relaxed in the kitchen (and confident in my own Italian identity).

    I think that’s a very natural process – of course the rules are there to protect the integrity of the cuisine and to defend against those who butcher it (such as those ‘disgraces’ that caused you to start your blog). But for those with a solid foundation and understanding of and respect for the rules, a world of experimentation opens up.

    Un abbraccio Paolo!! Headed to Italy this summer (Turin, Lecce, Matera, and Parco del Gargano) – I’ll let you know how the food is!

  4. I’m so glad to have found your blog and podcast. We recently returned from our first trip to Italy, and my son was convinced of a difference in milk. You explained things so well. On a trip filled with so many delicious foods, the single best dish was a first plate of brown bean soup served at a Franciscan hotel in Santa Maria degli Angeli near Assisi.

    I think sometimes we get too tied to what’s “authentic.” In my part of the country, you hear it most frequently with Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine. Take tacos, for example. We have several taquerias with wonderful meats like asada, barbicoa and lengua, topped simply with onions and cilantro. The best is actually a permanently stationed food truck selling tacos for $1.25. Then we have other places taking a more creative approach to tacos. Are they authentic? No, but they taste wonderful. Beyond simple sustenance, isn’t that really what food is all about?

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