…and those Afghani dumplings I love.
On May 1st Searching for Italy, with my boyfriend Stanley Tucci, returned to television to explore the culinary delights of Venice. Tucked between the traditional cuttlefish risotto and duck ragout were a few unconventional surprises. However, what I found most fascinating was his observation that Italians mostly eat Italian food.
My first reaction was well, duh who wouldn’t…I mean, when in Rome. But the more I thought about it, he was absolutely correct. Dining in Rome on out 2019 trip was not what I would call an international experience – perhaps that is common throughout Italy. Venice, however, is an historic port city feeding west from Eastern Europe and Asia. Unlike other regional cuisines of Italy, more exotic flavors from the silk and spice routes have quietly seeped into the vernacular through time, geography and economics. It’s not overstated, but spices are a bit more noticeable in Venetian cooking and today those international influences are shaping everything from local ethnic restaurants to regional haute cuisine.
My second thought took me straight home to Savannah, also a significant port city and tourist destination. Like Venice, Savannah has the open coastal air to breathe in and entertain people, ideas and flavors from around the world. Port cities seem to welcome outsiders with more hospitality than interior regions, but only to an extent. Apparently Venice is no exception. The world today welcomes international variety with cagey discomfort. The irony is hilarious – I catch people pining for the “good ole days” while eating Thai takeout and sipping a Corona. We can reconcile nostalgia and regional pride with our new global marketplace another day – I’m just pointing out that this type of tension got my neurons firing as I left the States last month for the first time in over two years. And perhaps it’s also where my defiant wanderlust and global curiosity comes from.
My final thought was completely and brazenly self-congratulatory. One of the restaurants Stanley visited served food from the neighboring cultures along the spice route. On the menu was Afghani aushak, my new favorite dumpling which I wrote about recently. I’d love to think I’m way ahead of the curve or in complete synchronicity with Mr. Tucci, but this might just be one of those fun coincidences that I get such a kick out of. After all it was the hubris of attempting that particular Ramadan meal that reminded me that I was once a spunky, mildly daring traveler, tasting everything from blowfish to snakes on a stick along the way.
Fast forward to Mother’s Day – I was now determined to widen my culinary scope beyond what I’m comfy with and our recent trip to Aruba gave me the chops to do it. And of course there was Stanley. Since he and I are already connected by dumplings, why not risotto too? So I spent hours searching for squid ink…to no avail except for a dozen confused looks from fishmongers to gourmet shoppe employees to HMart stockers. Not sure why this was such a stretch down here, but ultimately I had to supplement with clam juice, fish sauce and food coloring. I did extract some actual black gold from a can of Iberia marinated squid, but the quest was almost as unsatisfactory as it was irritating. Still I got there:
Until last month I thought the only remaining threads of my adventurer self could be found in my making, and then bragging about, unusual or international recipes. But luck and timing stepped in to remind me that I still have some fire – first I left the country for a week (perspective) and then I returned to see those Afghani dumplings on my favorite show, being served in Venice of all places (validation.) Per usual, it all fell together in my head at 3am. Why do I find that connection so delightful? Maybe such serendipity is a sign from the universe that you are getting something right.
Even if it’s only dumplings. Or risotto…with squid. And I’m now inspired to make a duck ragout.