From Shohona to Friselle… “il mangiare da re”

When thinking of a meal fit for kings, most people’s imagination would naturally conjure up images of opulent banquets of multiple courses and complex preparations. For me, “il mangiare da re” is forever linked to the simple frisella, a hard double baked bread (think of an English muffin left for too long in the toaster), which my grandfather would dip in seawater in Taranto, Puglia before adding fresh vine ripened tomatoes, mozzarella, a pinch of oregano and a drop of oil. This simple dish, where you would clearly taste the layered ingredients, was what he called the food of kings. While I now use bottled water and salt to rehydrate my friselle (anyone that has read of the Ilva plant pollution scandals in Taranto would), I still enjoy this dish in the summer.

So when today I was offered a series of foods named “Shohona,” which roughly translates as “fit for kings,” I imagined something simple but of high quality. Turns out I was right. Granted, It didn’t require clairvoyance given the fact that I was at a roadside restaurant in the mountains forty minutes out of Dushanbe, Tajikistan. The scene was surely picturesque with the rolling, churning river at my feet, and dignified with us reclining on pillows at the elevated table which is the traditional lunch arrangement in these parts, but I wouldn’t call it posh or austere – not with the Russian pop blasting out of the boom box, or the open-air kitchen, essentially a grill over some burning charcoal on the ground.

Shohona Platinum was the name of the local vodka (which has now officially replaced Russian Standard as my personal favorite), and Shohona was the name of the quality of watermelon we were served. Watermelon has never been my favorite fruit, but a bite of the Shohona watermelon, followed by a shot of Shohona vodka is quite a delicious combination.

What followed was a perfect lesson in deconstructed cuisine. The small river fish was deep-fried to a crisp and could be eaten whole. The vegetable plate was a mix of raw sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, green chili, and fresh herbs – chives, tarragon, dill, parsley, mint – served still on the stem. The Shashlik were simple chicken, beef, and lamb cubes grilled on a skewer. There were no condiments or spices on the meat or vegetables, and the protein was served each on a separate dish. The bread was a simple round flatbread, only mildly leavened. The only nod towards a sauce was the ubiquitous yoghurt with dill and garlic served on the side. For my palate that welcomes sauces and spices, it was quite a different experience. I enjoy trying to deconstruct the ingredients in the meals I eat at restaurants, and hold in high regard dishes that are layered to offer different tastes and consistencies as you work through each bite. But here the exercise was quite the opposite. As the meal was sitting deconstructed in front of me, I had to build it up in my mouth, adding each layer at the time. Fish, followed by tomato to give it some moisture, and by cucumber to balance the saltiness, followed by parsley – no, too strong. Next bite I would go with the mint – interesting, then try it once without veggies but with a bite of the chili – wow, that calls for vodka – and so on. A meal with simple deconstructed ingredients turned quickly into an interesting journey with multiple possibilities, thanks to the fact that each ingredient was, in its own right, fit for kings.

Overall quite delicious, I strongly recommend you try it, but if Dushanbe is not on your list of upcoming destinations, and if you just can’t locate your local Tajik neighborhood restaurant, take my word for it.

Did this meal change my worldview? No, I am still partial to complex sauces and layered spices, but it did remind me that at the base of every meal is the simple matter of putting quality ingredients together, and it was a fun departure from the normal. It did inspire me to try this approach with some of my favorite ingredients back home, and it brought back fun memories of friselle at the beach.

-Vincenzo Resta, guest blogger

How To Eat Piadine alla Cinese

The walk up San Luca is brutal if you are planning an easy stroll but it’s “the way” for residents of the Saragozza neighborhood to get a workout rain or shine.

I met my friend from Hong Kong (living in Bologna almost fifteen years) so we too could join the crowd this summer walking up to the church of  San Luca for a bit of exercise.  I have been up the long winding porticoed walk many times but this time because of the heat or the lively conversation I was seriously out of breath. The conversation deliciously centered on food. There are so many recipes that are similar around the world…one being unleavened flat bread, like Piadine. I asked how she ate  Piadine at home. Do you eat them the traditional way, with prosciutto or the soft fresh cheese squaquerone or do you put a Chinese twist on them?

Piadina or Piada…a classic Romagnola version of unleavened bread  which usually contains a filling of cheese, cured meat or vegetables. The Piadina originates from the Apennines area of Forlì, Cesena  and Rimini and also from Ravenna. It is made with white flour lard or olive oil, salt and water.

“Behold it is smooth as paper and as big as the moon,” wrote a nineteenth-century Italian poet, Giovanni Pascoli, in a work entitled “La Piada.” The stands where you buy it are called Piadinari  and they aren’t  just  fast-food  joints but they represent a distinct food culture. Where to find the best stands? Who makes them fresh with quality fillings?

My friend from Hong Kong said the Piadine reminded her of an unleavened flat bread from China (Jin Bing or  Cong You Bing with scallions) . But we lingered most on talking  about crispy Peking  duck wrapped in Chinese pancakes  with hoisin sauce.  We talked about if we could substitute the Piadine for the Chinese pancakes.  Why not?

Because of my American influences I think of the flat unleavened  breads like tortillas and I love to make fajitas. When I want a quick dinner or lunch I buy the premade Piadine replacing the tortillas and then fry up red and green peppers, onions and beef with Mexican seasoning to put inside my warmed Piadine. Of course if I can find avocados and sour cream it adds to recreating this American Tex-Mex favorite with a Romagnola twist.

As any immigrant can attest, the hardest thing about recreating flavors from home in a foreign country is finding the right ingredients. So we must improvise, at times making unexpected new combinations. And sometimes there are more similarities than differences in cuisines around the world. So let’s dig in and enjoy the bounty. -christine