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Chinese Food Ways in Italy

by Fabio Parasecoli

Chinese Food in Europe

Summer Volume: 2005 Issue: 12(2) page(s): 5, 8, and 16

One single fact should be enough to illustrate the relationship between Italians and foreign food. As a result of an ongoing history of ambivalence, competition, and sheer chauvinism, in a major city like Rome there is not a single French restaurant. Of course, this is not the case for less established, less threatening ethnic cuisines. But we are talking about a relatively new phenomenon, often limited to urban centers, and only recently spreading to smaller towns.

The reason for the late blossoming of foreign restaurants lays in the recent history of Italy itself. After World War II, my country had to struggle to overcome its own economic depression, undergoing a major and often traumatic transformation from a rural to an increasingly developed and complex society. Then, we were witnessing a massive internal migration from the agricultural southern regions to the more industrialized northern cities. And besides that, Italians kept on moving towards richer European countries such as Belgium, Switzerland/or France where they hoped for a more comfortable life and for better employment opportunities. Therefore, until the 1970's, very few foreign immigrants chose Italy to start their new life. That is, with the exception of a few Northern Africans and Middle Easterners; and that was due to their closeness to the Mediterranean shores.

Since the early 1980's, a large wave of arrivals from China marked the beginning of a more noticeable immigration from all over the world. Here, I speak of Southern Asia, the Philippines, South America, and many African countries, especially those like Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia which were connected with the colonial past of Italy. Then, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, great numbers of Eastern Europeans started trickling into Italy. The massive arrival of Albanians crammed in tiny boats and the frequent shipwrecks along the coasts made Italians realize that demographics in their country were changing.

Despite the growing xenophobia and the widespread fear of loss of identity, the percentage of foreigners living in Italy is still pretty low, compared to other European countries. Nevertheless, in a country with one of the lowest birth rates in the world, the presence of children of immigrants was becoming increasingly visible in preschool, elementary, and junior high classes. Teachers were and still are struggling with teaching first generation immigrants and dealing with parents who often have limited command of Italian.

The immigrant communities are still quite small, to the point that with the exceptions of big cities like Milan, Turin, or Rome, they still do not have restaurants that cater to their own needs. In general, stalls and shops sell exotic products including their ethnic-specific foods. Although more are available than in the past, they are only sporadically available.

Together with Middle Eastern and Muslim shops, Chinese grocery stores are probably the most common and the easiest to find places to purchase foreign food ingredients in most large cities. The reasons are many. Chinese communities are pretty large compared with other immigrant communities, and they are quite close-knit. The Chinese are attached to their own behaviors including their own eating habits. This is true at least among these first generation immigrants.

Italians, as we shall see, are getting more acquainted with Chinese cuisine. Some are now trying to cook some Chinese foods at home so they need staple ingredients, produce, and tools. Chinese restaurants have become fixtures in most large cities, both in the historical and downtown neighborhoods and in the outskirts. They constitute a great market for products and ingredients.

Many Italians, especially the younger generations, consider Chinese places a viable and affordable alternative to pubs or pizzerias. These establishments assure low prices, a laid back environment, and the thrill of some sort of culinary adventure for people who usually do not approach or care much about foreign gastronomy.

Chinese restaurants are definitely the most visible and numerous of the ethic restaurants in Italy. Curiously enough, the owners of many of these establishments tend to come from southern China, specifically from the province of Zhejiang. To be more precise, it is the county of Wenzhou that appears to be the homeland of many Chinese cooks now working in Italy. Some believe that Chinese organized crime is at the root of this phenomenon, allowing the exploitation of the newly arrived immigrants and an uninterrupted flux of cheap labor from the motherland (Sisci, Francesco and Domisio Patrizia. Piovra Gialla. Pavia: Liber Internatzionale, 1994).

At any rate, the restaurant business, together with garment and leather manufacturing, constitute the main outlets now employing fresh batches of Chinese immigrants. The establishments are Chinese-owned, and almost no Italian is required. Furthermore, they often provide food and lodging, essential to employees whose salaries are meager. The consequence of this is that often cooks, coming from the most diverse backgrounds, are not professionally trained. That and the average level of food served in Chinese restaurants is pretty low.

This does not seem to stop these Chinese immigrants from trying their luck in the kitchen. After all, they are aware that very few Italians know what Chinese food in China is like. The complexities and refinements of Chinese cuisine, including any regional differences, have basically been eliminated. They create a hybrid set of dishes the same in most restaurants all over the country. They are easy to make and they seem exotic enough to please their clientele.

The example of Chop Sui in the United States is paradigmatic all over the world. Probably the first cooks that tried to cater to Italians realized that the dishes they were used to would not sit well with their new clients. They figured out which ones would be acceptable, and/or how to change them to make them work.

Surely the new Chinese cooks also paid attention to the element of cost. Those requiring expensive ingredients disappeared from most Chinese restaurant menus. Some more refined dishes did survive, but they were adapted for more rapid preparation. For instance, Beijing style duck (kaoya) is available in some of the most upscale establishments but it must be ordered in advance. The ducks are not raised and fed the same way as they are in China. The roasting and basting process is simplified. All the side dishes including the soup made with bones and head and the cold cuts including tongue and offal have disappeared. Also the service has changed. In Beijing, customers are offered sliced duck, crepes, green onions and sauce and are expected to prepare their rolls by themselves. In Chinese restaurants in Italy, the waiters usually take care of that. They give each guest the same number of ready made rolls, clearly with the goal of protecting them from feeling intimidated by the requisite preparation.

The dishes that have made it to Chinese menus in Italy have been standardized so that they require minimal preparation skills. They are easy to teach to the newest of cooks. Many are served on cow-shaped hot skillets, sizzling and inviting. They are always welcomed by clients and they simplify the cooking process.

Italians expect Chinese food to be served fast and without much fuss. This trend has caused various distortions, among which the most visible is a growing preference for precooked or frozen foods, such as the dumplings, spring rolls, and seafood. Italians seem oblivious to the fact that they could make the same dumplings they eat at Chinese restaurants at home, since they are probably frozen anyway.

Many Italians do feel intimidated by these exotic dishes. They prefer to have them served in a restaurant, and they appreciate that their prices are not that staggering. These pre-made foods are easily available in Chinese grocery shops and supermarkets, together with a vast array of rice, noodles, sauces and dried vegetables. However, for the average Italian, these outlets are difficult to navigate. The owners often do not do much to help the customer. And, language is a problem.

Chinese restaurants have not limited themselves to domesticating dishes and flavors. They have changed the structure of the meal and, as a consequence, of the menu. They have adapted it to Italian taste and Italian eating habits. Formal meals in Italy are divided in various courses: appetizers, primi (pasta, rice or soups), secondi (usually meat and fish dishes), contorni (side dishes, mostly vegetarian) and desserts. Nowadays, this structure is followed only in case of holidays, ceremonies or banquets. The daily meals usually include a primo or a secondo with a side dish, sometimes followed by a dessert.

Nevertheless, Chinese restaurant menus are still organized according to the formal structure of the meal, even if guests rarely order dishes from each category. Chinese restaurateurs changed their menus accordingly. The Chinese meal structure, composed of cold dishes, followed by several main dishes shared by all guests, and concluded by a soup, does not make sense to the average Italian. Furthermore, many Italian favorites, such as dumplings and noodles whose similarity with pasta is evident, do not find a place in such a structure. As a matter of fact, in China they are often consumed either by themselves, constituting a whole meal, or in lesser quantities as a snack. As a consequence, appetizers in a Chinese menu in Italy consist of all kinds of dim sum, spring rolls, Vietnamese cold rolls, and dumplings be they boiled, steamed, or as pot stickers.

The following sections include soups, noodles and rice dishes, modeling themselves on the concept of primo. The 'pasta' dishes go from rice and wheat noodles to the mung bean transparent vermicelli. They are served sautéed, with broth, crunchy, and in many other possible ways. The rice is usually prepared 'alla cantonese' (Cantonese way, that is chao fan), with pineapple or served in a half pineapple, or served white.

Soups may be the classic Beijing hot and sour, vegetable soups Southern style, the fancy and threatening sounding shark fin soup which may be made with agar agar, and more creative dishes like the chicken and corn soup. The soups are served in small bowls, usually with a porcelain spoon, giving them an exotic allure, since Italian soups are often presented in larger and shallower bowls, with metal spoons.

The following sections, modeled after the Italian secondi category, are usually ordered by ingredient: chicken, beef, pork, fish, and other seafood (usually shrimp). Italians do not cringe when served a whole fish with bones, head, and tail, so in this case Chinese cooks can stick to their original dishes. Sides include egg or tofu-based dishes and, of course, vegetables, usually steamed or sautéed. For all the secondi and contorni-like dishes, portions are often measured for the single client, and not for the whole table, as is more popular in China.

Desserts, a category almost not existent in a Chinese meal, consist of strange hybrids like battered fried fruits and battered fried ice cream. There is also exotic fruit such as lychee, mostly canned, even though fresh lychees are now available in Italy. After the meal, customers are often offered sweet liquors, which take the place of the traditional Italian amaro (bitter, digestive liquor) and grappa. No fortune cookies for Italians, at least not so far.

As for the décor, it also has become standardized. Red lanterns announce the presence of a Chinese restaurant, often together with a sign written both in Chinese characters and in Italian. The names of the restaurants are also exotic, making reference to images, stereotypes, and geographical names that function as clear indicators of 'Chineseness.' The interiors are usually overdone, with walls and ceiling either paneled in wood with bas-reliefs representing flowers, dragons and phoenixes, or decorated with Chinese paintings and calligraphy.

For some reason, aquariums seem to constitute a popular fixture in the Chinese establishments. Tables are either the usual rectangular or square ones found in any Italian trattoria, or they are the round ones, with a turn-table tray, known in America as a ‘lazy susan’ sitting in the middle so that dishes can be shared easily by all guests sitting around the table. Crockery is usually Chinese, with a preference for blue decorations, while the flatware is often Italian made Inox. Chopsticks and bowls, to eat Chinese style, are sometimes found at the table, but quite often they are provided by the wait staff, and only upon request.

Chinese restaurants in Italy, after a few years of adaptation and cultural transformation, seem to have reached a status quo, with an established set of dishes that more and more Italians are getting familiar with. They also seem to have laid back service, loud décor, and cheap prices. In 2003, many of these establishments were almost forced to close down when, under the SARS scare, many Italians took to shunning them. The owners needed to try all types of ruses to attract clients. Some installed satellite TV so that the customers could watch football matches on pay-per-view basis, other started serving pizza and other Italian dishes, or offering very cheap prix-fix menus. The alert fizzled out and most restaurants are back to business as usual, but with changes they had introduced.

This situation is being challenged by a new generation of trendy restaurants, usually owned and managed by Italians, that propose fusion cuisine, including many Chinese dishes that are often quite close to their China counterparts. They offer modern ambiance where design, music, and drinks play a major role. The clientele, of course, is totally different.

Chinese restaurants are the best choice for people on a budget, and these new restaurants cater to a more affluent, more style-conscious public. There is room for both kinds of establishments, and definitely more room for Italians to get acquainted with Chinese regional cuisines, more refined dishes, and traditions they know nothing about. How soon will this happen is anyone’s guess. You will not need to guess if you come and see for yourself. And should Sicily be on your itinerary, try perusing the article about its restaurants in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 8(3) on pages 15 and 16.
Fabio Pararescoli, who lives in Rome and New York, is an editor at Gambero Rosso, an English-language Italian food and wine magazine. He was educated in East Asian studies and political science in Rome, Naples, and Beijing, and has worked as a foreign correspondent of Middle and Far Eastern affairs. He teaches food history and food culture in Rome and New York, has contributed to an upcoming two-volume Council of Europe publication, and authored the Greenwood Press volume titled: Food Culture in Italy.

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