I’ve covered a lot of stupid bans here, but I don’t think any of them can match the absurdity of this one:
… the “foreign” kebab […] is being kicked out of Italian cities as it becomes the target of a campaign against ethnic food, backed by the centre-right Government of Silvio Berlusconi.
The drive to make Italians eat Italian, which was described by the Left and leading chefs as gastronomic racism, began in the town of Lucca this week, where the council banned any new ethnic food outlets from opening within the ancient city walls.
Yesterday it spread to Lombardy and its regional capital, Milan, which is also run by the centre Right. The antiimmigrant Northern League party brought in the restrictions “to protect local specialities from the growing popularity of ethnic cuisines”.
Luca Zaia, the Minister of Agriculture and a member of the Northern League from the Veneto region, applauded the authorities in Lucca and Milan for cracking down on nonItalian food. “We stand for tradition and the safeguarding of our culture,” he said.
Mr Zaia said that those ethnic restaurants allowed to operate “whether they serve kebabs, sushi or Chinese food” should “stop importing container loads of meat and fish from who knows where” and use only Italian ingredients.
Asked if he had ever eaten a kebab, Mr Zaia said: “No – and I defy anyone to prove the contrary. I prefer the dishes of my native Veneto. I even refuse to eat pineapple.”
Yes, one would hate to see a culture enriched by centuries of being a Mediterranean trading center sullied by foreign influences. And as always, there’s slightly more to the story than simple xenophobia:
Davide Boni, a councillor in Milan for the Northern League, which also opposes the building of mosques in Italian cities, said that kebab shop owners were prepared to work long hours, which was unfair competition.
Italian cuisine as we know it today incorporated influences from around the world, including spices from Asia and produce from the Americas. In the interest of authenticity, perhaps Mr. Zaia should encourage the Roman diet that persisted in Italy until it was transformed by new 16th century imports. Here, from On Food and Cooking, is a description of garum, the fish sauce that played an essential culinary role from ancient times until just a few hundred years ago:
According to the Roman natural historian Pliny, “garum consists of the guts of fish and other parts that would otherwise be considered refuse, so that garum is really the liquor from putrefaction.” Despite its origins and no doubt powerful aroma, Pliny noted that “scarcely any other liquid except perfume has become more highly valued,” […] Garum was made by salting the fish innards, letting the mixture ferment in the sun for several months until the flesh had mostly fallen apart, and then straining the brown liquid. It was used as an ingredient in cooked dishes and as a sauce at the table, sometimes mixed with wine or vinegar […] Some form of garum is called for in nearly every savory recipe in the late Roman collection attributed to Apicius.
Fish sauce can be very tasty and is used frequently in Asian cooking. Yet somehow I don’t see Italians giving up their pastas and spices for a return to salted fish guts, nor should they. Cuisines improve when they cross with other cultures and incorporate their ingredients and techniques, and Italians develop a richer culture when they can eat pasta and kebabs. Banning “foreign” cooking would lead only to stagnation and illusory purity.
Update 2/4/09: In the comments, Barzelay adds more context to Zaia’s “native” Venetian cuisine:
[…] Venice has the most Middle Eastern influence of all of Italy. So much of the architecture and cuisine of that city is influenced by its trade with Arabs, and its conquer by the French. All the typical Venetian [dishes] I can think of, with the possible exception of this one good liver and onions thing they do borrows from Arab or French cuisine. The “Venetian sandwich” consists of bread–made with the French oils or butter instead of the traditional Italian animal fats–with some fish, meat, or veg, plus tons of mayonnaise–obviously from France. They also do a bunch of bean dishes and rice dishes borrowed from Arabs, and use TONS of salt cod–borrowed from Basque Spain. Oh, and even the liver dish is usually served with polenta–made from corn that was a late import from the Americas.
So I guess what they’re really saying is that they want to freeze Italian cuisine just before WWII.