August 1, 1996

3 Min Read
What Makes it Southern Italian?

What Makes it Southern Italian?
August 1996 -- Flavor Prints

  What sets one country's foods apart from those of its neighbors? To a great degree, the difference is in the spicing - the ones most frequently used and the combinations utilized with different foods. We call these habits characterizing a nation's cuisine its "flavor prints." In their way, they provide identification much like fingerprints do for humans. In this series, developed in cooperation with the American Spice Trade Association, Food Product Design explores nations' flavor prints as a guide and inspiration for food product designers.

  Some of the most flavorful cuisines of all are those developed in poorer areas where cooks were forced to great resourcefulness. Southern Italy, with its mountainous, rugged terrain and hot, dry climate, is a prime example.

  With a little meat (at one time mostly pork, but now beef as well), a lot of tomatoes and a pot full of inexpensive pasta, they gave us one of the world's most famous bits of resourcefulness - spaghetti. This is spaghetti as we know it - the round or tubular kind usually made with semolina and water and/or olive oil, but without eggs. It's one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the south (in the north they prefer rice and polenta), along with the use of olive oils (instead of butter and cream) and a relish for robust flavors and chewy al dente textures.

  Tomatoes are another hallmark of the south and most tomato dishes are enthusiastically seasoned with garlic, onions and oregano. If all this sounds very Italian, it's because America's idea of Italian cooking has been formed largely by immigrants from the south, including Sicily.

  Oregano is the flavor-print star in these parts, although basil, parsley, rosemary, marjoram and thyme get a pretty good billing here too. Onion and celery are seasoners more than vegetables for these cooks, meaning that dehydrated versions are naturals in preparing southern-style dishes. Olives, capers and fennel-flavored sausage are another secret in may of their sauces. Crushed red pepper appears in many dishes.

  Off the southern tip of Italy is the island of Sicily, where conditions are more favorable for agriculture. Growing in abundance are fennel, eggplant, tomatoes and artichokes; citrus trees, almond and pistachio nuts and wild caper bushes. With North Africa located only 90 miles to the southwest, the Arabic influence can be tasted in Sicily's sweet and sour dishes and couscous; spices such as anise, cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves; raisins, pine nuts and accents of anchovies and sardines.

  What makes it southern Italian? Sweet tomatoes used in herb and garlic infused sauces; oregano and the lesser but no less important basil, parsley, rosemary, marjoram and thyme; crushed red pepper and fennel-flavored sausage; those sweet-sour, salty flavor accents such as olives, raisins, anchovies, capers and citrus; the familiar olive oil and spaghetti; cheeses such as mozzarella, ricotta and Provolone; vegetables used as seasonings such as onion, garlic, eggplant and celery, and those spices that traveled up from North Africa used primarily (but not exclusively) in desserts - nutmeg, cinnamon and anise.


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