[Journalism Internship] Counterfeit carbonara, lookalike lasagna are ruining Italian food’s reputation
Natasha Parisi, 22, a college student who recently moved to Korea from Italy, has serious doubts about what Koreans call “authentic Italian food.”
“Honestly, it’s not a good experience,” Parisi said. “Fusion food is not real Italian cuisine.”
Italian dishes have long been popular in Korea, but some Italians here say they don’t think their culture is accurately represented by local restaurants run by Koreans, especially those who promote themselves as serving authentic Italian dishes.
“When my boyfriend visited Italy ... he didn’t expect Italian food to be so different from the idea of Italian food that he had,” said Elena Roncarati, 23, an Italian college student who has been living in Seoul for three years.
Roncarati believes that authentic Italian cuisine is generally not well known in Korea and that Italian food in Korea is “too Koreanized.”
“The thing that really grinds my gears the most is when Koreans add cheese to seafood dishes,” said Tommaso Pespani, 21, another Italian college student in Incheon who has spent half of his life in Korea. “That is something that no one would ever do in Italy and seeing it here when they eat Italian food really disappoints me.”
Another thing that shocked Pespani was “instant Italian food.”
“I find it a bit disrespectful because Italian food is known for being fresh and we all know instant food isn’t,” said Pespani, adding that he thinks Italian food in Korea has been adapted for local tastes and a fast-paced lifestyle.
In Italy, Pespani said, there are no convenience stores and instant food is uncommon — even in supermarkets.
Noemi Sciutto, 24, who has just returned to Italy after studying in Korea for a year and a half, said she enjoys a few Italian-Korean fusion dishes as long as they aren’t labeled as “Italian.”
Otherwise, instant Italian food gets on her nerves, too.
“Fake Italian instant food is so annoying because in Italy we have no culture of those things so to call it Italian is a huge statement — a bit disrespectful,” she said.
Sciutto believes that the key to the authenticity of Italian cuisine is all about “the use of fresh, local products and the quality of those ingredients [which] cannot be compared to anything else in the world.”
Enrico Olivieri, 53, owner of Ciuri Ciuri in Mapo District, western Seoul, claims to be different, serving authentic homemade Sicilian food.
“We never compromised the Italian tradition, despite going against the grain, at our peril,” said Olivieri, who has lived in Korea for 12 years and opened his restaurant six years ago.
“Real Italian cuisine ... respects the traditions and does not twist the recipes, including those of regional dishes,” said Olivieri. “Italy has a great richness in enogastronomy that is often imitated and violated by other cuisines, resulting in some fusions that are not always well done.”
“In front of this swarming of all kinds of fusion restaurants, there is not much that can be done to promote authentic cuisine,” he said.
“[There are] only four or five main authentic Italian restaurants [in Seoul, and this] is really scarce,” he said. “In other [places] like Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore, you can easily find 20 to 25 real Italian restaurants with Italian chefs.”
Ivan Spadaro, owner of Etna Piu, another Italian restaurant in Mapo District, western Seoul, stressed that authentic Italian cuisine are all about getting the best flavors out of a few ingredients of the best quality. He says that with as little as two, three, or a maximum of four ingredients, you can make a great Italian dish. This, he says, is the biggest difference from the fusion-style seen in Korea.
Fusion restaurants “like to add 20 ingredients in one dish sometimes. With more ingredients, they try to make the dish more delicious, but sometimes — almost every time — that is not the case,” said Spadaro.
Perhaps one of the most misunderstood Italian dishes is carbonara.
Laura Vidotto, 34, an adjunct professor of Italian language at SUNY Korea in Incheon, who has been living in Korea for nine years, said that the traditional Italian version of the dish is made with four ingredients: Egg yolk, guanciale (pork cheek), pecorino cheese and black pepper.
A Korean-Italian fusion style of the dish often served in local restaurants adds more ingredients.
“I’m not against the idea of Italian fusion food with other cultures, but I would not call it Italian food,” said Vidotto. “For me, Italian food is what my mother, my grandmother, and my greatgrandmother used to cook, or very regional cuisine.”
Some Italians feel like inauthentic Italian food is sending the wrong message.
Vidotto said she thinks this has led to one of the most common misconceptions — Italian food is unhealthy.
Some people have gone as far as to say that they are afraid of travelling to Italy because they are afraid that the greasy and cheesy diet will promote weight gain, said Vidotto. That’s far from reality, she continued, because authentic Italian dishes are based on the Mediterranean diet, which is actually considered healthy.
BY SARA BAJOCCO, KIM SU-RIN [firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com]