BY GAYATREE SIDDHANTA
We have haleem, we have biryani, we have pulihora and we have khichdi. Then why obsess over risotto? A fair question indeed and I take no umbrage. If flavorful rice, mixed with meat or vegetables is what one wants, why chase after the bland stuff? I do have my reasons. My first love affair with risotto began in Osaka. In an Italian restaurant in the world trade center in Osaka bay, I had indulged in my first mouthful of creamy lemon risotto, paired with a glass of white wine. The heady fragrance of the grated Genoa lemonzest, the aroma of parmesan cheese and the texture of the rice transported me to another world. I will not be exaggerating at all if I say that I can still almost see that plate in all its details.
That tryst happened almost two decades ago. Since then I have tried risotto at many Italian restaurants. Some delivered, some were mediocre and some left me thoroughly disappointed. But none beckoned me back. Interestingly, Spaghetti Kitchen in Mumbai served a very good asparagus and cheese risotto. Yet, ittoo had a predictability that I cannot explain. One could simply anticipate what it would taste like by looking at it. It was creamy, it was el dente, it had flavor. But that was it. I cannot close my eyes and recreate the image. And then there was an exorbitantly priced plate of risotto in one of the famous Italian restaurant in our area where I was served, in the name of risotto primavera, a runny pool of undercooked rice with some frozen vegetable thrown into it. My love affair with risotto began to gasp for air.
Still, I did not venture to make my own risotto at home. I am not intimidated by recipes easily. But I wanted to wait till I tried risotto in its homeland, Italy. That would be the taste of authenticity that I wanted to replicate. We visited Milan last winter. We walked through the streets of Milan soaking up the vibe of the city. Weclimbed to the top of the Duomo to admire its intricate architectural details, visited Teatro Alla Scala and other museums, meandered through the shops and the Christmas markets to pick up a few souvenirs and gulped down shots of espresso, true Italian style. Throughout it all, we guarded our lunch and dinner time with a zeal so that we could taste the fabulous food Italy had to offer.
I waited, with bated breath, at Il Cantinone for the perfect bowl of risotto with ham for dinner. The place was filled with locals which promised to be a good sign. And then it came. The steaming bowl of el dente rice coated just so slightly in creaminess, dotted with specks of ham and covered with freshly grated parmesan. It was a no frill affair where the ingredients, handled with the veneration and dexterity only a maestro would understand,were to sing for themselves. And the harmony was divine. It was delicate, it was perfectly salted, it was fatty without being oily and the flavors were exquisite. I just tasted authenticity in a bowl. I tried different varieties of risotto while in Milan. Whether it was Risotto Milanese with its ubiquitous saffron color or risotto with porcini mushrooms; every bite validated my love for risotto. I did not wish my bowl of risotto to turn into a person the way John Green (author: Fault in the Stars) did to accompany me to the USA. But Bolero did play, loud and clear in my head!
I brought back, amongst other things, Carnaroli rice, porcini mushroom and truffle oil from Italy. And one dreary winter evening — I ventured to make my own risotto for the first time. I followed the recipe given to me step by step. I let my stock simmer, I made sure my butter was unsalted, my wine not too dry and the mushrooms crisped up properly. Precisely after 22 minutes of sautéing, and almost constant stirring,I served my first batch of risotto! I was close enough. I mastered the subtlety of flavors and the creaminess in texture. My ingredients performed in harmony. Yet I will gladly leave perfection to the maestros and go back to Italy to savor it.