“Italian food is all about ingredients and it’s not fussy and it’s not fancy.”- Wolfgang Puck
Many of us dream about having a delicious bowl of handmade pasta topped with an equally tasty tomato sauce and generous shavings of parmigiano-reggiano cheese in our hands as we overlook a vast and beautiful Italian vineyard. It has always been a dream for me, at least, to spend a month or two immersing myself in the food culture of Italy. While that dream trip has to be put on hold for now, I’ve been educating myself on Italian food and how to nail the perfect bolognese and to share with you what I’ve learnt.
Why go through all the trouble, you may ask. You see, Italian food to me is akin to Malay food – I don’t eat it if it’s not homemade. The best rendang to me is still my mother’s and there’s no way I can ever cheat on my mother’s rendang. I have never set afoot on Italy but Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, and my sister (because of her own love for Italian food) has set the standard for what Italian food is to me.
So here’s a question I often get from friends who ask me along to dine at non-halal Italian food establishments –
“What’s not halal about Italian food? It’s just pizza, pasta and a lot of tomato sauce!”
Like Wolfgang Puck says, Italian food is really about good quality ingredients with nothing fancy. The holy trinity of Italian food is essentially tomatoes, olive oil and basil. I mean, it all comes from vegetable sources so what can possibly be non-halal about that?
Sit down, hold on tight, because you’re about to get schooled!
Components of Italian Food to Consider
For the purposes of this article, we can say that most Italian food comprises of four different components – base, sauce, protein and cheese.
Pastas and Pizzas
Italian cuisine is built upon pastas and pizza, and since these two sources of carbohydrates have low risk halal factors, there’s no need for you to worry. However, not all pastas are of low risk halal factors. Filled pastas like raviolis and tortellini sometimes have meat or cheese fillings which may not be permissible for someone with a halal diet.
Tomato-based sauces like pomodoro, aribiatta and marinara usually are of low risk as they only contain tomatoes, olive oil, and natural seasoning with herbs such as oregano and basil.
The only tomato sauce that has a high risk is the bolognese. Apart from the traditional tomato sauce, herbs such as basil, rosemary, garlic and onions are added to complement the deep and rich flavours of the choice of meat. Traditional bolognese are served with a combination of ground beef and pork, and often use pancetta (an Italian bacon made of cured pork belly meat and spices) to enhance the flavour of the sauce. Occasionally, pancetta is substituted with beef or chicken stock. The risk factor for bolognese is usually high because even if pork is not served as the main protein, traces of pork in the form of pancetta can be found. If non-halal meat were used to make the stock, the bolognese sauce would also be deemed not fit for a halal diet.
White sauces have a higher risk of not being halal as they are made with dairy products such as butter, cream and cheese. Alfredo sauce is made of butter and parmesan while carbonara comprises of eggs, hard cheese (e.g. parmesan) and bacon. It seems harmless to opt for a white sauce with your pasta or pizza but the reality is that these ingredients are of high risk for halal factors which we will discuss in the upcoming sections.
One of the most confusing thing about Italian food or any other European cuisine is the multiple names of meat, specifically cured meat which mostly comes in a form of pork. Cured meat is more commonly known as deli meat, and they are usually served with bread, crackers and cheese as a quick meal. Since cured meat are well seasoned and spiced before the curing process, they are also used as flavour enhancers in cooking.
The list of cured pork meat is exhaustive, but Italian food mostly uses pancetta, ham, bacon, salami, pepperoni and chorizo. As a form of precaution, avoid dishes which contain the above mentioned items when you dine at non-verified halal places. These foreign names deserve an article on its own, but do understand that there are halal substitutes for these meat products which originate from swine. Local butcheries such as Zac Meat and The Meat Up sell halal certified turkey bacon, beef pepperoni, chicken salami, chicken ham, and beef chorizo.