The Real Cucina Povera Is Vegetarian

These are salad greens, which are different from cooking greens.

In almost all cooking or travel shows about Rome, “cucina povera” — the poor kitchen, is featured with the host shown noshing at the offal of some animal. Invariably, they will also mention the fifth quarter, the quinto quarto, which is what is left after the other parts were shared between the nobles, clergy, bourgeoisie, and military.

Borage. I think.

What if you were vegetarian? I’m being facetious, because if you are poor, you eat what you can. Most poor people, through history, have been vegetarian. On a side note, the pig is the only barnyard animal that is worth more when dead. Most animals are worth more for their eggs, milk, wool, etc.

Cooked chicory greens. Available every single day.

Italians have been poor for most of their history (from long before there was a nation called Italy — created in 1861) and their cuisine has grown from necessity. As recently as a few generations ago, there were times of famine. Eating offal such as heart, tripe, and other organ meat, would have been rare. The daily food would have been vegetables, bread, pasta, and legumes, such as wild greens and beans. Even today, there are dishes such as puree of fava beans served with chicory greens. Vegetables that would be considered weeds are normal food in Italy. Dandelion and other wild greens that are now on Michelin star menus have been normal food here for centuries. Things like beet tops/greens which would be animal feed in other countries, is normal human fodder.

Dandelion?

Parmesan cheese has over thirty percent protein so it is considered a good source of protein when meat is not available. It is called “the poor man’s meat” or was, but it certainly is not for the poor anymore. Meat is cheaper. There are even recipes that call for toasted breadcrumbs — this was if you could not even afford cheese.

Broccoli greens.

I recently discovered another frugal use of dairy. Ricotta is made from the whey leftover from the making of cheese. In Puglia, they take the ricotta and let it ferment to become “Ricotta Forte” a strong cream cheese product that is picante because its sourness will bite you in the back of the throat. I have not asked but it’s probably “good for you” which normally means they need to convince you to eat it…

Fortunately, there is olive oil. Even the poor can afford it. Italy was a mostly agricultural society and even today there are many small farmers. Many big city families still own an olive tree orchard and produce their own olive oil each year.

Today is mother’s day in Italy, but really, every day is mother’s day in Italy. While men are often the famous chefs, it’s the mothers who do the majority of the cooking. They can even turn weeds into comfort food.

Follow Your Gut – The Reality of Street Kitchens

Street kitchen in Kuala Lumpur.
Street kitchen in Kuala Lumpur.

That pink plastic. This and many other little things make street kitchens unglamorous and slightly un-photogenic. When I take photos for my blog, I try to take luscious photos but often, what is there, is not. Part of the “challenge” of traveling is appreciating the deliciousness in a street noodle even when eating it out of a styrofoam container while sweat drips in your eye. All while the locals either stare at you like they are watching a circus act. Or ignore you but wish that you would get out of the way so that they could also get their $1 snack of saturated fats and MSG.

This was a cute pot.
This was a cute pot.

In Dhaka, I rarely eat at street stalls because I’m not sure that my internal flora and fauna can hack it. I will eat at a few phoughka stands and Dhaba supposedly was set up to bring street food off the street, but the rule is to go with your gut. If there are a lot of people and the food has not had a chance to sit around growing bacteria, then maybe you’ll be okay. But if your instinct kicks in and you get a queasy feeling even before you eat on the street, then don’t do it.