What is that trick our minds play that we always crave what we can’t have? In Rome, food lovers’ paradise, I keep finding myself on the lookout for great non-Italian food. And I’m not the only one.
A couple of months ago at a party, my friend Luis mentioned he once carried a hefty iron tortilla maker in his hand luggage, from his native Mexico to Rome. Other friends immediately jumped at him: “Can you make us burritos?” And so he did, in a 4-course dinner that blew our minds. Weeks later I was invited over at Hande’s to have German food and most recently I organized an Indonesian dinner. I jokingly dubbed these nights “The Non-Italian Food Club”.
When a cab driver recently stated that Roman food is the best in the world I couldn’t say no. Just because he wouldn’t let me. Clinging to your traditions is a fantastic thing, because a lot of people including myself reap the benefits from unbending rules. But how many times do I have to say that ‘different’ doesn’t mean better or worse?
From a young age I was exposed to a variety of cuisines. Traditional Dutch food was only remarkable in the hands of both my grandmothers. My mom cooked a mean curry one night and a bouillabaisse the next. Obviously I followed her example. And then my horizon expanded even more during my stint in New York. Having great food at your fingertips 24/7 is exhilarating!
For the large immigrant population Rome has, the city boasts surprisingly few non-Italian restaurants. I’m not saying ethnic food, cause as mentioned in this article recently, is there such a thing as ethnic food? And besides, I mean ALL non-Italian food, whether it be Dutch, Scandinavian or Pakistani. Anyway, if you’re brave enough to venture out to one of them, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment most of the time. There’s a handful of half-decent Korean places, some Indian restaurants, Middle-Eastern maybe. But most of it is kind of bland.
I’ve set myself on a mission to find the best non-Italian eats in Rome, even if it means wielding through a lot of crappy food. My brave friend Katie already found a good number of them, including favorites as Mesob or Shawarma Station. But what about great Mexican? Or outstanding French cuisine? In the mean time, I hope there’ll be many more of these unforgettable home-cooked dinners!
Mole Duranguense de la abuela Elvira
This is a tried and tested recipe of Luis’s grandmother Elvira. ‘Mole’ is the general term for ‘sauce’. The best known version is ‘poblano’, containing chili peppers, chocolate, shredded turkey and some other 100 ingredients. This family version from the Durango region ‘only’ has 9 (excluding those used for the broth).
- For the broth: 1 onion, 2 garlic cloves and a bunch of fresh green herbs such as bay leaves, marjoram, thyme and so on.
- 3 chicken breasts
- 10 red ancho chilis
- 1 green plantain (peel included)
- 10 almonds
- 4 tablespoons sesame seeds
- 3 cm cinnamon stick, ground
- 3-4 slices of toasted bread
- 1 flour tortilla (browned in a frying pan with a bit of cooking oil)
- 1 ½ tablet of Oaxaca chocolate (alternative: 150 grams of 80% cacao dark chocolate)
In a large pot, bring water to a rolling boil, add roughly chopped onion, garlic, and fresh herbs and add the chicken breasts (whole) after a few minutes. Reduce the heat, and let the chicken boil until done. (This method is pretty common in Mexico, even so that it says ‘cook the chicken the normal way’ in the recipe). Remove chicken and set aside.
Slice the ancho peppers in half, remove the seeds and soak them for 20 minutes or so in some of the warm broth.
Slice the plantain horizontally (including the peel!) and fry the slices in a bit of cooking oil until golden.
Soak the almonds and the sesame seeds in a bit of warm water. Drain and place in a food processor, together with the chilis, cinnamon, the bread (in small chunks), the tortilla, and the plantain. Process until the paste has a velvety texture.
Add this paste to a heavy-bottomed pot, and, over low heat, add the chocolate piece by piece. Keep stirring slowly until you have a thick homogeneous sauce. If it’s too thick, add a few tablespoons of broth. Add salt to taste.
Shred the chicken breasts with a fork, add the shreds to the sauce, stir for about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the mole stand for 1 to 2 hours. Reheat before serving.
We served the mole with a slice of fried plantain, refried beans and saffron rice.
Picture courtesy of Gina Tringali.