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No one is really sure where the ‘don't mix seafood and cheese’ rule originated, but most agree that it was somewhere in Italy, way back when. There aren’t many traditional Italian seafood recipes that add cheese, and even today when a cook sneaks a little Parmigiano Reggiano into their capesante gratinate, there’s a guilty pause.
“A little bit enhances the flavour,” Salvatore Pepe, founder of LaCucina, says sheepishly when adding a dash of parmesan to his scallop dish on this week’s Food Safari Water. He admits it’s “unusual” to add cheese to seafood, but he’s clearly not bothered about the seafood and cheese stand-off.
Old traditions are quite young
“Traditions” are a fickle thing and, as Pepe knows, worthy of a challenge from time to time. Italian 'traditions' aren't actually all that old, most having originate from a time after World War II when the country was in disarray. During times of uncertainty, it makes sense that a culture fiercely protects what it knows to be certain. Cook the way Nonna cooked and all will be well. It was a way of life that stuck fast for Italians, whether they stayed in Italy or migrated across the world.
Even today when a cook sneaks a little parmigiano reggiano into their capesante gratinate, there’s a guilty pause.
Exactly why Nonna’s seafood-hates-cheese-hates-seafood theory emerged in the first place is up for debate. Various explanations have been raised, including that both dairy and seafood spoil easily, so in times before refrigeration the combination could have been deadly. Or, you know, each could have been deadly on its own…
Get the recipe for this crab and haloumi tart here.
Another theory suggests that cheese making regions were historically inland and therefore cheese and seafood were geographically separated, which is not even remotely true. For instance, mozzarella di buffala is from Campania, which is famous for its long and dramatic coastline. Pecorino Romano has been made in Lazio for centuries. Lazio is also home to two of Italy’s biggest fishing ports.
Yet another explanation suggests that the delicate taste of seafood might be overwhelmed by the pungent taste of cheese – a theory that clearly never met an anchovy or Emmental cheese.
Cook the way Nonna cooked and all will be well.
It’s all a bit of a moot point anyway because there are plenty of Italian recipes that pleasantly mix seafood and cheese. Fortunately, the rest of the world never paid attention to the obscure rule either. Here are 10 reasons why we are forever grateful.
Italians do it
Thank you for adding the parmesan to your capesante gratinate, Salvatore. It adds just the right amount of tang to enhance the creaminess of the scallops.
Italians do it again
Shhh, don’t tell the Italians, but parmesan makes this dish veramente Buono! The combination of velvety scallops, sharp artichoke and salty cheese is simply perfection.
Stage 18 – Gap/Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne: The icy streams of the French Alps are full of trout, and this super quick and easy dish with Gruyère cheese is a family staple.
Just add pumpkin
This inspired Korean dish packs a whole roasted pumpkin full of spicy prawn, calamari and scallop mix and melts mozzarella over the lot.
Sea bass and feta, Turkish-style
Big, plump pieces of fish swim in a tomato-based sauce spiced with cumin, fennel and garlic in this satisfying dish. Salty cubes of feta are added before baking in a hot oven until the cheese turns golden.
On a trip to Finland a few years ago it only took me a couple of meals to realise how much dill and salmon feature in the country’s wonderful cuisine. This pie is a little ode to the Fin’s favourite ingredients, all topped off with a deliciously buttery, flaky pastry.
Saganaki translates as "little frying pan" and also refers to many dishes cooked in Greece. In this recipe, mussels are bathed in a rich, ouzo-scented tomato sauce with fresh herbs and feta. These mussels speak for themselves, but you could eat them with crusty bread to soak up the leftover sauce.
The French are happy to put cheese in anything at all and this double-baked crab soufflé demonstrates why. The twice-baked crab soufflé is served with a prawn and crab bisque sauce and finished with a cheesy gratin crown.
Serving seafood with a side of cheese is a speciality of seaside Greek tavernas. Haloumi, feta and saganaki all feature alongside dishes of fried calamari, baby octopus or scallops. This dish of chargrilled baby calamari and fried saganaki proves that seafood and cheese are the perfect marriage of ocean and earth.
Andrew McConnell makes his own oyster sauce using freshly shucked oysters and squid ink to create a perfect balance of salty, sweet, sour and umami. Paired with simply grilled calamari and greens foraged from the coastline, this is a dish to celebrate the sea. Food Safari Water
Originating in the old quarters of Hanoi in the 1890’s, this dish became so popular that it has its own street named after it. Fish, turmeric and fresh dill combine to make this wonderfully fragrant Vietnamese classic. Food Safari Water
Kibbeh nayeh is typically made of raw lamb or beef mince but this version combines Japanese & Lebanese tastes by using salmon. If you wish to make this in larger quantities (and feed that enormous family!), it’s best to process in batches and keep each batch in the freezer while you do the next. Food Safari Water
This Malaysian family favourite uses a whole fish head for maximum flavour and visual impact. Food Safari Water
Combining classic Thai flavours of sweet, salty and sour, this mango salad makes for the perfect summer lunch. Food Safari Water
Bring your homemade pasta to the next level with squid ink. Food Safari Water
This Sri Lankan curry, fragrant with ginger and lemongrass, will feed your family in less than an hour. Food Safari Water