Natasha Celmi's 'My Mediterranean Table' Is A Culinary Sojourn

In an exclusive conversation with Outlook Traveller, "My Mediterranean Table" author Natasha Celmi tells us how her travels inspired her to experiment with delicacies from the 'Sunshine' countries
Chef and author Natasha Celmi
Chef and author Natasha Celminatashacelmi/Instagram

Celebrated chef and author Natasha Celmi firmly believes that travel expands one's horizons. Her travel postcards have been about seeing new places, exploring local cuisines and incorporating the cooking takeaways into her recipes. When Celmi watched Julia Roberts' "Eat, Pray, Love," she enrolled in a cooking school in Italy's Florence. The experience led her to many more food sojourns, extending up to the Greek isles, Istanbul lanes and Barcelona tapas bars. Meeting her Italian husband cemented her fascination for Mediterranean cuisine, so much so that her new book, "My Mediterranean Table" celebrates the region. "The book is a culinary holiday weaved around the food of the Mediterranean Coast," she said. 

While she is Indian, her husband hails from Southern Italy, and they have lived in various parts of the world. It is this cross-cultural influence that is the essence of her food philosophy—"fast, fresh, flavourful." From baked eggplant rolls and seafood spaghetti to homemade tomato sauce, Celmi's book has recipes that can be cooked using readily available ingredients. With over 80 dishes from the Mediterranean shoreline, the book also explores the dynamics between food, family and the joy of cooking.

Your new book, "My Mediterranean Table," celebrates food and travels. Do you think Mediterranean cuisine has great potential in the Indian market?

My book celebrates Mediterranean cuisine, a mix of travel and culture. It holds great potential in India, where people are seeking fresher and healthier alternatives to traditional Indian meals. With Indians increasingly exploring diverse foods abroad and at home, this cuisine has a significant opportunity to grow in India.

You mentioned that travel for you is always about food. Please tell us more about it. 

Chef and author Natasha Celmi
Chef and author Natasha Celminatashacelmi/Instagram

I pick a place because of its food and not popular tourist attractions like historical monuments. My travel experiences revolve around finding restaurants, things to do, and food tours. I may only travel to a country with good food or exciting cuisine. For example, I prefer to avoid visiting Northern European countries because their food does not excite me.

The cultural significance of food is evident in your personal life, especially the family dynamics around meals. Please tell us about the joy of preparing a meal in an Italian kitchen versus in an Indian kitchen.

Yes, the family dynamics around Indian and Italian kitchens are similar. But in India, where I grew up, cooking is mainly considered a woman's job. While in Italy, men are just as, if not more, involved in cooking. Even if men work, they still cook. The kitchen and dining table are often together, so everyone eats and chats together. Women aren't isolated in the kitchen there. This is what sets an Italian kitchen apart from an Indian one. Both cultures value family and food. However, cooking is more of a shared and enjoyable activity in Italy, just like eating.

Baked Green Pea Falafels
Baked Green Pea Falafels natashacelmi/Instagram

Your book talks about the similarities between Mediterranean and Indian cuisines. Please elaborate on how you have blended the two into your recipes.

Several Indian ingredients are similar to their Mediterranean counterparts. Polenta, a Northern Italian grain, resembles our Indian suji. The book has a Venetian semolina square recipe made with suji. Another example would be Italian tomato sauce. I made this sauce using desi Indian tomatoes. My Greek white bean dip recipe has ingredients like Indian lauki (bottle gourd).

How does your cooking philosophy — "fast, fresh, flavourful," help you transform basic ingredients into flavourful Mediterranean dishes?

My book has various recipes made of simple and accessible ingredients. I use everyday ingredients like potatoes in various forms. For example, I have a baked French potato dish from southern France, where thinly sliced potatoes are baked with milk, cream, and cheese. There is also a Spanish dish called patatas bravas, which is roast or pan-fried potatoes with a spicy sauce.

Could you elaborate on how interacting with locals and indulging in their cuisine adds depth to your travel experiences?

Catalan Tomato Toasts
Catalan Tomato Toastsnatashacelmi/Instagram

The camaraderie over local food does add depth to one's travels. The warmth of a home-cooked meal offers new insights into locals' lifestyles, cultures and food habits. However, one does not get the same experience at a restaurant, where a formal set-up overshadows the bonhomie. When you meet and eat with locals, your travel experience becomes enriching.

What is your favourite Mediterranean cuisine and destination?

My favourite Mediterranean cuisine is a blend of Italian, Greek and Lebanese. Despite being different, these delicacies offer similar flavours due to their Mediterranean link.

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