I have lived all my life in Bra, 45km from Turin, and like almost everyone here, I went to university in the provincial capital. For years I have been going into Turin once or twice a week, either to see a movie, or a concert, or meet up with friends there. Nonetheless, that Monday morning I found myself wandering around with the astonished wonder of the neophyte, and discovering – with the documentary enthusiasm of a Japanese tourist – aspects of the city of which I had been (almost) completely ignorant all these years. But then, this is what happens if your guide to Turin is Vittorio Castellani, alias “Chef Kumalé”. Everyone knows the Chef in the city, ever since his daily ethnic recipes segment (served up in a voice which is a caricature of old Piedmont) made its debut on the airwaves of wonderful Radio Flash in March 1995. The name, Kumalé, was just too well thought-out not to make a mark, with that mixture of undergraduate Piedmontese-Africanism which mimics De André in “Anime Salve”. His passion for ethnicity, like all respectable passions, derives from his own history: Chef Kumalé (today around 40 years old) grew up in a part of the city that more than any other has been transformed over the years into a cross-breed. Here, “Torino” has become “Etnorino”, it has taken on the shades of new customs and new appearances and become the home of immigrants from all over the world: from Maghrebians to Senegalese, from Chinese to Thai, from Peruvians to Albanians. Here the mosques (there are seven in Turin today) – which are nothing more than ordinary apartments – drive other tenants mad and create explosive tension, because the Muslims come to pray five times a day, in their hundreds, and the first prayer call is at 6am.
During the Eighties the market of Piazza della Repubblica (the largest open market in Europe, according to Kumalé), and, gradually, the surrounding district, began to be enriched with new histories and new fragrances, not only the poverty and crime which have caused the Torinesi to fearfully avoid the area in the last ten years.
Following the successful renovation of the nearby historical city center, in the last five years the city administration has set up a project to relaunch the area, and obtained considerable funding from the European Community to do so. The project is called “The Gate” and those responsible have asked Slow Food to map out the market and the surrounding district, to discover quality products and bring them “out into the open”. So this is the reason for our morning tour, led by the best guide in town.
Chef makes it immediately clear that our visit to the market will not be typical, because it is Monday, and on Mondays there are fewer, less interesting stalls. He says you need to come on a Saturday to really understand what the Porta Palazzo market is about: on Saturdays there’s the Balôn and the whole district becomes one enormous second-hand market stretching down the streets from the Piazza to the Dora. The prices and choice are so widely renowned that buses arrive from France every Saturday, so they say. On Saturdays the Moroccans sell mint and homemade bread on a blanket on the ground, and the Chinese market gardeners put out little stalls in Corso Regina to sell the vegetables picked in their gardens in the outskirts of the city. But, as it’s Monday, we concentrate on the shops, the “resident” attractions.
The first stop is a wine shop under the gallery, right next to the office of The Gate (no. 4 in the square): it is called Damarco and seems to be an old-fashioned emporium of Piedmontese products, with a selection of first-class wines, plus a number of more exotic bottles (in the window are Rumanian, Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian wines). Moving on towards the covered wing of the market – which is usually occupied by producers, while on the other side there are mostly second-hand salesmen – Kamalé points out Ristorante Cartagine (Tunisian cuisine), and explains that the young, skilled Maghrebian pastry chef no longer works there because (like many cooks who come here) he has been given a contract by a restaurateur in Milan, where the demand for exotic flavors is huge.
Our next visit is to the Al Imam butcher. Here the meat is strictly halal, “blessed” meat, the only kind Muslims eat (the butchering regulations are similar to those for kosher meat). It makes outstanding good sense that the butcher’s shop is run by the Imam himself – the priest of the local Muslim community. He slices the meat on a Saturday, and business is flourishing: the Muslim community in Turin, according to Kamalé, has 18,000 members. We become familiar with products on the shelves which we will see again later elsewhere: flavorings in sacks (here spice consumption assumes different proportions); “Egyptian” feta, which is actually Danish, because there are customs problems in Egypt; apple vinegar (wine vinegar is forbidden to Muslims) or ful, to be eaten with garlic, lemon and cumin… A varied, mysterious world of produce, which we glimpse on this February morning, and which represents an increasing turnover: in Morocco olives cost 800 lire a kilo, while here they can easily cost ten times as much. Every week 40,000 bunches of fresh mint are flown in from Morocco. This herb with its fresh, intense perfume, is put to many uses, the first of which is tea.
Our next stop is Le Grand Maghreb, to taste a glass of the green Moroccan tea made from absinthe and mint. The bar/restaurant is strictly, authentically Moroccan, although it is right in the center of Turin. One of the two customers is Italian but has converted to Islam and is now called Ibrahim. We immediately grasp that western customers are few and far between: until a few weeks ago the menu was not even translated into Italian. The highly sugared tea is excellent, but beware of blowing on it, even if it is scalding: this is a sign of disrespect.
The most fascinating places are the minimarkets. Here you can find literally anything from a anywhere in the world. The Asia Market in Corso Regina, for example, consists of shops run by the Vietnamese for primarily Nigerian and Senegalese customers. In this very place Kumalé’s father used to sell furniture, and today we can find products from all over the world: from smoked shrimp for soup to ominous-looking cassava, from tinned seaweed for sushi, to Argentinian yerba mate. And then rice, couscous, more sacks of spices (coriander, cumin, turmeric, ginger), soy sauce in containers that look like petrol tanks, harissa (a kind of very strong pressed chili), fruit (pomelo, like a grapefruit-apple, and nashi, Japanese apples), vegetables (Chinese eggplant, sweet potatoes, even black corn), woks (the best in the world for frying), and cosmetics with unpronounceable names.
And besides this, a whole mysterious world of vacuum-packed products, full of surprises if you examine the labels closely: often Italian companies package these spices and flours, which quickly occupy new market niches. “Sunclod” for example, is one of the most widely-sold brands of rice in the world, marketed as “Sushi rice” and manufactured at the Riseria Monferrato di Villanova Monferrato in the province of Asti.
In one small outlet, Asia Alimentare, run by the Tan family in via delle Orfane, I bought cola nuts, a bag of okra, a green papaya (at least I think that’s what it was) and other unusual items to bring home as the organoleptic evidence of this morning’s expedition.
When we enter the old city center, a few meters away, the sensation of chaotic vitality and mystery is replaced in a few blocks by the radical chic elegance of discriminating renovation which endows the via San Domenico-via Sant’Agostino area with a snobbish atmosphere. Here, among the literary cafés and highly polished wine shops, simple Egyptian premises have opened where you can eat shawarma (typical mutton or chicken pita bread sandwiches with salad and spices), kebabs or shish kebabs. Or the famous meza (or mezè), the typical Middle Eastern appetizers spread throughout the Arab world by the Ottomans, and consisting of numerous dishes to nibble at: the most famous include hummus (cold chick pea puree) and eggplant puree, falafel (bean patties), labane (very thick yogurt with mint and lemon) and tabula (a salad of buckwheat, tomatoes, parsley, mint and lemon).
Not to mention the desserts, as sweet as honey but good, and changing with the origins of the chefs. We lunch in one such place, Sindhbad, sitting on the floor on cushions, with an air of laid-back westerners showing off their ability to adapt, while the Moroccan clients sit comfortably at a table. We leave with replete stomachs – and pins and needles in our legs.
Before he leaves us, Chef Kumalé shows us one last item of exotica: a food store in via Tre Galline, near the restaurant of the same name, has drawn up an agreement with an Italian dairy. Expired goods are transformed into labane, the sour milk adored by the Maghrebian population, and resold. Another little detail in favor of integration?
Translated by Ailsa Wood
Stefano Sardo is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office
photo: Michele D’Ottavio