Cooking Italian Cuisine While Living in Thailand

Diego Ambrosio
Diego Ambrosio

Thirty-something Diego Ambrosio was born in Catanzaro, Italy, located in the southern part of the country. He is passionate about wild nature, cooking (especially Italian cuisine), singing, and playing different musical instruments like guitar, piano, and bass. Diego considers himself an extrovert and talkative person, but he also likes to listen to people.

While now living in Phuket, Thailand with his father and partner, Diego cooks on a regular basis. He enjoys mixing the local fresh ingredients and produce with his Italian recipes. In addition, he learned to create new fusion recipes that he enjoys just as much as his native dishes. Read on to find out more about his favorite southern Italian cuisine and his homemade Thai-Italian fusion.

What is your favorite Italian cuisine?

This is probably one of the hardest questions you can ask an Italian since they would immediately begin thinking of multiple answers. Why? Because there are so many favorite Italian dishes! If I really had to choose a dish by type, I think my first answer would be tortellini with cream, peas, and ham. The second would have to be parmigiana di melanzane with fried potatoes and peppers on the side. Finally, for dessert, tiramisu… all, obviously, homemade.

What is your Italian hometown’s signature dish?

‘NdujaAs in most countries, Italy has a rich list of excellent regional products. Many of these are even exported abroad, as they are delicious and appreciated by various European and non-European countries. Without a doubt, the best product from my region, Calabria, is ‘nduja. ‘Nduja is a particularly spicy, spreadable pork sausage typically made with pig parts such as the shoulder and belly. Producers combine the pork with tripe, roasted peppers, and a mixture of spices. ‘Nduja originates from the small southern Calabrese town of Spilinga. Italians mainly serve it with slices of bread or with ripe cheese. My hometown, Catanzaro, also has its signature dish. It’s called Morzeddhu alla Catanzarisi. This is prepared with tripe and beef offal, tomato paste, chilli pepper, salt, a bay leaf, and oregano.

Traditional Morzeddhu

Morzeddhu, a Calabrian staple

Morzeddhu must be eaten while hot, perhaps with a further splash of spicy sauce. It also must be eaten in the pitta, a typical Catanzaro bread shaped like a flattened donut and with little or no crumb inside.

According to legend, Morzello, or Morzeddhu in the local dialect, was born from that mother of invention, necessity. An impoverished widow was forced to accept odd jobs to support her hungry children. On Christmas Eve, her boss asked her to clean a slaughterhouse and dispose of the waste in the nearby river, Fiumarella.

Worried about what she would serve her hungry children for Christmas dinner, she saved the meat, cleaned it, and prepared a meat soup. And thus, Morzello was born.

What is the most famous Thai dish in Phuket, Thailand?

Without a doubt, Pad Thai is one of the country’s most iconic dishes and is easy to find all over Phuket. There are two main types of Pad Thai, Pad Thai Gai and Pad Thai Goong. Gai includes chicken and Goong, shrimp. Pad Thai is a stir-fried dish typically made with rice noodles, chicken or shrimp, tofu, scrambled egg, bean sprouts, and other vegetables. The ingredients are sautéed together in a wok, which creates rapid heat distribution. Once finished, chefs serve Pad Thai with peanuts, sugar, chili peppers, and a lime wedge on the side.

And just for the record… Pad Thai is my second favorite Thai dish. I prefer Pad See Ew which is similar but has a sweeter sauce.

Pad See Ew Goong

What types of Italian cuisine do you cook in Thailand?

When I arrived in Phuket, I thought it would have been impossible to reproduce typical Italian recipes at home for various reasons. The first challenge was surmounting the impossibility of finding all the authentic Italian ingredients. Next, we had to overcome the lack of an oven in the house. Ovens are critical for cooking different Italian dishes such as the famous Lasagne al Forno or pizza. Over time, we have fortunately managed to get almost everything we need to taste a bit of home. In fact, after a whole first year of researching, we managed to find a house that had a professional oven inside.

Homemade bread, a frequent Italian cuisine at Diego's house

Now, we can cook any type of Italian dish. In fact, we have become so accustomed to making Italian food at home that we’ve eaten out very few times. Both my father and I are able to prepare any type of Italian recipe — first courses, main courses, side dishes, and delicious desserts — that enrich our daily meals all the time. Finally, we also make our own homemade bread.

Where do you source Italian ingredients from?

Fortunately, it is not difficult to find Italian products in Thailand. There are various shopping centers and supermarkets like Makro and Villa Market, offering imported products. However, you have to be very careful when selecting your products. Everyone can easily find products of apparent Italian origin, but some of these  are actually not from Italy at all.

For example, an Italian knows very well that if he has to buy pasta, he can trust brands such as De Cecco, La Molisana, and Agnesi. All of these brands are available in Thailand, so we can avoid other little-known brands of dubious origin. The same goes for Italian mozzarella. Clearly the prices for authentic Italian products are higher than in Italy. For example, Italian fresh and aged cold cuts and cheeses cost at least 40% more. However, for some products (such as pasta), I can find similar prices to Italy.

If you were to pick a favorite Italian cuisine to make for us that you make on a regular basis, what would it be?

I practice making real Italian pizza for my loved ones frequently. Every two weeks, typically on a Saturday evening, we will get together and eat Italian pizza. My father is a great teacher, but I will obviously be his heir sooner or later and am determined to perfect it.

The preparation process has almost centennial origins, handed down from generation to generation. It has been perfected even more over time by generations of Italians.

The "Mother Yeast" Diego uses for Italian Cuisine
The Mother Yeast

The extraordinary thing is that my father created the so-called “mother yeast.” It is a natural yeast capable of regenerating itself eternally. It certainly has significantly improved the quality of the pizza. Additionally, you can vary the outcome by using different types of flour. Each flour has a specific protein intake capable of creating a unique gluten shield of its kind.

Spread the dough in round and rectangular trays. Follow that with a long process of rest, maturation, and fermentation for about three days in the fridge. At the end of this period, the pizzas are removed from the fridge, covered with a cloth, and left to rise for several hours. Finally, we move on to stuffing and baking. The oven must be at a maximum temperature of around 250 or 300 degrees Celsius. First, bake the pizzas on the bottom rack without ingredients in order to cook the bottom of the pizza. Then, add the ingredients. Put the pizza back into the oven. This time, put it on the top shelf to finish cooking.

Do you have to substitute the ingredients for the dish you are making with Thai ones? If so, what are the differences in ingredients that you see in Thailand vs Italy?

We managed to obtain all the Italian products we needed to make the pizza without having to resort to any Thai substitute. However, we have added a dose of creativity by trying to prepare some pizzas with typically Thai ingredients. For example, we made Tom Yam Goong Pizza. It is an Italian-made pizza with Thai seafood and Thai chili peppers.

While we were able to find all of the ingredients necessary to make the pizza, I can say that the Thai culinary culture is very rich in strong and contrasting flavors. Many of these flavors would seem absurd to mix together if cooking traditional Italian cuisines. This is because Thai food is actually based on a balance between different flavors, including spicy, sour, sweet, salty, and bitter.  Sometimes, chefs combine these flavors together. For example, the famous Thai dish Som Tam is both intensely savory and insanely sour — in short, the flavors of southeast Asia mixed on a plate. Every Som Tam dish normally contains garlic, chili, fish sauce, lime juice, and dried shrimp. All these flavors fit with the direction that Som Tam should “taste sweet, sour, hot, and salty.”

Do you get creative and make Thai-Italian dishes with both themes or cultures in the dishes?

My culinary passions obviously led me to the preparation of typical Thai dishes. My Thai girlfriend likes to say that one of the Thai dishes that I like to prepare, the famous Khao Pad Goong, “comes out better than the original.”

After studying and reproducing the original version of the dish, I dedicated myself to experimenting and mixing the two cultures. I managed to propose a unique and delicious Italian-Thai version of Khao Pad Goong.

I added some anchovies, dried tomatoes, sweet pepper, celery, and Italian parsley to the traditional recipe. Furthermore, I also replaced the classic rice oil with extra virgin olive oil instead. The result tastes fabulous and the multitude of flavors generated in the mouth tastes literally sublime.

What is your favorite Thai ingredient to mix with Italian food?

I think that soy sauce is a very interesting ingredient I discovered in Thailand. Chefs in Italy rarely use soy sauce in Italian cuisines. This type of sauce goes fabulously with fish dishes such as salmon. It also tastes wonderful when added to typical Italian salads with a Romaine lettuce base.

Diego is an extrovert and very sociable person but enjoys eating Italian cuisine while living in Thailand. He prefers making pizza for his family and friends. However, when he is not baking homemade pies, he recommends trying these three pizzerias in this order:

1) Pizzeria Da Moreno in Patong (probably the best ever, since it follows the authentic Neapolitan recipe)

2) Pizzeria Agli Amici in Chalong.

3) Trattoria Pizzeria Cosa Nostra in Chalong.

In his next article, Diego will share more about Italian cuisine. Be sure to stop by and check it out. To discover what other recipes Dreams Abroad members are learning about, read about Edgar’s experience making traditional paella!

Cafés Are Much More Than Coffee

What is the defining feature of a Madrid café? Trick question, they charm their admirers with their personality instead of their looks. Maybe it’s something about their facade, say a tranquil terrace or cozy work space, that draws people in for their initial cup. However, it’s the ambiance that drives people to sneak little visits in between obligations and stick around all afternoon.

Prior to living in Madrid, I knew that cafés would be a big part of my life. As a former university barista, cafés have always been a usual haunt of mine. Whether visiting the best café in town while traveling for my internship or finding an escape in Midtown Scholar’s labyrinth of books with an iced latte in hand, there’s a good chance I’m hiding in a café somewhere. Sometimes the campus squeezed my spirit just a little too tight after returning from my study abroad. That was when a visit was necessary.

Midtown Scholar was one of many little coffee gems in Harrisburg. Harrisburg is a small city half an hour outside my university. The city originally never captured my interest, that is, until the coffee cart for which I worked started roasting beans from its crown jewel, Little Amps. Now, when I  think about driving my little grey Ford Focus over the Susquehanna toward an afternoon at the coffee shops, it fills me with nostalgia.

Adapting to International Cafés

Ellen-Hietsch-drinking-coffee

My café travelings easily adapted to my life in Spain. After finding lodging and transport while traveling, my next question is always, “What is the best coffee shop in this city?” I will then dedicate a day to appreciating it as I would the Harrisburg classic: writing in my journal with an Americano by my side, as I listen for songs to add to my trip playlist. I have my fun elsewhere, of course, but the centerpiece each city offers for me is its café experience.

Yet, I never could have guessed that cafés would be so vital to my desire to make Madrid my home, rather than just another stop on the road. Madrid’s cafés are similar enough to those I was attached to in Harrisburg. This is especially so as specialty coffee from around the world has become more widespread. Think twice before calling them all carbon-copy hipster clones, however. There is a unique spirit to each Madrid café that I have not found anywhere else I’ve enjoyed a coffee.

While the traditional Madrid café will have familiar individual tables for visitors to hold court with their friends, there is also openness in how it’s laid out. There are some patterns: a large table for people to set up with their laptops for the day, a set of stools, or, as is the case in places like Hola Coffee, a staircase sprinkled with books and plants. In a twist on the cliché European outdoor seating that we all crave as the sun strikes down with spring’s coming, Master’s café (my favorite of the moment), has designed a central outdoor terrace decorated with old children’s toys and indoor furniture adapted for this brick-walled wonderland.

coffee in madrid cafés

What Makes Madrid Cafés Unique

Maybe these borderless spaces were first designed for the benefit of the worker, who comes to the café laptop in hand, ready to accomplish. I’ve certainly grown to work best at cafés since moving to Madrid. As a side effect of these open spaces, conversation flows when individuals are brought together by the convenience of space. Many of these workers aren’t so engulfed in their projects that they can’t share a conversation; it’s something that feels more normal in Spain’s outdoor social jungle than the United States’ habit of sticking to what — and who — you know.

On days that I’ve entered a café with a long “Mission List,” I’ve had meaningful moments with strangers. Interactions can range from smirks with the man next to me about the barista’s political conversation, to a lasting friendship that started when I asked a girl if her chapstick was Burt’s Bees.

night madrid café

The social scene: that is what truly prevents any Madrid café from being identical to another. I got hints of this on my first-ever walk around the city after arriving. The owner of a bookshop offered me a bit of the green tea she had just made, just because she felt like sharing it. It was such a surprise to me that I texted my family about it, wondering what made me so special.

drinking coffee cafés

Nothing, it turns out, but that was fine. This is simply what happens at Madrid cafés. Smiles alone are not a satisfactory enough welcome to newcomers; you wouldn’t greet your flatmate like that, would you? With repeated visits, however, the relationships formed at the café can grow into something greater.

Home Away From Home

Take my first Madrid stomping grounds, La Bicicleta. I was initially drawn in by the bike theme and enchanted by the lemon-infused cold brew. However, what got me back four times during my first week alone was their head chef. Among many a café where someone had started a conversation with me, his hangover cures and dos besos advice stood out. Eventually, Bici became a second home as I felt comfortable staying for hours on end multiple days in a row. I’d be greeted with an excited “ELLENNNNN” by baristas on staff. Waitresses simply asked “americano or ginger tea” once they had memorized my favorites. Sometimes, I’d be given a free coffee in exchange for letting a barista play my ukulele for the entire café. Amidst a few massive moves across Madrid over the past two years, Bici has remained consistent.

Cafés Are Much More Than Coffee

The Future of Cafés

Lately, I’ve been a little fearful as I’ve seen entire sections of cafés reserved for brunchers. The laptop crew has been relegated to certain corners in a few cafés that have part of my heart. I worry they will eventually become as regimented as the American ones. Although I still love them, they do not come with side dishes of warmth and friendship. Although I enjoy avocado as much as the next millennial, if these brunch specials mean having to sacrifice long afternoons laughing with spontaneously-made friends, I will pass, please and thank you. I like cooking enough to make some bomb egg dishes in my own apartment.

For now, I will always make time in my week for some café time. I am armed with anything that will help me enjoy a radically balanced life. I’m grateful for the confidence those early café-hopping days have given me. I’m the one smiling at strangers now. It’s helped me to pay forward the kindness that let Madrid capture my heart.

cafés sign filter coffee

by Ellen Hietsch