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!

A Day in Venice, Italy

 

Cassidy Kearney in VeniceIf you haven’t read my last article about Verona and our first night in Venice, catch up here!

We started the day bright and early. After a speedy breakfast, I flew down the hostel steps to meet the rest of the group. We were taking a water taxi over to the island. We met our tour guide at the pier near Piazza San Marco, who led us to the two pillars that guarded St. Mark’s Square. It is said to be bad luck to walk through the two pillars because that was where they used to hold executions. 

St. Mark’s Basilica

The square was surrounded by buildings on all four sides, with side entrances on either side of St. Mark’s Basilica. This is also where the Doge’s Palace was, which served more as a political hub for Venice rather than a palace. The story goes that the Doge ordered for the retrieval of the body of St. Mark from Constantinople so that he could rest in the church. This is how St. Mark became the patron saint of Venice. 

St. Mark’s Basilica

The church’s age was easy to note. Stained glass and 24-karat-gold-leaf depicted the life of Jesus on the archways of the church. To make it that much more culturally rich, artisans hand-crafted the marble floor centuries ago. The floor buckled over time and became wavy because Venice is actively sinking into the sea! The church often has a platform that extends into the square because Piazza San Marco floods regularly. In fact, many of the Venetian locals make a day of it. They bring inner-tubes and floaties out to the square to hang out in the water before the tide returns.  

Glass Blowing and a Gondola Ride

Our guide showed us the bell tower in the square. He then pointed out the place where it is believed that the Leonardo Da Vinci, tasked by the Doge to construct a submarine, stayed while in Venice. Afterward, he led us to a local glassblower so we could see a demonstration. Over the centuries, glassblowers made Venetian glass very special and unique. The glassblowing was mesmerizing to watch and I appreciated the amount of skill that went into the craft. 

From there, our group split up. I went with Rachel, Sara, Maria, Aryana, and Dounia for lunch. We got traditional margherita pizza (which is very different from American-style pizza!) and then headed out to search for a gondola. It was initially rather challenging, as most of the gondoliers were out having lunch! Finally, we got someone’s attention who then led us to a different spot where there were available gondoliers. 

A Day in Venice Italy

traveling by boat

boat ride

The gondola was very rocky to get into, and reminded me of a longer, shallower canoe. The gondolier instructed us to sit on one side of the gondola so that he would be able to stand and steer on the other. He took us through the many canals, giving us fun facts about Venice while we took pictures of everything. He finally took us to the Grand Canal, where we saw many different types of boats (traghettos, gondolas, vaporettos, and more). Once we had finished the boat ride, we all split the fare of €80 to a simple €13. Although €80 is a bit steep, splitting the fare with someone else absolutely makes the ride worth it. It was one of the highlights of my entire trip. 

Wrapping up the Day in Venice

canalsAfter we finished up, we hit up some of the local souvenir shops. I remember being too afraid of getting lost again, and we all decided to head back towards the port where we all bought gelato and people watched. Aryana needed to pee, so we all followed signs for a water closet for 20 minutes only to find that it cost €1,50 to use. We went back to Piazza San Marco to find a cheaper bathroom. While everyone rested in the shade, I decided to do a little bit of exploring on my own. Instead of heading back towards the port out of the square, I went the opposite direction and found a nice park and many local vendors. I sat and enjoyed the sun for a few minutes before heading back towards the group.

We took the water taxi back to the mainland, and many of us bought food at the grocery store next to our hostel. Sara and I picked up a bottle of wine each, which we both finished before Nikos enticed the group to a stroll in a nearby square. In my travel journal I wrote, “I don’t remember much of the square itself, but I do remember telling Nikos and a few other friends about Florida cockroaches and the anhinga.” One of my friends told me I was like a “walking National Geographic… I learned so much!” On our way home, Nikos stopped everyone (“Wait, wait – we must stop – we have to,”) for ice cream. 

The next day, we all woke up early again so we could start our journey to Rome. Make sure to stay tuned to read all about the many historical sites we saw as we visited one of Italy’s largest and oldest cities!

Gondola Ride with friends

building in venice

The First Night in Venice After a Pit Stop in Verona

If you haven’t read my last article about our trip up the Swiss Alps, check it out!

After a stunning day on the mountain, we returned to our fancy hotel for a night of each other’s company. We broke out spare wine we had collected in the previous cities. We spent a good half hour looking for a wine opener while trying alternative bottle-opening techniques. The next morning, the hotel provided us with a gourmet breakfast (twelve different types of bread, six kinds of cheese, fresh fruit preserves, and more!) before we headed out at 8:30 AM. 

verona italy

An Afternoon in Verona

Everyone had forgotten that there was a planned stop in Verona before we finally landed in Venice. For me, it was a welcome pit stop as the very first Italian city on our tour. Italy was warm and gorgeous, and the architecture felt rich and ancient. Nikos took us on a quick tour of Verona, showing us several points of interest. We started with the Portoni della Bra, a large clock nestled in the gates of the old medieval walls of the city. This served as our landmark and meeting point later on.

portoni della bra clock verona

Nikos led us down cobblestone alleyways and Via Mazzini as he guided us past fancy restaurants, boutiques, and brand-name clothing lines I’d never heard of. We passed a giant coliseum that had red curtains hanging in the archways, suggesting its history of entertainment was far from over. We stumbled into the courtyard where Romeo and Juliet supposedly fell in love, and saw Juliet’s balcony. Nikos bought everybody gelato as a treat before we visited Statue Dante and broke up for the afternoon.

Freetime While Touring Verona

After a long wait in a bathroom line, I found that most of the group had left. Only Emily, Alyson (and one other person, but their name escaped me when I wrote my journal entry at the time), remained. We meandered through the market before we wandered into Via Mazzini to explore. I looked at the marble ground that lined the street with horror. I could only imagine how slippery in the rain it must be (I have a high propensity to slip and fall in public). Luckily I had an inkling of which alleys to take to get back to the Portoni della Bra, and we popped out in front of the coliseum. Considering its age, it was really in fantastic shape. 

coliseum flavian amphitheatre

Emily offered to take pictures of me in front of it, which is exactly when I realized that most of the pictures I’d been taking the entire trip lacked an important element: people. Anybody can Google a picture of Europe and see the same images I had been frantically running around taking. But what makes pictures special after a trip is the fact that you’re in them, or that people you care about are in them. I felt silly that I hadn’t realized that until halfway done with our trip. 

Panic at the Alleyways of Venice

the mainland of veniceWe all eventually made it back to the Portoni della Bra, with an exception to Dounia and Georgina, who got lost trying to make it back. Nikos left the group to find them and guide them back, which made us 30 minutes late leaving Verona. This mattered because Nikos had made a dinner reservation for everyone at 7:00 PM in Venice. 

Once we finally arrived at Mestre (the mainland of Venice), we dropped our luggage off at our hotel. We immediately left to hop onto a bus that would drive us over the bridge that connected Mestre to Venice. I felt thrilled to be in Venice. In the setting sun, it was everything I wanted it to be. In fact, I was so excited about visiting Venice that I didn’t realize that Nikos — our faithful guide — was lost! 

I had been so caught up in racing around the window displays and photographing public squares that it was only once it was finally dark did I realize that we were seriously turned around. Nikos kept ducking into stores and restaurants to ask for directions. We didn’t show up to the restaurant until 9:00 PM, two hours late. While I’m sure he felt bad about getting lost, I had a great time taking the scenic route! Besides that, finding your way in Venice is incredibly challenging. The alleyways are so narrow and winding that keeping track of where you are or where you’re going is impossible, especially as someone who doesn’t know the area well.

Summer Heat Affects All Cultures

After a great dinner of pizza and pasta, we left to take the bus back to Mestre. Apparently, however, we had arrived during the driver’s break! We wound up waiting on the bus for over twenty minutes. We piled into the bus, packed like sardines amongst tourists and locals alike, sweating in the Italian summer heat. Nikos refused to take off his jacket for fear of “being stinky.” I tried opening the bus window, and when I couldn’t get it because of the angle, the passenger sitting next to it helped slide it down. The entire front of the bus cheered as the cool outside air swam in.

venice italy

Finally the bus driver arrived and we took off. The bus lurched back and forth and we all quickly realized the bus malfunctioned! The tension while the bus driver restarted the bus was palpable. When the engine roared to life and we were finally on our way, the entire bus cheered again. 

Join me next time as I talk about our next day in Venice, my favorite city of the trip!

shopping in venice