Risotto from Sri Lanka is Just as Good

by Roger Cohen, ‘The New York Times,’ April 6, 2018

AGAZZANO, Italy — If you’re tired of reading terrible things about immigrants — how they never integrate, how they rape and steal, how they deal drugs, how they create “no-go zones” in European cities — here’s a success story to ponder. I’d say there are millions of such stories across Europe.

It concerns Ramesh Kumar Balakrishnan, whose first job in Italy was as a babysitter. His language tutor was 5 years old. The little boy would correct him when he made a mistake — “Non dire cosí,” or “Don’t say it like that.”

That was back in 1997. Balakrishnan, still a teenager, had just arrived from Sri Lanka — where a longstanding civil war was raging — with a high school degree and little else. His next job was washing dishes, 10 hours a day, in a restaurant in Piacenza, on the Po River in northern Italy, earning about $200 a month.

“I was afraid, not knowing anything, and Italy seemed immense,” he tells me. “But there were opportunities. What you need is will.”

His break came with his next job at another restaurant under a chef who decided to educate him. He’d be in the kitchen at 7 a.m., learning the ingredients and the time needed for each dish. On the hills nearby, he learned, everyone makes tortelli — a stuffed pasta often filled with ricotta and spinach — in a slightly different shape, some with a double tail like a candy wrapper, some with just one. When the water is different, so is the taste.

It’s all about a “qualcosina,” a little something, Balakrishnan says in his now fluent Italian. The little something holds the secret, as anyone who has tried to reproduce an Italian dish outside Italy knows.

Vittorio, the chef, told him how to recall an order by studying each client’s expression and associating a dish with a face. It worked.

Balakrishnan has thrived. He now manages the “Palazzo dei Camini” restaurant in Agazzano, a small town about a half-hour drive from Piacenza. It’s a quiet sort of place in a conservative sort of region where the anti-immigrant party the League is strong. Matteo Salvini, the League’s leader, told a rally, “We are packed with drug dealers, rapists, burglars,” whom he wants to send home.

Attilio Fontana, a senior League politician who was elected president of the nearby Lombardy region in a landslide in March, said in January, “We need to decide whether or not our ethnic group, our white race, our society should continue to exist or be wiped out.”

Italy, having seen a thing or two, including several foreign armies, is not about to be wiped out. It’s an adaptable country. In Agazzano, an Indian couple runs the gas station, and a lot of the manual work on nearby dairy farms is done by Sikhs who are willing to work six-day weeks and long hours.

Balakrishnan’s wife, Gowry Ariharan, whom he married in Sri Lanka in 2011, is in charge of the kitchen, with two Italian sous chefs working for her. She knew no Italian cuisine when she arrived six years ago, but she “now makes even better risotto than a Milanese,” says the co-owner of the restaurant, Manola Arcelloni.

From left: Mariano and Manola Arcelloni, Gowry Ariharan and Ramesh Kumar Balakrishnan.

The local community appears to agree. This Sri Lankan-run Italian restaurant serving local specialties like “pisarei e faso” — small gnocchi of flour and bread crumbs in a piping hot sauce of beans and lard — is thriving.

Manola’s husband, Mariano, was a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Milan, until his retirement a few years ago. He bought the restaurant premises in 2005, originally with the idea of a salami business, before opening the restaurant in 2007. His best decision, he says, was to hire Balakrishnan, who “has a very strong feeling for business.” Various chefs — “too many prima donnas” — came and went before Manola decided to teach Gowry to cook.

Some clients were reticent but their hesitation soon faded. “We were lucky to find them,” Arcelloni says of Balakrishnan and his wife. “Unlike a lot of young Italians, they are still hungry to get ahead. Italians are big savers.” The birthrate is low. “Many children don’t leave home until they are at least 30. When you know you will have money in your hands one day, motivation suffers.”

There are immigration issues in Italy, which took some 64 percent of the 186,000 migrants who reached Europe in 2017 through Mediterranean routes. It took the most of these migrants in 2016, too. But anti-immigrant rhetoric, plenty of it vile, is a political lightning rod that masks a more nuanced picture.

Gowry, like her husband, spoke no Italian when she arrived. She had never left her village in Sri Lanka. She started out cleaning for a wealthy Agazzano family. “You have to respect Italians,” she tells me. “If you come and expect everything, it’s a terrible mistake. I was a house cleaner, and then I became a cook and my former employers came here to eat. I felt so honored. It was extraordinary. They could have said, ‘What are you doing here?’ ”

She was sobbing.

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