Learn the secrets of Cucina Povera.
If you’re a fan of Italian food, you’ve probably noticed a trend over the last few years towards exceedingly simple dishes like cacio e pepe - Roman cheese and pepper pasta - that have been slowly but surely infiltrating menus everywhere.
This rustic, minimalistic style of cooking is known in Italy as cucina povera, literally translating to “poor kitchen.” Coined in reference to the humble economic conditions and limited ingredients that cooks at the time had to work with, cucina povera cooking has become a source of renewed inspiration lately for professional and amateur chefs alike.
Like all good Italian should be, it’s simple and unpretentious, and largely lets the ingredients speak for themselves. When said ingredients have to be acquired on a budget, however, cucina povera incorporates techniques to lengthen and strengthen the flavours of what’s on offer. Cacio e pepe takes two ingredients that might sound like they barely constitute a seasoning, Pecorino Romano cheese and black pepper, and develops them into a sauce that constitutes a complete and astoundingly flavourful dish. Pasta ca ‘muddhica, or pasta with poor man’s parmesan (breadcrumbs) for when even cheese is too hard to come by, is an ingenious repurposing of stale bread and pantry staples to create a substitute that is delicious in its own right.
These kinds of clever techniques to extract flavour from the accessible make cucina povera cooking especially relevant at this moment in time. Life during COVID has seen a lot of restaurants, diners and home chefs alike tightening their belts and consequently the amount they spend on ingredients. While perhaps not quite as dramatic as the tough times that the dishes originated from, a move away from luxuriance to something more humble is one that feels right for many in the current climate. We might not be subsisting on a minestra soup made from foraged dandelions just yet, but it’s nice to have options.
Where food concerns are less financial and more ethical, cucina povera can be very accomodating also. Those who maintain vegetarian or vegan diets will often be pleased to find recipes that are entirely meat-free as intended, with meat being largely a luxury when many of these traditional recipes were created. Vegan chefs take note: frying pasta instead of boiling gives it a meaty, satisfying flavour that can fool dedicated carnivores.
So too will those looking to simply leave less of an ecological impact in general find it appealing; when there is little call for fresh produce and most components can be found dried in the pantry, like pasta e fagioli or puttanesca, the amount of ecological footprint is minimised, not to mention the literal one.
But really, it doesn’t take a lot of analysis to understand why cucina povera style food is still seeing continued popularity - it’s about accessibility, taking readily available ingredients that everyone can afford and turning them into self sufficient dishes that can be prepared by anyone, sometimes even letting us taste those ingredients in a new way. What’s not to like about that?