David's food of life

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TV host David Rocco's love for cooking stems from his passion for life, writes Bibi Nurshuhada Ramli

"I'M not a chef. I'm Italian!" says David Rocco, hoping to set the record straight once and for all, reaffirming that his love for cooking stems from his passion for life.

Born in Toronto, the actor and TV host has strong ties to his Italian roots, instilled by his Neapolitan parents. Coupled with his mother's excellent cooking, Rocco combines the best of both worlds and became the man he is today - a food-obsessed Italian on TV.

So far, Rocco has come up with several TV shows, namely Avventura: Journeys In Italian Cuisine, David Rocco's Dolce Vita and David Rocco's Amalfi Getaway.

His shows are an international success, resulting in fans inviting him to their countries to sample a slice of their lives. Not surprisingly, Rocco found himself in India.

"I was so pleasantly surprised by what I discovered in India. Before I left, I was told to prepare for so many things," Rocco says in a phone interview, laughing. "When I landed, it was kind of crazy, dysfunctional and disorganised - exactly like Italy! I felt right at home."

Rocco had an enjoyable stay because the people were so welcoming. He spent about 14 weeks there and became very familiar with the culture, people and food. Eating his way through the country, he gained nearly 7kg.

To his surprise, he found many similarities between Indian and Italian food, which inspired him to produce his latest show, David Rocco's Dolce India, now available on Nat Geo People.

"When you look at India and Italy, there are lots more similarities than people would think in terms of culture, food and passion of families eating together."

Dolce India sees Rocco combining ingredients and techniques from his beloved Italy with those he's never experienced before.

Cooking-wise, Rocco says the similarities are in the use of tomato paste, garlic and onions, legumes like lentils, chickpeas and beans as well as rice. Indians love mustard oil while the Italians love their olive oil.

"Even the cooking process is the same. For Italian, you start with soffritto (sauteeing onions and garlic) and Indians do the same thing. It's just that the flavour profile of Indian food is far more varied and complex," he says.

"Indians take spices to a whole different level. Italian isn't about being too spicy but in India, there's a lot of flavour in the spices."

During his stay in south India, Rocco enjoyed eating dosai and chutneys, some of which he likens to Italian pesto, and sambar, a lentil stew.

In the north, he likes kebab and curry. "I enjoyed the street food in Mumbai and Delhi. People said, 'Be careful, you'll get Delhi belly'. So I said, 'Ahh, I'm doing a food show. I have to get in there'."

He says that every delicacy has a delightful appeal. "Like in Italy, each region has its own flavour, history and culture. I enjoyed it all."

Besides experiencing the magic of Indian food, Rocco also went through some interesting predicaments during the filming.

"The crew got arrested once because we didn't have our permits," he confides, chuckling heartily. "They were about to confiscate all our equipment and they took us to a police station."

Another memorable experience is falling off an elephant while playing elephant polo and almost breaking his arm in the process.

"What's exciting about India is that there's so much life, so many people and such vibrancy. We captured it with a documentary-style kind of shooting approach for the show," he says.

"The filming experience was really exciting and we didn't really know what would happen except that we were in India and we'd have to go with the flow."What role does food play in your life? We all have to eat. (laughs) I think that's why the success of cooking shows are taking over - we're all connected in food. For me it is always an opportunity for the family to get together. (Food) is very important to me. Italian food is part of my DNA, I'd say. It's my way of sharing my life with family and friends. From a young age, I had been able to recognise the importance of food. I just didn't think I'd be making a living out of it on television. (laughs)What's your secret ingredient? A really good extra-virgin olive oil. It's a staple in Italian cooking. It's the start and really the finish to a dish. I have two types of olive oil - one is for frying and sauteing, while the other is a really high-end, premium olive oil. I would drizzle a little bit of it, as a substitute for butter, on risotto, pastas and ungrilled meat. To me it's a fundamental ingredient. Most people don't realise that there's a shelf life for olive oil. The fresher it is, the better it tastes.What's your secret to healthy flavoursome food? Seasonality of ingredients is a cliche term but everyone knows that if you can go to the market daily, then you can cook with fresh ingredients. I have more vegetables, but not so much meat. I do like my chocolate cake and fried food but I take everything in moderation. I'm on the road a lot so certainly I'm going to be eating different types of food that are not necessarily homemade. It's the moderation that we have to keep in mind.

What do you dislike in food? Liver. It's something I cannot eat, no matter how it's prepared. As a child, when my mum asked me to eat it, I'd hide it under onions or something.You have a wife and three kids. How do you balance between work and family? It's certainly a challenge. It's like a double-edged sword where you enjoy being exposed to different cultures and food and experiences but the difficulty of that work is that you're away from home. This month, I'm bringing my family to India. My kids will be exposed to a whole new world. If I didn't have this job, they wouldn't be able to see such things. When I'm not working and at home, I coach the kids' soccer team, take them to school and spend as much time as possible with them. When I'm away, thank God there's technology. We Skype every day.What's the biggest lesson you've learnt from this experience? Just how similar Italians and Indians are. I joke about it, saying that when I got to India it was like chaos and craziness and that I felt right at home. That actually isn't a joke. I would not have thought that there are so many parallels to the culture and passion. The heart of India is really fantastic. Sometimes India is depicted horribly, but what Dolce India shows is a really progressive, educated, traditional and heartfelt India. I'm quite proud because we showed India the way it should be shown. We tried to get into the heart of the country to capture a modern, traditional and essential India.

David Rocco's Dolce India airs every Wednesday at 7.55pm on Nat Geo People (HyppTV Channel 503).

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