From Panko to Pan Grattato

Emiko Davies looks at the parallels between Italian and Japanese cuisine with her latest project

“There wasn’t even panko!” When food writer Emiko Davies moved to Florence, she was hard-pressed to find even the simplest Japanese ingredients to make her go-to comfort foods. She made do with locally available ingredients and has included her resourceful fusion recipes in her latest book Gohan.

“I knew very early on what it was like to experience a new place almost purely through food,” explains Japanese-Australian cookbook author Emiko Davies. The Tuscany-based author traveled extensively from a young age with her Japanese mother and Australian father, living in China and the United States and regularly visiting her maternal grandparents in Japan. However, it was Florence that captured the young art student’s heart at 21, and the city has remained her home ever since. “You can experience so much just by eating your way through a city, an area, or a country, and I’ve always appreciated that. So coming to Florence, even when I was a 21-year-old art student, I knew I could hop on a train and go to Lucca and be in a completely different place with a different atmosphere in an area that has its own special dishes that you can’t find in Florence–I just thought that was wonderful and amazing.”

Since moving to Florence, Davies has established herself as a sought-after voice in Italian cuisine. In addition to her cookbooks Florentine: The Cuisine of Florence, Tortellini at Midnight, and Acquacotta, Davies has written for Corriere della Sera, Gourmet Traveller, Conde Nast Traveller, and The Canberra Times. She regularly runs cooking classes at her recently opened Enoteca Marilu, which is named after her and her husband Marco’s two daughters, Mariù and Luna–but it was her love for art, not food, that led her to find her home in the Tuscan capital.

Emiko Davies

Davies’ first taste of Florence was during a whirlwind European school holiday at 16, but despite only spending a day in each city, the holiday left quite a mark on the teenager. “It definitely left an impression because, since that point, my favorite art history period was the Renaissance,” explains Davies. “Florence is obviously the place to be for that, but it was an impulse decision to come here. I was so desperate to get out of the United States. I didn’t want to live there, and I had a teacher who suggested Florence, and so I came on a whim, and it turned out to be the most amazing experience.”

After completing her studies and meeting her husband Marco, Davies settled in Florence and began working in art restoration before starting a food blog. However, a photo restoration project inspired her to trace her husband’s heritage and write her much-loved book, Tortellini at Midnight.

My husband’s cousin found some of his mother’s photos in the attic of the family home, and he had no idea who any of the people in the photos were. He asked if I wanted them as they needed to be restored, and I thought I could use them as practice and give them back to him. It was a lovely project, but I was like, “Wow! It only takes one generation for you to have a box full of photos and not know who anybody is.” So I started talking to my mother-in-law, who has a chest of drawers full of photos, and we started going through them, and that was the catalyst for Tortellini at Midnight.

Emiko Davies is paying tribute to her Japanese heritage with her latest cookbook, Gohan: Everyday Cooking: Memories and Stories of my Family’s Kitchen

Working on that project inspired Davies’ latest book Gohan, which is a tribute to her own family. “I had spent so much time researching Marco’s family and his roots that I also wanted to do this [book] for my kids, so they can understand their roots and where they come from. It’s not as historical as Tortellini at Midnight, but it’s looking back at my own nostalgia for food.”

“Maybe something in Italian cuisine felt familiar to me but not initially in an obvious way–the ingredients are so different–but I can think of dishes that are somewhat the same–like this is the Japanese version of an Italian dish,” says the food author in whose home Japanese and Italian cuisine are the two major staples. Davies puts the similarities between Japanese and Italian cuisine down to what the countries share in terms of geography:

They are both volcanic and mountainous, and I think volcanos and mountains in Japan characterize many things about the culture, particularly the food. I mean, think of a place like Sicily, the really fertile volcanic soil, the contrast of the mountains, volcano, and sea, and the kind of cuisine that comes about with a place that has a lot of those things. Japan and Italy, to me, both have those parallels, amazing fertile soil and incredible natural produce.

Italians have notoriously conservative palates, but things are changing as Italy becomes more multicultural and people travel more.

Young Tuscans are now moving around for work or have gone overseas to travel or for jobs. Some come back and open a restaurant in Florence influenced by new places that they’ve been and seen, and these restaurants they have opened are really interesting, and I think that’s where Tuscan cuisine is going, or at least I hope so. They are appreciating and looking back at their own food traditions. Still, they are also using the knowledge they have gained from traveling, going to other places, and incorporating flavors.

Emiko Davies with husband, Marco and daughters Mariù and Luna at their recently opened, Enoteca Marilu in Tuscany

Over 20 years have passed since Davies arrived in Florence, and in that time, she has seen the city’s food scene open up to foreign influences and develop a more multicultural food scene with immigrant chefs and recently returned Tuscans having opened up eateries catering to their communities, tourists, and increasingly adventurous Italians.

Images provided by Emiko Davies