Nutella in Italy
“Baba, what’s Nutella?” my seven-year-old self asked my Iranian father during breakfast, scrunching my face as I read the jar. I was about to learn that chocolate for breakfast was totally acceptable, and would become rather disappointed on mornings when it was absent.
Growing up, I spent each week on a cultural teeter-totter. Weekdays at school, I navigated tables full of strange cafeteria foods on clunky plastic trays. But on weekends, I headed to Baba’s house, where the days were punctuated by strong Persian flavors: juicy, skewered kebabs, saffron and sumac, fava beans with dill, and stewed lamb with herbs and dried limes.
Each Sunday night, I headed back to Mom’s house with a little more Persian soul. Weekdays turned to a shade of American gray, with no Persian music or foreign languages to marvel at. Breakfast went from warm lavash flatbread with butter and honey or Nutella to overly sweetened, processed American cereals. Nutella in Iranian food culture is relatively new, but it’s been quickly adopted; the combination of chocolate and hazelnut is a score for the Iranian sweet-toothed palate. While not quite a breakfast staple the way it is in some European countries, it’s common to find chocolate hazelnut spreads like Nutella at the breakfast table, along with the butter, honey and sour cherry jam, fruit and cheese that come with Persian bread and Ceylon bergamot tea.
Fast-forward to college, when I was studying Italian, intending to eventually move to Italy. On a study abroad trip I lived with a host family in Rome, fooling myself into thinking I was prepared for Italian life just because I spoke a few words. I was wrong.
The Italians’ strict set of culinary rituals was at times dizzying. Cappuccino only in the morning! Cereal is okay at breakfast, but it’s nothing like the sugary stuff with which I grew up. Eggs at breakfast? Never! Butter? Used sparingly, but not on toast. Salad and pasta never go on the same plate.
After a semester with a host family, I went to Perugia to take a linguistics course. Making a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich turned me into a freak show with my Italian flatmates. Mixing these items together was so strange to them that they called over their friends to witness the culinary debauchery I had created. I didn’t understand the Italians’ rigid relationship with flavors and their judgment towards my palate. Those Iranian breakfasts with Baba were the one thing that helped me navigate the world of Italian food customs: Nutella on bread is ok for breakfast.