This word has a certain exotic, erotic flavour for me because of its sounds and echoes. It’s Italian, of course; even if you’d never seen it before you’d probably guess that on the spot. It makes me think of the various words of the same ending: grotto, blotto, biscotto, motto, Giotto (a painter whose name stays with me because I successfully BSed my way to half points on a high-school exam question on him in spite of having no idea who he was – I know now; I’ve been to Florence), fagotto (Italian for “bassoon”), lotto, stracotto, panzerotto, and a few other otto loans not so commonly seen in English – plus all those etto words (libretto, ristretto, vaporetto, et cetera) and assorted other tto words such as prosciutto.
And of course it brings to mind riso, Italian for “rice”, on which it is formed; also, adventitiously, sotto, for “below”, and ri, a prefix meaning “again” – under again? under where? – as well as sorriso, “smile”. It also brings to mind a couple of excellent meals in New Zealand, and a rather yummy one I just made and ate this evening.
The risotti in New Zealand were a smokey fungus tomato one at the restaurant at Elephant Hill winery on Hawke’s Bay and a nice blue cheese one at a brew pub in Wellington. As to this evening’s, I found myself needing to use some sweet peppers, which I don’t generally go gaga over, but have enjoyed roasted. So I decided to stuff them and roast them. Stuff them with what? After consulting a few recipes and my own perverse and pertinacious proclivities, I decided to make a risotto – specifically a bobotie risotto. Why not just make something up, I thought with a smile. So I assembled the onion, ground beef, ground pork, arborio rice, blatjang, coconut milk, salt, curry powder, and water; I found I did not have raisins and so had to do without.
Of course it’s an odd culinary catachresis, a bit of syncretic intercultural gastronomy, this marriage of Italian and South African cuisines, Canadian-style. But risotto is a word of such flavours and overtones; it can sustain it. It is true that it stays on the tip of the tongue, though it does end with a rounded back vowel. But the stories its many mild echoes may have – zero, raise, rosette, otter, rot, risen, utter, exotic, erotic; roll it on your tongue and find more – can keep your palate entertained for some time, while your eyes enjoy the joining of the curving and popping ris with the symmetrical otto, a set of noughts and crosses: 0++0… or perhaps two round grains of arborio rice, or two bowls of it, and two, hm, forks? Or pairs of chopsticks? Say, perhaps add something Chinese to it next time…