Sarees, chopsticks and coconut milk, welcome to Rome’s multicultural heart

Chinese red lanterns in Rome's Esquilino neighborhood
Chinese red lanterns in Rome’s Esquilino neighborhood

Scent of curries, chopsticks clinking and head-swinging greetings. Fret not, you are still in Rome, very likely in the Esquilino neighborhood around its namesake market. This is the heart of multicultural Rome, the best place if you are looking for colorful sarees, coconut milk and spices for whatever recipe you can think of.

At some point of your promenade you will hear the chanting-like subcontinental conversations overlapping some not-so-classy Roman swearing, you’ll see the signs of legendary local shops such as Panella bakery sitting next to more exotic banners inviting passers-by for a cup of Chinese tea or to try an Indian pashmina, you’ll stare at one of the city’s main basilicas, Santa Maria Maggiore, and notice it’s majestically located a stone’s throw away from a Buddhist temple.

Spices, beans, oils and all sorts of ingredients to meet everyone's cooking needs
Spices, beans, oils and all sorts of nuts and dried fruits to meet everyone’s cooking needs

“I used to have my studio here,” told me an accountant from Rome when we were crossing Via Merulana, historical road part of the area owned by the “Merula” family in ancient times and that now is a bustling street that never lost its elegance. “I witnessed so many changes unfold. At some point I had to move, there were no Italian clients anymore, I felt a foreigner myself.”

Italy is rather new to the immigration waves, certainly happening much later than in other European countries such France and the UK. A short walk around this neighborhood, though, will make you feel as if local traditions have been living side by side with international rituals and cultures for a long time. While these rapidly swirling social changes were somehow a destabilization at the beginning, catching many locals unprepared, it seems that now this new reality is becoming more and more embedded in the society.

Tea sets, teas and herbal remedies in a Chinese medicine shop
Tea sets, teas and herbal remedies in a Chinese medicine shop

Since imperial times, Romans have always shown a strong ability in acquiring the best aspects of the provinces they conquered and bring them to the capital city to enrich the local culture. Now, Romans seem to be doing the same thing by absorbing the cultures they are hosting. In a way or the other, Romans never fail to show their ability to adapt and blend their own with foreign lifestyles, taking the most out of them and shaping them in a wholly Italian way.

This multicultural neighborhood that develops around the big market located in Via Principe Amedeo, a 5-minute walk from Vittorio Emanuele metro station (Line A), can be experienced in the most different manners, be it shopping, eating, getting dressed, finding spirituality, or even enjoying the microcosm of contrasts taking place in Rome’s very heart.

All types of veggies from different corners of the planet, none excluded, in Esquilino market
All types of veggies from different corners of the planet, none excluded, in Esquilino market

If you feel like freshening up your spiritual side, in this quarter around Piazza Vittorio you’ll be spoiled for choice, with the chance to bounce from a Catholic church to a Chinese Buddhist temple, even to an Islamic center with a small mosque (not the main one, that is in Parioli neighborhood). Basilicas are obviously the main dish, with stunning Santa Maria Maggiore dominating its namesake piazza and nearby Santa Prassede and Santa Pudenziana boasting beautiful mosaics.

A typical Roman place, famous Panella bakery
A typical Roman place, famous Panella bakery

Your passion for spending will be fulfilled in the several shops lined up along the main and back streets, such as via Principe Amedeo, via Carlo Alberto, via Mamiani and via Filippo Turati, ranging from Chinese medicine emporiums, Indian sanctuaries, Pakistani and Afghan handicraft shops up to the king of all places here, Mercato Esquilino, divided in two areas, one for food and one for the rest, from shoes to fabrics to sarees to colorful bags.

Pakistani and Afghani handicraft shop
Pakistani and Afghan handicraft shop

The food section is where I go shopping myself, especially for spices, beans and all types of grains, from bulgur to cous cous to brown rice. You can also find Chinese stalls with tofu, soya sauce and Chinese cabbage, the Bangladeshi stands selling anything from curries to curcuma to Ethiopian berbere to all sorts of nuts, and also the stands for meat and fish lovers.

Once you feel your shopping spree is more under control, you can have lunch here too, either trying an ethnic eatery or an Italian restaurant, or even the Indian fast-food near the market in 11, via Mamiani. Needless to say, when lunchtime approaches, the air will be permeated with scents coming from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Latin America and even Italy, nonetheless.

Inside Chinese Buddhist temple in via Leopardi
Inside Chinese Buddhist temple in via Leopardi

Tuck into some chicken curry, veggie samosa, crunchy naan, Turkish kebab or an Italian risotto as a perfect ending to a long but rewarding morning to relax afterwards in the Piazza Vittorio gardens, adjacent to the metro station and home to the mysterious “magic door”, once the portal to an alchemist’s haven.

Nearby there is also Maecenas’ Auditorium, in Largo Leopardi, of pure Roman legacy and part of Horti Maecenatis, gardens belonging to rich advisor and friend of emperor Augustus, Maecenas, protector of artists and scholars. The Auditorium is available for visiting with a previous booking with the local council.

Typical Roman mosaics reproduced near Maecenas' Auditorium in an effort to emphasize Roman tradition
Typical Roman mosaics reproduced near Maecenas’ Auditorium in an effort to emphasize Roman tradition

I’ve been to this neighborhood very often, and I always like to go back because every time I discover a new bit, a new corner I had missed before. Last time was a couple of months ago, when I visited a Syrian tea shop and eatery, it might be time for me to get to Rome’s multicultural heart again.

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