Pasta La Vista
So you think you know your spaghetti well, but do you really? Celebrity Chef Vikas Kumar digs into the history to tell you more about the origin of world’s favourite staple, how it went on to become one of the most popular food, what are its readily available variants, and much more.
If I were to ask today, what is that single culinary dish in modern cuisine which has the attributes of being a please all dish, can be assembled quickly, is cheap to make, has a very high energy value, has a long shelf life, and to top it all, if you really need to prepare it fresh, requires only two ingredients, what would be your first guess?
Also the said food dish is available all over the world, is justifiably among the most popular food items, and has 600 different types of forms and shapes. You would probably have hazarded a guess by now, and it would most likely be a correct one, for, there are only a very few dishes or that can have claim to such fame. Of course, it is the world's favourite food – the humble and ubiquitous pasta.
History of Pasta
Like most things culinary that have been around for centuries, the story of pasta is also a chequered and a hotly debated one. While we all know and accept it to be an Italian origin product, there are some indications to suggest that the world's favourite starch was actually discovered by Marco Polo in the 13th century when he returned from a trip to China in 1271.
Although it can be a possibility, my own hunch says that a product made simply out of grains and moisture would have existed much earlier, perhaps since the time the people gained the know-how of grinding food grains. It is also said the first pasta was made by the Greeks when they founded Naples in the 3rd century BC.
There is another theory that says, the first staple pasta was brought to Italy by Arabs during their invasions in the 8th century and was made out of durum wheat which Sicily specialised and therefore it and took immediately to the new food.
To date, under Italian law, dried pasta or pasta 'secca' can only be made with this kind of wheat. By the late 17th century in Naples, pasta had become the staple food for the common man right up to royalty. There are many accounts on how the people there were colloquially called 'macaroni eaters' and also how some very gifted papal chefs created great new menu variations out of the pasta using complex cooking techniques, exotic ingredients and sauces.
Why it became so popular
The pasta popularity to the 'new' world started to take off after the Italians started to migrate en masse to different places. Apart from the reasons that I have already enumerated, one of the best things about the pasta is that it is the ultimate comfort food. The simplicity and ease of preparation makes it everybody's favourite. Also, the dish is such that it fits the menus of both ultra fine dining restaurants as well as street food vendors. In countries such as India, pasta is quickly becoming an extremely potent meal of choice for the urban middle class, especially with working couples and young children.
Children are among the most important factors in the growing popularity of pasta, and the corporate food giants have been quick to encash this fascination by creating newer shapes and flavour variants that are appealing to kids. If I were to share a personal anecdote, I would share the preferences of pasta of my girls Devi, 10 and Ananya, 5. Ananya likes her pasta just as it is with a little butter, Devi likes it with a spicy sauce she makes herself, and my wife likes it with lots of vegetables and cheese, and all these three entirely different dishes can be made all at once, using the same pasta, just by tweaking the toppings a bit.
And how does my wife, Ksenia find out exactly how much pasta to cook, well she doesn't. She just keeps the leftover pasta in the fridge and prepares a beautifully toothsome salad in a jiffy the next lunch. This versatility, I believe is among the high points of pasta as a family food dish.
Different Types of Pasta
As per available information, there are more than 600 variants of pasta. For a food item that has a total of 2, sometimes 3 ingredients, that's a mighty lot. Well, it so happens that the different kinds of pasta are, with some exceptions, basically the same dough with different shapes.
These different shapes give the pasta slightly different textures, mouth feel and so they taste different too. Pasta is found in a multitude of shapes and sizes, there are extremely thin 'angel hair' pasta to the rather thick bucatini pasta. There are also many handmade pasta that are rolled by hand, while many are made especially for soups.
Keeping the variety in mind, let us discuss the top few pasta types that are easily available in most supermarkets along with a little note on their correct use and cooking technique. As a rule of thumb, we chefs say that the shorter the pasta, the chunkier the sauce and the longer the pasta, more delicate and smooth should be the sauce.
Also obviously, the shape of the pasta dictates how long it will take to be cooked perfectly, a term commonly used is 'al dente' which means that the pasta should be cooked through but still have a bite to it. So here is a list of some of the better-known kinds of pasta:
-Spaghetti: The most common of all pasta, thin noodle like solid cylindrical shape, about 10 inches long, goes best with smooth and creamy sauces such as creamy tomato, pesto or cheese sauce.
-Macaroni: Children's favourite, short C shaped tubes, cooks quickly, Mac n cheese is a global favourite, goes best with cheese sauces.
- Penne: Small tubes, typically 2 inches long and diagonally cut. Goes best with chunky meat sauces.
-Fettuccine: Long, flat egg pasta typically ¼ in wide, goes best with thick sauces that cling on to the pasta such as cheese, Alfredo or Bolognese.
-Farfalle: The classic bow-shaped pasta, available all across the world. Goes best in cold pasta salads
-Ravioli: Stuffed pasta, normally made fresh, is a meal in itself, just simply tossed with a delicate buttery sauce or even just flavoured olive oil.
Apart from the above, there are hundreds of other pasta but these are the best known in our country and most consumed, whether cooked at homes or ordered in restaurants.
I myself am a big fan of pasta and keep experimenting all the time with different recipes but my most favourite is the simple 'agilo olio e peperoncino' – a simple dish made with some freshly boiled pasta, some olive oil, garlic, herbs and red chilli flakes. I had this version on one of my trips to Italy and totally loved it. I am producing the recipe that I took from the chef there.
Spaghetti Aglio Olio o peperoncino
Spaghetti: 200 g
Freshly peeled garlic: 20 g
Olive oil: 50 ml (might feel like a lot but is required)
Freshly chopped parsley: 20 g
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese: 30 g
Fresh Red chilly: 10 g
-Boil the pasta in salted boiling water as per the package instructions. Do not overcook.
-In another pan, start assembling the sauce. The trick is to cook the sauce at very low heat and create an emulsion with the olive oil, garlic, chilli and some hot pasta water. Put the olive oil, add the garlic and the chilly, cook until the garlic is tender. In Italy they do not chop the garlic but thinly slice it, which helps in better cooking and more mellow flavour. Add some hot pasta water and rapidly whisk.
-Add the pasta and sprinkle the Parmesan cheese, toss to coat. Season lightly with pepper, salt would generally not be required due to salted pasta boiling water and salty Parmesan cheese. Some quick sautéed cherry tomato and deep fried basil leaves can give another dimension and texture and can be used optionally.
-Serve immediately with an extra sprinkling of the parmesan cheese and chopped parsley.