The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: The backbone of Italian cuisine - Pasta
The pastas we eat outside of Italy are either not found in Italy at all or taste very different in their homeland. Italian pastas rarely use cream whereas pastas made elsewhere in the world often use so-called ‘cream sauces’.
For most Indians, Italian food is just pizza and pasta. Take them off the menu of an Italian restaurant in India and the restaurant will go empty. In Italy, most good restaurants will not serve pizza (a pizzeria belongs in a category of its own) and in any case, the pizzas we are used to in India are more American-Italian than they are Italian-Italian.
Pasta, on the other hand, is the backbone of Italian cuisine and has travelled to every corner of the world because a) it is cheap b) can be kept for ages before cooking and c) it lends itself to a variety of flavours. In India, there are two additional reasons for its popularity. Indians love carbohydrates .(We are the only people in the world who will order fried rice and noodles when we go to Chinese restaurants). And pasta can be made without meat or fish so it becomes the default option for vegetarians when they eat out.
It is odd though, that the pastas we eat outside of Italy are either not found in Italy at all or taste very different in their homeland.
For instance, Americans love Fettuccine Alfredo, a dish that is rarely served in Italy. It was created by a man called Alfredo di Lelio who served it to visiting Americans at his Rome restaurant in the 1940s and 1950s. The original was made with melted butter and Parmigiano. But the American version which has travelled the world relies mainly on heavy cream.
The cream alone, should tell us that it is probably not a real Italian dish. Italian pastas rarely use cream whereas pastas made elsewhere in the world often use so-called ‘cream sauces’.
In fact, the idea of pasta sauce is probably non-Italian too. For Italians, the pasta is the point of the dish. The sauce is just a ‘condimenta’, used to flavour the pasta. An Italian will mainly judge the quality of the dish by how good the pasta is.
And Italians have hundreds of pastas in a variety of shapes and sizes, each designed to suit a particular dish. You and I might find it a little precious (or silly, even) when Italians rave about pasta shapes --- little bow-ties and imitation grains of rice ! But while we think of all pasta as tasting basically the same (the flavours, we think, come only from the sauce) Italians will tell you that every kind of pasta is different.
President Charles de Gaulle of France is supposed to have asked “How can anyone govern a country with 246 kinds of cheese? “An Italian Prime Minister could ask the same thing about a country with many more than 246 different paste shapes.
As for so-called pasta sauces, let’s take the example of Spaghetti Carbonara one of the world’s most popular pastas. Outside Italy, this means spaghetti with a cream sauce and bacon. In Italy, it means something else entirely.
A real Carbonara will have no sauce and (though modern chefs have played around with the recipe) no cream. A great Roman pasta usually has very few ingredients. It is the genius of the chef that makes a pasta dish perfect.
Carbonara, for instance, is about pasta with just three ingredients. You cook very good quality pasta and then mix it with crispy pork (ideally guanciale or pancetta). Beat an egg with cheese (pecorino or parmesan) and then when the pasta and pork are ready, put the raw egg on the hot spaghetti. And that is it.
This sounds simple but is immensely complicated. If you add the egg when the pasta is too hot, you get scrambled egg.
If you add it when the pasta has cooled down too much, you’ll get spaghetti with raw egg.
Great pasta chefs will know when the time is exactly right to add the egg and will have mastered a technique that is essential to the making of most great Roman pasta.They will take a little bit of the starchy water the pasta was cooked in and will add it to the cooked spaghetti. Then, for thirty seconds or so, while the egg is In the pasta, they will keep swirling the pan in a constant motion with the pasta still inside ,moving the pasta with a pair to tongs .It is this technique that emulsifies the pasta water with the fat in the pan and ensures that the egg coats each strand of spaghetti.
Like Carbonara, Cacio e Pepe, another famous Roman pasta, depends on just pasta, cheese and pepper. It is the technique that ensures that the peppery melted cheese clings to the pasta.
These are not easy techniques to master so, in most of the world, pasta is just a mass of noodles in a wet, gloopy sauce. Spaghetti Bolognaise, the world’s most famous pasta dish, for instance, was invented in the UK and not in Bologna, as the name suggests. Bolognaise sauce is British, not Italian.
There is a tradition of making a ragu with minced or chopped meat in Bologna but it is nothing like the minced meat gravy the British make with keema, a little red wine and tomatoes. The original recipe for ragu dates back to 1891 when Pellegrino Artusi ,a celebrated gastronome, published an extraordinarily elaborate version with porcini, chicken livers, truffles etc.
Since then, simpler recipes have evolved but no two chefs have the same method. Sometimes the ragu is made with beef. Sometimes with pork. Sometimes, with pork and beef. Rarely is it made with robust red wines. Usually, they use a light, fruity, local white wine called Pignoletto.
But the doubts about what a proper ragu should be remain.
The Brits puts tomato in their Bolognese sauce. But as the chef Massimo Bottura points out, there were no tomatoes in the Bologna region. How could they have been part of the recipe?
Bottura adds one more flourish. The ragu should not be made with keema (“machine-ground meat” he calls it). He makes his ragu with large pieces of meat and then when the dish is cooked, he tears the meat apart with his hands till he gets shreds of perfectly flavoured beef.
Yet, such is the power of global tourism that just as they serve Chicken Kiev, a dish invented in America, to tourists in Kiev restaurants, you will find Spaghetti Bolognaise on the menu in touristy places all over Italy, including even Bologna.
And then there is, what is for me, the acme of pasta achievement: stuffed pasta like tortellini or agnoletti. In a sense, these are not unlike Chinese stuffed dumplings and the chef David Chang dedicated a whole episode of his Netflix show Ugly Delicious to comparing Italian pasta to Chinese dumplings.
You will hardly ever get great stuffed pasta in India because it is incredibly difficult to make a smoothly and velvety pasta that is still strong enough to encase a lump of juicy meat or fish. Of all the pasta dishes I remember having eaten, it is the stuffed ones that linger longest in the memory; agnoletti at Guido in Piedmont, Heinz Beck’s famous pasta stuffed with a carbonara type sauce and even (though he is not Italian) Michel Guerard’s raviolo of wild mushroom.
So, how should you enjoy pasta!
Well, here is what I do. I never use a watery sauce. I buy good quality pasta (it is worth the money as is good olive oil) and I either make my own basil pesto (its easy; any fool can do it) or I use the vegetables I really like (mushroom, asparagus etc.) and season the pasta with herbs and olive oil. If you want another layer of flavour, you can first sauté the vegetables in pancetta, bacon or whatever.
Once you start eating pasta that way, you will find it impossible to eat those horrible gloopy sauces and those congealed cream abominations you find at restaurants in India.
Keep it simple. Keep it pure. Use fresh ingredients. Invest in high quality dried pasta.
And you will never go wrong.