Italian cuisine

Taste with Vir Sanghvi: The Backbone of Italian Cuisine – Pasta

For most Indians, Italian cuisine boils down to pizza and pasta. Take them off the menu of an Italian restaurant in India and the restaurant will empty out. In Italy, most good restaurants don’t serve pizza (a pizzeria is in a category of its own) and anyway, the pizzas we’re used to in India are more American-Italian than Italian.

Pasta, on the other hand, is the backbone of Italian cuisine and has traveled to all corners of the world because a) it is inexpensive b) can be stored for a long time before cooking and c) it lends itself to a variety of flavors. In India, there are two additional reasons for its popularity. Indians love carbohydrates. (We are the only people in the world who order fried rice and noodles when we go to Chinese restaurants). And the pasta can be made without meat or fish, making it the default option for vegetarians when eating out.

It is however strange that the pasta we eat outside of Italy is not found in Italy at all or tastes very different in its country of origin.

For example, Americans love Fettuccine Alfredo, a dish rarely served in Italy. It was created by a man named 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 parmesan cheese. But the American version that has been around the world relies mainly on heavy cream.

The cream alone, should tell us that this is probably not a real Italian dish. Italian pastas rarely use cream whereas pastas made elsewhere in the world often use “cream sauces”.

In fact, the idea of ​​pasta sauce probably isn’t Italian either. For Italians, pasta is the point of the dish. The sauce is only a “condimenta”, used to flavor the pasta. An Italian will mainly judge the quality of the dish by the quality of the pasta.

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 bit precious (or silly, even) when Italians rave about pasta shapes—little bow ties and imitation grains of rice! But while we think all pasta basically tastes the same (the flavors, we believe, only come from the sauce), Italians will tell you that every type of pasta is different.

This is the technique that ensures the peppery melted cheese clings to the pasta.

French President Charles de Gaulle is supposed to have asked, “How can you govern a country with 246 kinds of cheese?” “An Italian prime minister could ask the same of a country with over 246 different dough shapes.

As for so-called pasta sauces, let’s take the example of Spaghetti Carbonara, one of the most popular pastas in the world. Outside of Italy, that means spaghetti with cream sauce and bacon. In Italy, it means something else entirely.

A true Carbonara will have no sauce and (although modern chefs have played around with the recipe) no cream. A good romaine dough usually contains very few ingredients. It’s the chef’s genius that makes a perfect pasta dish.

Carbonara, for example, is pasta with only three ingredients. You cook really good quality pasta and then toss it with crispy pork (ideally guanciale or pancetta). Beat an egg with cheese (pecorino or parmesan) then when the pasta and pork are ready, put the raw egg on the hot spaghetti. And that’s all.

It sounds simple but is extremely complicated. If you add the egg when the pasta is too hot, you get a scrambled egg.

If you add it when the pasta has cooled too much, you will get raw egg spaghetti.

Great pasta chefs will know exactly when to add the egg and will have mastered a technique essential to making most great Roman pastas. They will take some of the starchy water in which the pasta was cooked and add it to the cooked spaghetti. Then for about thirty seconds, while the egg is in the pasta, they will continue to swirl the pan in a constant motion with the pasta still inside, moving the pasta around with a pair of tongs. It is this technique that emulsifies the water in the pasta. with the fat in the pan and make sure the egg coats each strand of spaghetti.

Like Carbonara, Cacio e Pepe, another famous Roman pasta, depends solely on pasta, cheese and pepper. This is the technique that ensures the peppery melted cheese clings to the pasta.

These are not easy techniques to master, so in most countries around the world, pasta is just a mass of noodles in a wet, gooey sauce. Spaghetti bolognese, the most famous pasta dish in the world, for example, was invented in the UK and not in Bologna, as its name suggests. Bolognese sauce is British, not Italian.

There is a tradition of making a stew with ground or minced meat in Bologna, but it has nothing to do with the minced meat sauce that the British make with keema, a little red wine and tomatoes. The original stew recipe dates back to 1891 when famous foodie Pellegrino Artusi published an extraordinarily elaborate version with porcini mushrooms, chicken livers, truffles, etc.

Since then, simpler recipes have evolved but no chef has the same method. Sometimes the stew is made with beef. Sometimes with pork. Sometimes with pork and beef. It is rarely made with robust red wines. Usually they use a light and fruity local white wine called Pignoletto.

But doubts about what an appropriate ragu should be remain.

The British put tomato in their bolognese sauce. But as chef Massimo Bottura points out, there were no tomatoes in the Bologna region. How could they have been part of the recipe?

Bottura adds an extra touch. Ragu should not be made with keema (“machine ground meat”, he calls it). He makes his stew with large chunks of meat, then when the dish is cooked, he tears the meat with his hands until he gets perfectly flavored shreds of beef.

Yet the power of global tourism is such that just as they serve Chicken Kiev, a dish invented in America, to tourists in restaurants in Kiev, you’ll find Spaghetti Bolognese on the menu at tourist spots all over the country. Italy, including even Bologna.

And then there is, what for me, is the pinnacle of pasta success: stuffed pasta like tortellini or agnoletti. In a way, it’s not unlike Chinese stuffed dumplings, and chef David Chang devoted an entire episode of his Netflix show Ugly Delicious to comparing Italian pasta to Chinese dumplings.

You’ll almost never get good stuffed pasta in India because it’s incredibly difficult to make smooth, velvety pasta that’s still strong enough to wrap around a juicy piece of meat or fish. Of all the pasta dishes I remember having eaten, it is the stuffed dishes that stick in the memory the longest; the agnoletti at Guido in Piedmont, the famous pasta stuffed with a carbonara-type sauce from Heinz Beck and even (although he is not Italian) the ravioli with wild mushrooms from Michel Guérard.

Keep it simple. Keep it pure. Use fresh ingredients.

So how should you enjoy pasta!

Well, here’s what I do. I never use liquid sauce. I buy good quality pasta (worth it as good olive oil) and either make my own basil pesto (it’s easy, any fool can do it) or use the vegetables that I really like (mushrooms, asparagus, etc.) and season the pasta with herbs and olive oil. If you want another layer of flavor, you can sauté the vegetables first in pancetta, bacon or whatever.

Once you start eating pasta this way, you will find it impossible to eat those awful gloopy sauces and frozen cream abominations that you find in restaurants in India.

Keep it simple. Keep it pure. Use fresh ingredients. Invest in high quality dry pasta.

And you will never be wrong.

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