Monday, July 2, 2012

Happiness is… pasta

Pasta Al Forno... ready to go into the oven
Who invented pasta is what I would like to know. May all the honors be bestowed upon them!

There is a great deal of debate about that: Was it the Chinese, the Italians or Arabs?

The Chinese are on record as having eaten pasta as early as 5,000 BC. Marco Polo probably brought pasta back to Italy from China in the 13th century. 

But does it really matter? Pasta, the staple food of traditional Italian cuisine, is now so popular and widespread that no one cares.

Pasta is also my very favorite meal I could have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner and never complain.

My love for this simple dish, which can be prepared in so many different ways, started when I was very young and a half-boarder at the St. Joseph nuns’ primary school in Tunis. The dining hall was a large room with tables for eight. A big bowl of whatever was for lunch was positioned in the middle of the table for us to help ourselves. Once a week it was spaghetti in tomato sauce. It was delicious. My classmates, who didn’t share my opinion, gave me their portions. I would even ask the nuns if I could take some home for dinner as well.

The YMCA in Jerusalem, circa 1933 (via Wikimedia)
But even before that episode, I remember a story my mom Vicky used to tell. So “listen,” as the hakawati (or teller of tales) would say… Vicky recounts:

“When I was about 13 or 14 years of age (1933-1934), your uncle Adeeb (Abu Fadil) said he would take me for a lunch treat. Where else to go in Jerusalem at the time other than the YMCA? So we set off from Haifa, got a table and the menu to order what to eat. Adeeb spotted something new: spaghetti! We tentatively ordered that. When the plates came, we looked at them and didn’t really know how to eat what was there. I tried to put some on the fork, but the spaghetti strands were so long they kept slipping off. I was making a mess and giggling at the same time. I tried sucking them in and making an even bigger mess. Then the waiter suggested we might try winding them on the fork. And that was the first time I had spaghetti.”

Pastas can be divided into two broad categories: dried or fresh. Both come in a number of shapes and varieties, with 310 specific forms known by over 1,300 names recently documented. I love the fresh kind, because you can cook it for three minutes and you’re good to go. Unfortunately, it is too expensive in Dubai, so I am back to the dried variety.

As a category in Italian cuisine both dried and fresh pastas are used in one of three kinds of prepared dishes. Pasta asciutta is cooked pasta served with a complementary sauce or condiment. Pasta in brodo is part of a soup-type dish. Pasta al forno is baked in the oven. Al forno is my latest favorite, as pictured in this post!

Out of the oven...
... and ready to be enjoyed. Bon appetit!
Historians write of the Arabs adapting noodles for long journeys in the 5th century, the first written record of dry pasta. Libyan Arabs introduced durum wheat pasta during their conquest of Sicily in the late 7th century. In the 14th and 15th centuries, dried pasta became popular for its easy storage aboard ships when exploring the New World. In the 16th century, the Spanish discovered tomatoes as a new ingredient for a pasta sauce. Before that, it was eaten dry with the fingers.

Pasta helped me out often in times of financial straits given its affordability but fulfilling nature as a complex carbohydrate.

I won’t go into my favorite recipes here but will leave you with two I found on my friend Sally Prosser’s blog, My Custard Pie. The first is a Locally-made cheese and a spicy pasta recipe; the second is Pasta that refreshes the parts.

You can also look up some pasta ideas on the excellent Fooderati Arabia website.

I have relied on pasta a great deal over the years. You can eat it in a different way every single time. One day, when I have a kitchen, I shall blog about 365 ways to eat pasta. Until then, what’s your favorite food?