Posted in Daily, Food, Stories Around the World

Of Pasta, Origin and Style

“Life is a combination of magic and pasta.” Federico Fellini

Typically made from an unleavened dough of durum wheat flour (semolina) mixed with water or eggs, formed into various shapes or as sheets, then cooked by boiling or baking, pasta has been there since the ancient years. Although etymology speaking, the first English attestation of the word “pasta” (1874) comes from Italian pasta, which was from the Latin pasta, the latter being the  Latinization of the Greek παστά (pasta) meant as “barley porridge”.

“You don’t need a machine to make pasta: a rolling pin and a fast hand can create a smooth, if thick, sheet.” Yotam Ottolenghi

Broadly divided as two categories of fresh (pasta fresca, prepared traditionally by hand or at home) and dried (pasta secca, commercial preparation). One of the advantages of pasta is it’s versatility from being the main course to a side dish, as salad or as a filler for sandwiches or as an accompaniment to main course or as light lunches. Classically there are three main kinds of prepared dishes. One type is the pasta asciutta (or pastasciutta) wherein the cooked pasta is plated and served with a complementary side sauce or condiment. Another is the pasta in brodo, in which the pasta is part of a soup-type dish. The third category is the pasta al forno where the pasta is incorporated into a dish that is subsequently baked in the oven.

Tracing the origin of pasta, the entire roots don’t lead back to Italy alone. The writings of Horace (1st century AD) mention lagana (singular: laganum) made of fine sheets of fried dough used in the daily menu. Athenaeus of Naucratis (2nd century AD) provides a recipe attributed to Chrysippus of Tyana(1st century AD) wherein sheets of dough made of wheat flour and the juice of crushed lettuce, then flavoured with spices and deep-fried in oil. However the method of cooking these sheets of dough does not correspond to the modern pasta, although the basic ingredients and perhaps the shape were similar. Food historians have noted several milestones, similar to pasta. Like the itrion (mentioned by Greek physician Galen, 2nd century AD) as homogeneous compounds made of flour and water, later modified as a boiled dough known as itirum common to Palestinian lands (300 to 500 AD) and recorded so in the Talmud. The Arab physician and lexicographer Isho bar Ali (9th century AD) defines itriyya, the Arabic cognate, as string-like shapes made of semolina and dried before cooking. A form of itriyya is laganum (Latin) which refers as a thin sheet of dough, a precursor of the modern Italian lasagna.

“You can buy a good pasta but when you cook it yourself it has another feeling.” Agnes Varda

The North African areas had couscous (steamed balls of crushed durum wheat semolina or of pearl millet and sorghum), more like droplets of dough which is less malleable than pasta. Rustichello da Pisa writes in his Travels that Marco Polo described a food similar to “lagana”. With traces of pasta being found in Ancient Greece and later Arabian cuisine records of similar dishes, pasta has come a long way before being ingrained into the Italian cuisine and culture. The first concrete information concerning pasta products in Italy dates from the 13th or 14th century. And as far as shapes of pasta and their sauces are concerned, there is a whole mine of information out there. From long to short, minute pasta for soups (pastina) or pasta all’uovo (egg pasta), there are many varieties of the basic pasta. For those of us, who need them gluten free, alternatives include rice flour, brown rice, shirataki noodles, chickpea, quinoa, corn, millet, buckwheat and amaranth to mention a few with certain varieties of gluten free being multigrain (mix of all above).

Although pasta dishes are generally simple, individual dishes vary in preparation with the flavors of local cuisine being incorporated when possible. With the mood for autumn setting in and ingredients varying to availability and choice, spicing up a basic pasta dish to the more elaborate style can set the creative cooking into full swing with an undeniable delectable pleasure for the palate and the taste buds. A bit of pasta can add plenty of spice, the way one wants it so.