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Are there any rules about pasta?

Is pasta Alfredo really an Italian dish? Or was it invented in Hollywood? Should you put cream in Spaghetti Carbonara? Or is that a cardinal sin?

Is ‘al dente’ the only way to eat pasta? Are people who eat pasta as a side dish boors? Do all of us destroy pasta by putting too much cheese on it?


Once upon a time, it was so easy to eat pasta. You cooked macaroni in a tomato sauce and dinner was ready!


   No longer. Pasta has now become a minefield. There are so many rules that each time you raise a forkful of spaghetti to your mouth, you risk the contempt of some know-it-all foodie. If, like me, you write about food and try and learn pasta etiquette from Italian chefs, you pick up many dos and don’ts, all delivered with grim finality.


   So, I ‘know’ that you can’t put pancetta in Spaghetti Carbonara. I ‘know’ also that anyone who adds cream to a Carbonara is doing something no Italian would ever do. I ‘know’ also that Italians always prefer olive oil and hardly ever use butter. And so on.


   The problem with all these ‘knowing’ generalisations is that they are mostly wrong. I have been reading Luca Cesari’s A Brief History of Pasta (in its English translation; the book was originally written in Italian) and I am relieved to discover that all this pasta snobbery is as bogus and as shoddy as a fake Gucci bag.


   Cesari, an Italian food historian, was as confused as the rest of us and decided to trace pasta through the ages, digging out recipes from hundreds of years ago. He discovered that much of the conventional wisdom about pasta among Italian chefs and food writers has no historical basis at all. Many of the so-called rules of pasta were simply made up over the last 50 years, overturning decades of practice and wisdom.


   For a start, pasta was not the traditional staple dish of Italians; it was a side dish sometimes eaten with meat. That only changed in the 19th century. As for all the snobbery about eating al dente pasta, that's even more recent. In the old days, pasta was often cooked almost till it became mush. The fashion for al dente pasta emerged in Southern Italy in the 20th century, and then spread to the rest of the country. So, when Italians tell us about preserving the glorious traditions of centuries of cuisine, they are being economical with the truth. They have actually spent the last few decades abolishing the traditions of centuries and creating an entirely new orthodoxy.


   Even the idea of having pasta in a sauce as a first course only took off in the 20th Century when industrialisation made it possible to manufacture and then distribute dried pasta.


   So it is with the tomato sauces we associate with pasta. We know that the tomato is a New World vegetable (or fruit, if you want to get technical) and that it took centuries for it to be accepted into Italian cuisine. Great Italian chefs make a point of emphasising how new the tomato is to the Italian culinary tradition. For instance, Massimo Bottura often makes the point that the cuisine of Emilia Romagna had no tomatoes at all and that tomatoes do not belong in many classic dishes.


   But as Cesari demonstrates, it wasn’t just that Italians were suspicious of new vegetables. It was mostly that they had limited access to them. In the majority of Italian homes, the tomatoes that were used all year round tended to come from cans. So, tomato sauces for pasta did not become popular till the 19th century when the canning industry took off.


   What was pasta like in the old days? According to Cesari, it was basically macaroni rolled in cheese. So, there can be no such thing as too much cheese in pasta: the two ingredients are inseparable.


"Cesari looks at twentieth century recipes for Pasta Amatriciana, which the town of Amatrice now claims as its own."

   Also, contrary to myth, Italians use quite a lot of butter, especially in the North; it’s not that all Italians only cook with the trendy olive oil of modern legend. This makes sense; it is counter-intuitive to expect us to believe that a nation that made so much cheese would draw the line at butter.


   The simplest pastas may have the strongest connections to what pasta used to be like before the modern trendies got their hands on it. Pasta Alfredo, which you rarely find on menus in Italy where it is derided as an American invention, is simply a new name for an ancient Italian dish. It was made famous by a restaurateur called Alfredo di Lellio, who served it to Hollywood stars when they visited Rome in the 1920s. Di Lellio made the dish with fettuccine tossed in a mixture of butter and parmesan cheese. Americans loved it and you now find it all over America, made not just with cheese and butter but also with cream, egg yolks, chicken, prawns and God alone knows what else.


   That the modern American version is bogus does not mean that the original was also a fake: in fact, it was pretty close to how pasta has been made from the middle ages, with just cheese and butter. As authentic is Cacio e Pepe, pasta with cheese and black pepper. It became popular only in the 20th century in Rome but that was because, for many centuries, pepper was too expensive for ordinary people to afford on a regular basis.


   The tomato-based pasta sauces are, by definition, of more recent origin. But, even there, Italians fight pointless battles over traditional recipes. Cesari looks at twentieth century recipes for Pasta Amatriciana, which the town of Amatrice now claims as its own (though the dish may have been invented in Rome). The recipes differ substantially, not just in ingredients (some even have no tomatoes) but in terms of technique (for instance, do you fry onions and pancetta together at the beginning?).


   The town of Amatrice has published its own recipe (no pancetta, only guanciale, etc.) which it claims is the only true version of the dish. When the famous Italian chef Carlo Cracco said he added garlic to his Amatriciana, he was attacked by the elders of the town and by so-called purists.


   The Italians have now become notorious for this sort of recipe rigidity, with men who had no hand in creating traditional recipes insisting that they can only be made in one particular way.


   Take the controversy over Spaghetti Carbonara. The dish only dates back to the 1950s and was probably created for American soldiers stationed in Italy after the Second World War. Therefore, there can be no traditional or classic recipe but Italian chefs are now needlessly rigid: you can only use guanciale (jowl) and not pancetta (bacon) and you must never ever use cream, they insist.


   In fact, recipes for Carbonara over the last few decades use both pancetta and cream. As late as 1989, the legendary Gualtiero Marchesi, the first Italian chef to win three stars for his Milan restaurant, was adding 250ml of fresh cream to 320gram of spaghetti for his Carbonara.


   But now, adding cream has become a sign of inexperience or gaucheness—a development that dates back only to the last 20 years or so. If you listened to Italian chefs, you would have to believe that the victorious American soldiers whose rations were used to create the dish made it clear that to the defeated Italians that no cream could be used.


   So, are there any rules about pasta? Till I read Cesari’s book I used to think there were. Now, I am not so sure. As Carlo Cracco told the town elders of Amatrice, he would continue to add garlic because he wanted to cook his pasta just the way he liked it.


   My sense is that Italians, tired of being lorded over by the French, want to create rigid rules to codify their cuisine. But the French are much more sensible: their rules are for the basics, the mother sauces etc. Once chefs have mastered those they are encouraged to be creative.


   Italians, on the other hand, are naturally creative. It would be a shame to tie them down to rigidly policed, so-called authorised recipes.


   Destroy the creativity and you destroy the cuisine.


   So go ahead and add cream to your Carbonara and mirchi to your pasta. The rules you will violate are bogus rules anyway!!




  • Sujata Subramanian 18 Dec 2022

    Fascinating!!! Thank you!

  • Asha Dixit 17 Dec 2022


Posted On: 16 Dec 2022 12:12 PM
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