Many years ago, on a study-abroad program in Italy, my friends and I were at a modest little hostel in Rome when a young English coordinator named Daniel invited us to the common room for a dinner dish.
“Whore’s pasta,” he said indifferently, as he spooned a red, saucy pasta onto my paper plate.
“Why on earth is it called that?” someone asked.
"Because prostitutes invented it," Daniel replied disingenuously, digging into a large spoonful of linguini.
It was coloured red with black chunks of olive and grey chunks of what appeared to be tuna, sprinkled with fresh parsley. It looked enticing!
I spooned some into my mouth. It was tangy and savoury with chunks of fresh garlic. Almost instinctively, I reached out for the chilli flakes, dumping them generously on my plate.
Take a look: Food for thought: Basta pasta
No one mentioned the pasta again. Thus passed a simple meal shared by strangers around a ramshackle dining table in the Eternal City, with no one the wiser about its strange name or origin.
Many years later, reading Rome by Robert Hughes, I came across a reference to a famous Neapolitan pasta called Puttanesca, the so-called whore’s spaghetti, cooked in a spicy tomato sauce, including onions, capers, black olives, anchovies and garlic.
Immediately, I recalled that dinner from years ago, realising that this dish may have been Daniel’s Roman treat.
Intrigued, I explored further.
Perhaps juicier than the pasta itself are the luridly apocryphal origins of its name.
According to popular lore, this mélange was first created by Neapolitan sex-workers, needing a quick meal in between waiting for customers, using accessible and affordable ingredients. Whether this is true or not is anyone’s guess.
Derived from puttane, or slang for prostitute, Puttanesca has long been a delicious staple for anyone familiar with Italian cuisine.
A more recent explanation attributes the dish’s origins to the mid-20th century.
A restaurant owner running short on ingredients created Puttanesca for a group of late, unruly customers, who ordered him to “make any kind of garbage”, with whatever could be scrounged.
Whatever its questionable origins though, Puttanesca is delicious and vibrant, ideal for a quick experiment. It was time to get cracking in the kitchen!
How to make Pasta Alla Putanesca
Pastas are a cooking staple on weekends when I want something quick and versatile. There’s something tantalising about a spicy and garlicy sauce, compounded with the fun of meats or seafood. And then, there’s the fun of experimenting with differently-shaped pastas.
So I set off to make my Puttanesca, opting to replicate Daniel’s and not the traditional version.
Comparing recipes online, I immediately decided I did not want anchovies ruining my dish with their salty flavour and squeamish texture.
Similarly, I ignored the need for capers because it just seemed like too much of a bother to locate in Pakistan. I have, at times, substituted canned sardines (the John West kind) into the mix and it has turned out fine.
To begin, chop the onions finely. I prefer to hold my knife not at the handle but midway towards the blade, giving me a firm, yet flexible, grip to dice smaller pieces for frying.
The garlic is peeled and placed in a mortar and pestle and ground until paste-like. I leave 2-3 stubs of garlic to fry whole along with the onions.
As the onions start frying on low heat, I mix in the garlic paste, and after a few minutes, chuck in some red chili flakes. Anyone with experience of making desi food will understand that the onion/garlic/chilli mix is vital for a robust flavour.
Once the onions start browning lightly, while ensuring the garlic doesn’t burn, I toss in the tomato sauce and fry a little more to make sure the sauce mixes well, followed by salt, freshly ground black pepper and oregano/basil into the mix.
When the sauce starts to thicken slightly, I add the olives and the sardines, stirring for a few minutes more.
It’s important that the sardines don’t become too mashed with all the mixing. To garnish at the end, I sprinkle some parsley. The whole red/black and green look is very appetising.
Grated parmigiana cheese on top can be a great addition for those who don’t mind fish and cheese together.
To be honest, this dish is simple, wholesome and delicious, in an unusual way. The salty flavour-packed sardines completely dominate each bite.
For the squeamish, its fishiness may be a turn off but for those seeking something new, it’s quite the treat.
The olives impart a sublime flavour and texture addition; the sauce is fragrant and spicy, just the way I like it.
The best part is that the ingredients can be stored away in a cupboard and be on hand for when the craving strikes. Daniel would have been proud.
A simple ingredient list for Pasta Alla Putanesca is as follows:
• 1 lb spaghetti or linguini (other pastas may be used as well)
• 1 medium onion, finely chopped
• 1 can of tuna or sardines, preserved in either sea water or olive oil
• 4 cloves garlic, chopped
• 1 (28 oz.) can of plum tomatoes
• Red chili flakes, (more or less to taste)
• Salt and pepper to taste
• ½ cup chopped black olives (about 25-30 small olives)
• Oregano, chopped to taste
• Basil leaves, chopped to taste
• Parsley, chopped to taste
• Grated parmigiana cheese to taste
• Olive oil as needed
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes for the sauce. 10-12 minutes for the linguini.
—Photos provided by author