This article was originally published on 4 April, 2017.
There is nothing that describes Italy more than 'Il bel far niente', meaning the beauty of doing nothing or the sweetness of doing nothing. Yes, that’s what Italians know how to accomplish to perfection, as do many cultures of the East.
Sitting under the Tuscan Sun as I ate my pesto pasta overlooking the green hills and the quintessentially Tuscan cypress trees I understood the age-old Italian saying. This has to be the beauty of doing nothing, breathing in the blue sky and living the laid-back country lifestyle.
This is how food is meant to be savoured, the bruschetta — pronounced brusketta — bread soaked in olive oil and topped with tomatoes is one of the best ways to enjoy summer.
Capture the taste of this Italian classic — a perfect topping of tomato, olive oil, basil, salt and garlic on rustic bread; almost the taste of summer on a toast. I left the city of Siena smiling, and it had to be the taste of pasta. Needless to say there is no better pasta in the world than the one in Italy.
Whatever it is we call pasta, beyond the borders of Italy, is a step-cousin to the real thing. The flavour, the simplicity, the organic ingredients cultivated in the Italian soil gives a taste to the Italian pasta that is like a story, or an expression of the race itself.
Food Blogger Tori Avey, while uncovering the roots of pasta, writes: “While we think of pasta as a culturally Italian food, it is likely the descendent of ancient Asian noodles.”
A common belief about pasta is that it travelled to Italy from China with Marco Polo, during the 13th century. How true that is, well, your guess is as good as mine.
In Marco Polo’s book, The Travels of Marco Polo, there is a passage that briefly mentions his introduction to a plant that produced flour (possibly a breadfruit tree). The Chinese used this plant to create a meal similar to barley flour. The barley-like meal Polo mentioned was used to make several pasta-like dishes, including one described as lagana (lasagna).
Since Polo’s original text no longer exists, the book relies heavily on retellings by various authors and experts. This, combined with the fact that pasta was already gaining popularity in other areas of Italy during the 13th century, makes it very unlikely that Marco Polo was the first to introduce pasta to Italy.
Noodles were eaten in Asia long before Polo’s trip to China. Archaeologists believe that Central Asia is most likely the first area to have produced noodles thousands of years ago. From Asia, it travelled westward. The way it reached Europe is unclear, though there are many theories — some believe that nomadic Arabs were responsible for bringing early forms of pasta westward.
Once it reached the Mediterranean the process was refined, and durum wheat became the ingredient of choice for pasta flour because of its high gluten content and long shelf life.
When durum-wheat pasta is dried, it lasts indefinitely, making it a very convenient food to store. Over time, because of pasta’s affordability, shelf life, and versatility, it became firmly rooted in Italian culture.
The warm Mediterranean climate of Italy is suited to growing fresh vegetables and herbs, which meant that Italians could get creative with a delicious variety of pasta sauces.
Here are a couple of recipes, enjoy.
1) Pasta with tomato and basil/coriander
650 grams pasta
450 grams tomatoes
2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons minced white onion
10 basil leaves, or bunch of coriander
4 tablespoons grated Parmigiano cheese
2 tsp crushed garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
Boil the pasta and set aside after draining the water.
Dip tomatoes into boiling water for about 10 seconds and place in a bowl of ice water for a minute. Remove from ice water, and dry.
Peel and slice the tomatoes.
In a pan, brown onions in olive oil, add tomatoes, season with salt and pepper and cook for 10 minutes.
Fold the boiled pasta into the sauce, add coriander/basil and sprinkle cheese over it. Enjoy.
2) Pasta with eggplant and zucchini
500 grams small cut pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove of garlic
1 fresh green onion
1 small eggplant, cubed
2 zucchini, cubed
3 tablespoons vinegar
200 grams spinach
60 grams feta cheese
1/2 bunch fresh coriander, chopped
Black pepper and salt
Heat the oil, add onions and garlic and sauté for a minute, add eggplant, zucchini, vinegar, salt and pepper and cook for 15 to 20 minutes.
In a separate pan boil spinach, drain and add to the mixed vegetables.
Now mix pasta, sprinkle coriander, and serve.
The writer is a former Dawn staffer, currently a freelance journalist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, April 2nd, 2017