While the myth that pasta was brought back to Italy from China by Marco Polo has been roundly dispelled, one thing seems certain: pasta, like Marco Polo, liked to travel.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as a form of dry pasta was thought to have been adopted by Arab traders as portable food for long journeys such as caravan expeditions along the Silk Road to China. It’s believed that during the Arab invasions around the 8th century, the dried noodle-like itriyah was brought to Sicily where evidence was found that by the 12th century dry pasta was being manufactured in Palermo. From there, dry pasta journeyed north to Genoa, then from Genoa into the world, both old and new.
Today, pasta can be found in far corners of the world and in exotic guises. In Hong Kong- style cafes the world over, macaroni is served in broth with bits of ham, and sometimes peas, as part of breakfast. This Chinese “take” on western cuisine also extends to spaghetti baked in a sweet tomato ketchup-based sauce topped with fried pork chops, or in a creamy cheesy casserole with seafood. In India, one might find penne served up as Keema pasta, in a meat sauce reminiscent of the Bolognese-style, but for its robust flavouring of curry spices like cumin, coriander, fennel, tumeric, and garam masala.
An Italian from the old country will likely scoff at these adaptations, but then he’s just as likely to deride the way a certain dish is made, cooked, and sauced in the next town while touting that his grandma’s recipe reigns supreme. Fierce opinion, sometimes to the most minute of details, is what hones the best of Italian cuisine while contributing to its rich palate of tastes and variety. Pasta, in its more than 300 forms known by well over 1000 names, is emblematic of that wealth. For a glimpse, you can begin with a quick browse on Wikipedia. If hooked on the subject, you can always move on to Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta.
Meanwhile, read on for three accessible and tasty pasta recipes for different occasions: First, a classic from the Public Market’s own Zara’s Pasta. I chose it because if you want to take a crack at making your own fresh pasta by hand but are not yet ready to invest in any special equipment, this gnocchi recipe is a good dabble. Next, Vancouver’s own Iron Chef Rob Feenie’s pappardelle with short rib is rich and fit for weekend entertaining. Lastly, for everyday supper, I offer you a variation of my goto pantry pasta - spaghettini with bacon and garlic. The truth is, if you have dry pasta (strand or shaped), a good olive oil, garlic, and chili flakes, you can make a variation of this pasta. No bacon? Try sausage meat, salami, or anchovies, or even skip the meat. For the greens, you can substitute any tasty leafy greens or even blanched sliced green beans or asparagus. In a pinch, coarsely chopped parsley will do. Serve it with roast chicken, roast pork, grilled prawns, seared scallops… or stand alone with a side salad. Do choose a good grating cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano or Grano Padano; quality over quantity is a good rule of thumb here.