Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Pasta 101 for the Indian cook!

Humble yet yummy spaghetti

Pasta. We all love it, don’t we? There’s definitely something fascinating about the different shapes and sizes. Though made from the same raw material, mostly Durum wheat or whole wheat, the various shapes lend varied textures to the final dish, thereby making it extremely inviting. Not just that, the shapes cause your creative juices to ooze and overflow just like that gooey white sauce in your yummy macaroni! Cooking pasta isn’t rocket science, but requires a little bit of thought, at least initially. The cooking times differ. The sauces differ. However, once you get the basics right, the possibilities are endless. Here is a guide to those who are just getting ready to experiment.

Choosing your pasta

The Italians have spent a lifetime inventing pasta shapes and sizes, I guess. Here is an almost exhaustive list of various pasta shapes and sizes. The ones commonly available in India (Bangalore, to be precise) are Spaghetti (strings), Penne (rods), Macaroni (elbows), Fussili(spirals), Farfalle(butterfly). If you are new to cooking pasta, you can just pick up one of the cheaper 'Bambino' varieties like Macaroni or Spaghetti. Once you are confident, you can invest in the more expensive imported brands like Barilla and Agnesi. They taste more authentic and offer more options – Fettucine (this mostly contains eggs), Tagliatelle, Machcheroni, Rigatoni, Trinette, Lasagna, Gnochchi and so on. They cost anywhere between 125 and 400 rupees for a half kilo pack. While fresh pasta is made with eggs and flour, the dried ones in the store are mostly devoid of eggs. So vegetarians, don’t worry!

So which shape to use? My opinion is that the rods and tubes go well with chunky veggies while the strings and flat noodle like pasta gel well with gooey sauces.

I generally pick up my pasta from one of the following outlets:

1.     Nature’s basket, Indira Nagar
2.     Nilgiris, Brigade Road.
3.     Food World Gourmet, MG Road
4.     BigBasket.com

Penne tossed with Zucchini and Broccoli

Cooking your pasta

Every pasta shape has its own cooking time. In most of the international brands, the cooking time is specified on the pack itself, right below the name of the pasta. In general, the thinner/shorter the pasta, the quicker it cooks.  Here is the method:

Boil water in a large pot with enough salt required for pasta. SALT HAS TO BE ADDED AT THIS STAGE. Put pasta in boiling water (and not before that as it will become soggy and sticky) and cook for 5-7 minutes until it is done. The pasta should be cooked but not soft. Drain all the water immediately and pass it through running cold water. Drain the water again and mix in some extra virgin olive oil so that each pasta is coated with oil to prevent sticking. This method applies to all varieties. Extra care should be taken with lasagne as they tend to stick to each other and tear if left unattended while boiling.

If you are cooking spaghetti, DO NOT BREAK IT. It isn’t Vermicelli.  Boil salted water in a large pot and add the spaghetti. If the spaghetti sticks out, it’s okay. In a minute or two, it will start softening and you can gradually push it inside the pot.

Making the sauce

1.     Olive is the choice of oil for pasta. In the Indian market, you can find both cooking olive oil and extra virgin olive oil. While cooking olive oil is used to sauté veggies and stir fry, the extra virgin olive oil is used for drizzling and seasoning. Never overheat olive oil as it spoils the taste and flavour. I buy Borges, Farell or Musa Olive oil from one of the above mentioned stores. Watch out for ‘Buy 1 Get 1’ offers or 5 kg super saver packs if you are serious about Italian cooking.

2.     There are many different choices of sauce for pasta, especially for meat eaters. Italians call this ‘ragu’, which is primarily made of some meat and tomatoes. However, for vegetarians, most sauces are based either on tomato+cheese or milk+cheese. Knowledge of a basic tomato sauce recipe and a basic white sauce recipe should get you going.

3.     Dropping veggies directly into the oil without any ‘tadka’ or ‘thaalippu’ may seem weird initially. But yes, that’s how it is! Please refrain from adding mustard, cumin, turmeric, asafoetida or any ginger-garlic paste. Then, you will end up having a masala desi pasta.

4.     Herbs are to Italian cooking as ‘Tadka’ is to Indian cooking. They impart loads of flavour and nutrition. You can add any of these - mint, parsley, sage,  basil, thyme, rosemary, oregano. I find that thyme and rosemary go together well as is the case of basil and oregano.

5.     Vegetables that can be used include leeks, zucchini, squash, peppers, baby corn, sweet corn, spinach, asparagus(it costs a bomb in India though), green and black olives(pickled in brine) , broccoli, cauliflower, aubergine (brinjal, the big fat purple ones). Don’t use hard vegetables like beans, carrots etc. or Indian veggies like gourds, chow-chow etc.as they don’t go that well with pasta. Leeks belong to the onion family but are milder and sweeter. Zucchini tastes more or less like cucumber with lesser water content.

6.     When pasta is done with white sauce (popularly known as the Bechamel sauce), then some recipes call for baking. In such cases the pasta has to be cooked ‘Al dente’, that is 80% cooked. The best pasta for this purpose is macaroni or any similar tube shaped pasta as it oozes sauce when you bite into it. Yumm!!

7.     Pasta is a little bland to the Indian palate. However, you CANNOT and SHOULD NOT add chilli powder and garam masala to spice it up. You can add black pepper powder or Jalapeno peppers (available in all gourmet stores, pickled in brine) for the much needed zing. I sometimes even drizzle Tabasco sauce or Mexican salsa on my Italian pasta but that’s your choice.

8.     Cheese is an important ingredient for pasta, the most popular choice being Parmesan. However, vegetarians need to know that Parmesan cheese isn’t vegetarian. It is traditionally curdled with calf rennet, which is of animal origin. Hence when you buy Parmesan, read the ingredients carefully – if it says microbial rennet, then it’s ok to buy. Most of the other cheeses in the Indian market such as Cheddar, Gouda and processed cheese are curdled with whey or lime juice so feel free to buy them.

I think enough has been said. Before you dismiss  my post as too long, let’s get cooking! Here is a recipe for a basic spaghetti in tomato basil sauce. This would serve 3-4 people.


Spaghetti - 250 gm
Fresh Basil – a few leaves, finely chopped
Cooking olive oil - 2 to 3 teaspoons
Ripe tomatoes – 5 to 6, pureed
Extra virgin olive oil – 1 to 2 tablespoons, for seasoning
Butter (or) Margarine - a dollop
1 big onion, chopped
6-7 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
Salt, pepper
chopped jalapeno peppers if you want it spicier.


1. Cook pasta as per the instructions above.
2. In a pan, heat cooking olive oil + butter on medium flame. Add the finely chopped garlic and sauté for some time. Add onions and stir fry till they become translucent. Add the pureed tomatoes and bring to a boil.  Add basil, salt, pepper, jalapenos and season with extra virgin olive oil. Stir for 2 min.
3. Add the pasta and toss it till the sauce is coated on all the pasta. Sprinkle some grated cheese(parmesan/cheddar) and serve immediately.

Whole wheat spaghetti in a tomato basil sauce, served with sliced olives

Happy cooking!


  1. I make pasta dishes for my son. I have posted a sauce too in my cookery blog. I didn't know that Parmesan is not vegetarian. I buy from Nilgiris and have never checked the ingredients. Thanks a lot. We are 100% vegetarians. Somehow he didn't like parmesan and I don't use it much. I use it when other youngsters come home. Thanks a lot!

    1. Yes, many think that all cheeses are vegetarian. But rennet is something that comes from the stomach of a calf. The veg alternative to this is microbial rennet. As far as I've seen ,a few types of imported parmesan use calf rennet, but parmesan produced in India uses microbial rennet mostly. Similarly, gelatin used for making jellies is also not vegetarian. It is made from remnants of butcher shops, mainly pig fat. I'm a vegetarian too..

  2. I know about gelatin but not parmesan! Thank you! Will check hereafter!