The Mughal emperors ruled India by the sword—Persian was our chief administrative language till the 1800s—and then became us. The Brits ruled India with cannon and cunning, inadvertently gave us our modern identity—and English—and let us be.
With the end of the empire, India’s messy, dynastic democracy took over, full of absurdities, spectacle, family—and food.
And so Sonia Gandhi stepped in.
The infusion: Pour in the vodka when the tomatoes begin to collapse, and stir the purée on a low flame before adding chilli flakes. Samar Halarnkar
Who else but an Italian could adapt to modern India? We are, of course, substantially worse off than them economically, but like us, Italians are garrulous, disorganized and make a virtue of chaos.
Little wonder that Indians who marry Italians report great compatibility. The supermodel Madhu Sapre, for instance, the Maharashtrian mulgi (girl) who made a smooth transition to domesticity somewhere near Milan.
My wife’s cousin is married to an Italian and the similarities are astonishing. Like us, they are accepting of guests and tend to shrug if things don’t turn out as they are supposed to. Like us, they love their food and have a long, proud culinary tradition.
Little wonder that pasta has become so beloved in urban India. My main problem with Indian-restaurant pasta (with some honourable exceptions) is that (a) it’s way too oily and (b) we love to overcook it (al dente? What’s that?)
Here’s the easy solution: Get a pasta packet and make the sauce at home. There’s nothing quite like it.
Every kirana (grocery) store seems to stock pasta and a growing number of store owners can guide you through—at least—spaghetti, penne and farfalle (though there are as many types of pasta as there are alphabets).
Now, I’m sure many of you do this, but let me share my limited experience.
I stick to two types of sauces: pesto and arrabiata, both suitably Indianized. I overcome my culinary limitations by simply adding some booze to the sauces: vodka to arrabiata; white wine to pesto.
I’m keeping the recipes vegetarian, so I am not again accused of ignoring my brethren who, I am sure, live as fulfilling a life as I do and dream the same dreams (I’m not so sure about the dreams, though—do vegetarians have long, involved dreams of marinating and then roasting a pork chop?).
Vodka arrabiata masala
12 big, juicy tomatoes
10-11 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 tbsp olive oil
½ cup vodka
1 tsp of red chilli flakes
½ glass red-wine vinegar or red wine
Chop the tomatoes into quarters or smaller pieces. Arrange the tomatoes and garlic in a baking dish and roast them in an oven till you get the wonderful, nutty smell of roasting garlic. Crush the garlic. Heat olive oil in a non-stick pan (don’t smoke the oil), throw in the garlic. When the garlic starts to brown, throw in the tomatoes. Reduce the flame and keep stirring till the tomatoes start to collapse. Keep stirring—this time with some vodka (I used about half a cup at least, though I am not sure since I was drinking it too). Stir in red chilli flakes (you don’t have to; I do, sometimes). For good measure, pour in some red-wine vinegar, or red wine. Half a goblet. Roughly tear and add a big handful of basil leaves. Make the pasta (see The pasta). Toss the pasta with the sauce. Grate some fresh Parmesan cheese over the pasta (if you don’t, that’s fine too).
Pesto power plus
The key to pesto is fresh basil. I mean really fresh, green leaves (and no, you cannot substitute it with tulsi, even though tulsi is called sweet basil). Basil wilts easily, and if the leaves are blackening around the edges, it’s not in the best shape it could be. Basil also blackens quickly when washed and kept out of the fridge, so only wash it just before you make the pesto.
2 handfuls of basil leaves (either plucked or with stalks; I do either, depending on how keen I am to pluck)
½ a handful of pine nuts (chilgoza) or/and a few walnuts or almonds
3-4 big flakes of garlic (roast them first if you want a nutty flavour)
Salt to taste
2 tbsp olive oil (extra virgin is best) A dash of white wine (I was drinking Gewurztraminer when I made this particular pesto) Grated Parmesan cheese or Pecorino cheese (I prefer to grate the cheese directly over the pasta).
Bung the whole lot in a mixie and whir it. Add extra basil or olive oil or wine to get a smooth, chutney consistency. Or if you prefer it coarse, cut back on the oil.
Pour the pesto over the pasta and toss well. Grate some fresh Parmesan, and grind some fresh pepper, if you wish.
If you want to change this to a non-vegetarian version, let me suggest the following additions to the pasta: grilled fish, grilled chicken, roast pork or shredded lamb.
I also use pesto as a marinade for grilled fish or chicken. This week, I also marinated a small pomfret with pesto after sticking a kaffir lime leaf into its belly. It was delicious.
If using spaghetti, you can snap it in two, though I don’t. Place the pasta in a big pot of boiling, salted water, then stir until al dente, meaning slightly underdone, which is how I like it (most Indians don’t). It takes about 20 minutes. Drain the water, run the pasta under cool water for about 15 seconds, then drizzle and toss with a teaspoon of olive oil.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes a blog, Our Daily Bread, at Htblogs.com. He is the managing editor of the Hindustan Times. Write to Samar at email@example.com