The first plate of pasta I ever had was a 120-rupee plate of penne in red sauce from an obscure little restaurant in Shyambazar, North Kolkata, around 10 years ago. It had these tubes of pasta mixed up with all sorts of exotic veggies in a red sauce, sprinkled with a generous helping of dried herbs. I had ordered a takeaway and by the time I got to eat it, most of the pasta, which was extremely soft to begin with, had collapsed and broken down.
But I liked the taste. Tangy and slightly spicy, with the bite of the zucchini and the red bell pepper and the pops of sweet corn, it was all quite new for me. And the flavour profile was dominated by the notes of the dried herbs, predominantly oregano. This was a combination of flavours and textures that was hitherto unknown, and I quickly fell in love with the dish. Later, I tried the pasta in white sauce at the same place, and I was amazed by the creamy, cheesy goodness.
It took me a long time to realise that the soft, creamy pasta I had grown to love was as Italian as Masala Dosa. It is an Indian invention, a product of India’s ingenuous take on foreign ingredients and making it their own. The Indo-Italian pasta is now staple fare all over the country. In recent years, however, a lot of places are beginning to serve traditional Italian pastas, although that is still mostly restricted to high-end or expensive casual dining places.
The three colours of the Indo-Italian pasta are Red, White and Pink, very different from the Red-White-Green trio we’ve talked about in our Italian pasta series (check it out here) despite two of the colours being common to both trios. No, Indian pasta is an entirely different kettle of fish. Some people embrace it as their own, others find it sacrilegious and off-putting. It is a highly controversial topic, and the time has finally come to address it.
There’s no doubt that I’d get some amazing farfalle with pesto at a chic Gurgaon restaurant, but here in Rohtak, just a few kilometres away, I’d be stupid to hope for something like that. But that doesn’t mean that the local restaurants don’t serve pasta, of course they do. They serve our own Indianised version of pasta, cooked way longer than the Italian nonna would allow, encased in a creamy sauce with a liberal sprinkling of oregano and chilli flakes.
The red sauce is primarily tomato based, flavoured with garlic and often a ginger and red chilli powder. Like many Indian dishes, it tends to start with some finely chopped onions and unlike an Italian tomato sauce, the herbs are almost always dried. You’re unlikely to find fresh basil in a red sauce pasta, which is a mandatory ingredient in any self-respecting passata pomodoro.
The reason is simple. Fresh herbs like basil and thyme are hard to find in India (although a lot of big supermarkets are starting to stock up on fresh basil these days), and the dried herbs keep for longer. So, using dried herbs with a long shelf life a rather practical way of adding the herby note to the sauce. Of course, fresh basil has a radically different flavour compared to dry basil, but that is something we will have to accept since it is, after all, a compromise.
At the heart of the white sauce pasta lies the so-called white sauce, made using flour, butter and milk. It is basically a bechamel, one of the classic French mother sauces, the starting point of a mac and cheese. The white sauce is reinforced with cream and cheese to create a saucy consistency, perfect for coating the pasta. The pink sauce pasta provides a best of both worlds, where the red sauce base is created and a separately made bechamel is folded in later.
As you know, finding proper cheese is difficult in India and even if you do, it’s rather expensive. So, it is unsurprising that we’ve found a way around this as well, by using processed cheese, which a lot more easily available and a hell of a lot cheaper. Does it have the same depth of flavour as freshly grated parmesan? Definitely not, far from it. It has hardly any flavour of its and merely makes the sauce rich and fatty without adding any depth of flavour.
If there is any Italian or Italian food purist reading this, I’m pretty sure they’ve either clutched at their chest or downright fainted atleast once by now. I have a friend or two who are a stickler for the classics and absolutely loathe these dishes. Granted, this isn’t nearly as good as the Tangra Chinese which happens to be a brilliant example of Indians assimilating a foreign cuisine (more about it here), but it isn’t terrible either.
The flavour profile of a pasta in white sauce is radically different from an Indian or Chinese dish, thanks to the addition of dried herbs and the rather witty import of a French mother sauce into the Indian culinary lexicon. It is this exotic nature which was the primary appeal for my taste buds ten years ago.
You might argue that there are tons of places serving proper Bolognese and carbonara these days. It isn’t 2010 anymore, it is the era of culinary globalisation. Well, yes, of course, but they are definitely expensive, and not without cause. These Italian dishes use a lot of ingredients that need to be imported which naturally brings up the price. Serve me a plate of carbonara with Pecorino Romano and guanciale for under 200 rupees and I’ll ditch Indian white sauce on the spot. But we all know that’s not happening anytime soon.
And this is a realisation that dawned on me after moving to Rohtak in 2019. In a place where exotic ingredients and high-end restaurants are but a distant dream, we have to make do with the red and the white. Why? Because the flavour profile is entirely different. It provides a welcome respite from the drudgeries of rajma chawal and aloo parantha which, though good, get tedious after some time.
What I do have a problem with, is calling these concoctions International or Italian dishes, because trust you me, they are not. I have had proper spaghetti carbonara and tortellini puttanesca and they taste nothing like the penne in red sauce I ordered on Zomato last night. There is no doubt which is better, but all good things come at a cost. And for those who cannot afford it, the Indian pastas are an excellent compromise. So, give Indian pastas a chance. They’re not as bad as you think.