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The Italian Job

Illustration by Saksham Arora   | Photo Credit: Saksham Arora

As the comedian Eddie Izzard once observed, even the foreboding Death Star from Star Wars would have had to have a canteen, and even Lord Vader, with his ability to use the dark side of the force to do things like turn on lights without having to get up from his sofa, would still have had to go down there once in a while to eat, perhaps, a Penne all’arrabbiata.

To be fair, the very first thing that struck me as being rather interesting was not the Italian dish which — to my ears — sounded like whole wheat pasta that does a bit of belly dancing, but the fact that no speaker of the English language seems to find it odd that the sequence of words “would have had to have had” is perfectly acceptable and normal.

This dish itself relies on a very small number of really high-quality ingredients, and the Italians will likely tell you that unless the arrabiatta sauce is made from tomatoes harvested by virgins on a moonless midsummer night from the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, it isn’t really authentic and such. But I’d ignore that sort of “no true Haggis” fallacy. At its worst, this dish is tomato ketchup poured over Maggi, but at its best, it can make your taste buds want to do a spot of belly dancing.

If you thought the name implies a middle eastern origin, you’d be wrong. The sauce is made from tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and fiery, dried red chillies; thus arrabbiata means “angry” in Italian. It turns out that the Latin root Rabbia means rabies, thus “rabid/angry”. While I admit that rabies isn’t the most appetising of metaphors for something on the dinner table, there is a spicy irony to imagining a hot dish that likely requires a generous gulp of water being named after a disease that is known for causing the inability to consume said liquid.

How do you go about making Penne all’arrabbiata at home in India, especially without the access to Mount Vesuvius, virgins, and so on? Simple. You do what the Indian subcontinent has done since the dawn of mankind, which is to shamelessly co-opt, adapt and subsume foreign cultures into a Jalfrezi, Vindaloo or Makhani gravy. By the way, the Italians didn’t have tomatoes and chillies till the Americas were discovered in the 15th century, so don’t let anyone tell you that fusion cuisine is infra dig.

Chop some onions, ginger, garlic and tomatoes. Add turmeric, chilli and cumin powder and slow cook them in ghee. Procure the cheapest brandy you can find at your friendly neighborhood Tasmac outlet and add a generous splash to this gravy. Spice flavour molecules dissolve in fat or alcohol (not water!) and the brandy will do a great job of extracting every last bit of flavour from the spices. The alcohol itself will burn off by the time the dish is done so you don’t have to worry about failing a breathalyser test after tucking into this Penne all’Amritsari, if you will. Let the sauce reduce to your desired level of thickness and pour over cooked pasta (or Maggi noodles, if you are in a “let’s really annoy a food purist today” frame of mind)

PS: To paraphrase the immortal words of Kamal Haasan, kindly add salt, water and coriander leaves like one would add Maaneys, Thaeneys and Ponmaaneys.

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Printable version | Oct 24, 2021 1:32:59 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/the-italian-job/article26291756.ece

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