There are around 350 types of pasta, but are they actually different?
Long, short, thick, thin— Pasta comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes. In fact, it’s been estimated that there are about 350 types of them! But why is there a need to have such a large variety of pasta? Aren’t they all just the same?
The truth is, like all other foods that come from far back in history, it is hard to trace what exactly are the origins of all the different kinds of pasta. From what we do know, it seems clear that pasta varies due to the culture, the needs of the dish, and even the preference of each chef and consumer.
Today, we’re going to attempt to trace the thread through history, and also find out what exactly are the differences between the many different types of pasta that exist on the menu.
Quick History of Pasta
In the 13th century, Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy after bringing back some noodles from China… or so most people believe. In actuality, the myth stemmed from a misinterpretation of a passage from “The Travels of Marco Polo”, where Polo mentioned a tree in China from which something like pasta was made. But (un)ironically, Polo’s observation was flawed too, as the tree itself, the sago palm, does not produce pasta. Before Polo even began on his journey, there were already records of a noodle-like food in Italy that were fairly similar to the modern day pasta, with “lagane” (a precursor to the modern day lasagna) and “maccheroni” (it’s where the name “macaroni” came from, but based on historical paintings, the macaroni of this time seems to represent all sorts of pasta, rather than just the tubes we know today) already being widespread foods.
While the origin of noodles were indeed attributed to the Chinese, the earliest record of noodles in the Western world seems to be in “Jerusalem Talmud”, written in the 5th century. In it, a kind of dried noodle called “itriyah” were carried by Arab travelers on long journeys over the Silk Road to China, which they could easily boil and reconstitute into a hot, nutritious meal. They eventually carried it with them to Sicily during the repeated Arab invasions of the 8th century.
But while the dry noodles came from the Arabs, there was something the Italians did that made it their own… The addition of the sauce. Before the noodles arrived in Italy, they were always eaten either plain, as a paste, or with Arab-cuisine favourites like raisins and cinnamon. But early pasta sauces were still mostly sweet, and only really became the savoury ones we know today after a few hundred years.
By the 17th century, as meat prices rose, the low prices for wheat allowed pasta to spread quickly throughout the country as an affordable staple for both the rich and the poor. Pasta machines, such as the “torchio”, were invented in Naples during their industrial revolution to further develop the production of pasta.
It was in the 19th century that tomatoes were added into the dish. Before then, the Italians saw tomatoes to be too exotic, and it was only in 1844 that the world saw the first recipe for spaghetti in tomato sauce.
Why are there Different Types of Pasta?
The answer depends on who you ask. In Italy, the birthplace of the modern pasta, the concern is about how the sauce, and the ingredients in them, adhere to the pasta itself.
Thick, larger pasta would absorb more of the sauce due to their larger surface area, and as such, are perfect for thicker sauce. Thinner pasta, on the other hand, would suit thinner sauces. Tubular pasta can hold sauces inside them as well, allowing for each bite to come with a generous amount of sauce. Other pasta with ridges on their surface is said to be able to hold onto pieces of meat better. The same is also said for pasta with twists or screw-shaped, or with unusual shapes like a seashell or tiny bowls, where they can trap bits of meat and sauce, and allow them to be consumed together with the pasta.
Historically, pasta is seen as a sort of “slow food”, where the delight comes not just from the consumption itself, but from the creation as well. Hence, self-made sauces and handmade pasta are celebrated in Italy. In the older days of Italy, lots of pasta creation came down to the creativity and innovation of old Italian woman who prepared the food for consumption. While old women in other cultures did quilts or needlepoint, the women in Italy made slow food. Hence, it is hard to trace where exactly each type of pasta came from, such as the name of the designer, or the exact city or town it started from. Pasta, thus, is a kind of creation that belongs to the people, to everyone.
Outside of Italy, pasta is seen a little differently. In the US, for example, “pasta” and “noodles” are used interchangeably, while in other countries, a clear distinction is made between them. Lasagna is a type of pasta, but it is definitely not a noodle.
I, for one, have been to restaurants in Singapore where the pasta is up to personal taste. I can pick anything from angel hair to penne and pair them with any of the sauce base the restaurant has on the menu. The freedom of choice is delightful, but that also goes to show that many of us do not view pasta the same way the Italians do. To some strict pasta connoisseurs, the concept of a free mix-and-match may seem like blasphemy. But that’s just how it is: different parts of the world view pasta differently, and carry their own cultural expectations and preferences to the creation of the dish itself, making it flexible, adaptable, and unique.
Cooking Tips for Pasta
If you’re planning to cook some pasta, here are some tips for you to cook up the perfect plate!
- When and how much salt to add
According to Del Posto chef Mark Ladner, you’ll need 15 gram of salt for every litre of water (and 100g of pasta for every litre of water). The water should be salty and “taste like the sea” (but please do not try to taste hot water). Pour the salt in only when the water is boiling, but before you put in the pasta. If you’ve added in too much salt, add a potato into the water, which can help to absorb some of the salt.
- Don’t add oil to your pasta
This is a surprisingly popular method, but one that has been repeatedly advised against. Some people add oil to their pasta after cooking it in order to prevent the pasta from sticking together before adding them to the sauce. However, coating the pasta with oil would make it harder for the sauce to stick to the pasta, and thus result in a less satisfactory eating experience.
(If you’re not going to use any sauce, adding a bit of oil is fine. The recommended oil is extra virgin olive oil, which is healthy and light and goes well with any vegetable or condiments you toss into your pasta.)
- Keep the water you cooked your pasta in
After your pasta has been boiled and ready, don’t throw away the water yet! The water, which contains the starch residue from your pasta, can help thicken your pasta sauce and help it stick to your pasta when they are combined. It’s so good that chefs even call it “liquid gold”. So always make sure to save at least a cup or two of this miracle water before tossing them away.
- Soak your pasta before cooking
This is for those who are too busy to be standing in the kitchen for too long. With this method, pasta can be cooked in hot water for just 60 seconds and will be ready to serve. First, the pasta needs to be soaked in cold water (just enough to cover them), and left for 90 minutes. Boil a pot of water, add the salt, then pop the soaked pasta into the water for a quick cook.
- Cook a large batch then freeze them in portions
If you’re not one of those with a large family to feed, or you just so happens to be the only one in your family who appreciates pasta, you can try this method to make pasta preparation much easier for yourself. You can cook pasta in a large batch (especially since most dry pasta come in plastic packaging that are not resealable), portion them, and then freeze them for future use. That way, you only need to prepare the sauce you like in the future, and just heat up the pasta to go with it.
- Cook the pasta in the sauce
Instead of pouring sauce onto the pasta, it would be way tastier to toss the cooked pasta into the sauce. This way, the pasta will be able to absorb the sauce and stick to it better. Do not do it the other way around, however (i.e. toss the sauce into the pot with the cooked pasta); the sauce will spread less evenly if you do it that way.
- How to tell when it’s ready?
Like all kinds of food, pasta depends on your own subjective taste. Some people prefer it crisper (which would mean boiling it for less time), while others might prefer it soggier (which would need more time). The normal al dante pasta would be tender outside but slightly resistant inside, and that’s usually the state that most brands want your pasta to be cooked to, so it would be the boiling time specified on the back of your packet.
The easiest way to tell if your pasta is perfect to your tastes is to grab one out of the pot and chew it. Your own mouth would be a much better judge than your eyes or your stopwatch.
When purchasing your own dry pasta to store and cook at home, always make sure to look out for the expiry dates (preferably those with at least another year or two on the clock), and those without cracks or too many broken bits (as this shows that the pasta is brittle, and may fall apart during cooking). Once purchased, keep the pasta in an air-tight container, and make sure to keep it in a dry and cool area. Dry pasta can last up to a year.
If in doubt, BORGES’ pasta is always an option. Coming straight from the Mediterranean and produced in Italy, every pasta is made according to traditional methods, with 100% natural, best durum wheat. It contains no eggs, and is perfect for vegans as well. Check them out here!
Back in the 17th century, pasta was a staple in Italy that was consumed by both the rich and the poor. Today, it has become one of humanity’s top favourites, loved by both young and old. Its flexibility and variety, and the innovation that goes into its creation contributes a lot to why it remains so fascinating even in the 21st century.
If you are interested in more discussion about food and tips for cooking, feel free to explore the rest of this website. You might enjoy <https://www.bloomconcept.com.sg/blogs/news/food-hacks-for-the-modern-singaporean-mum>!