More culinary crimes have been committed in the name of spaghetti Bolognese than almost any other. Although there is an almost endless range of regional and even local variations, the red gloop often served up in so many restaurants here and abroad bears little resemblance to the real stuff.
First of all, let me correct the common misconception that Italian food is all about pasta and pizza. The reality is that for a relatively small country, there is an almost infinite variety of preparations. Recipes for the same dish can change from one valley and village to the next. One reason for this wonderful diversity is that Italy was united as a country in the late 19th century; before that, different city-states had their own rich culinary traditions.
In fact, my first introduction to Italian food came when my two younger brothers and I travelled to Europe by sea on the SS Asia, an Italian liner, when I was 12. As Unesco was paying for us to join our father, we were in first class, and the menus were, to say the least, bewildering and bewitching. Totally confused, I would just point to something new every meal when the waiter arrived to take my order. By the end of the 10-day voyage from Karachi to Genoa, I was hooked.
Many years later, I learned the basics from an Italian girlfriend. As in desi cooking, getting the base right is crucial. In the Silver Spoon, the bible of Italian cooking, the recipe for Bolognese meat sauce (or ragu) is deceptively simple:
After heating some butter and olive oil, add a chopped onion, celery and carrot plus half a pound of minced steak. Season with salt and pepper. Cook over low heat until the vegetables have softened and the meat has nearly browned. Mix in a tablespoon of tomato paste with a little water, cover and cook for an hour and a half over a low heat. Add some more water if the dish seems to be getting too dry.
This, then, is the basic ragu from Bologna, but as you would expect, there are endless variations. Incidentally, Italians believe that different sauces should be served with the kind of pasta best suited to them. For Bolognese, the pasta recommended is tagliatelle.
In the south, some variations call for more tomatoes. You chop these and let them simmer and thicken with the meat for a couple of hours, stirring occasionally. A slug of red wine is often added, and while the alcohol soon evaporates, it gives a boost to the flavour. I add a little twist of my own at the very start with a can of anchovies as I find this gives the dish an extra depth of flavour. Of course you won’t need to add any salt.
One of my favourite pasta sauces is pesto. Not by coincidence, it is also the simplest, provided you can get fresh basil leaves. A word of warning: the local term is tulsi, but our herb is slightly bitter. Luckily, basil grows very well here: a packet of seeds I brought from England years ago threatened to overrun the whole garden.
Remove the stems from the leaves, and throw in a couple of large handfuls into the blender, followed by a clove of garlic, two tablespoons of either walnuts or pine nuts (chilghozas), some virgin olive oil and a pinch of salt. Run the blender for a minute or two, and then add grated Parmesan cheese. Try and avoid the pre-grated type as it is a poor substitute for freshly grated cheese. Run the blender again for a minute, and viola! you have pesto sauce. Serve with freshly cooked penne pasta, after drizzling a little more olive oil over each plate.
A further word about pasta here: in my experience, local pasta turns from hard to soft without passing briefly through the essential al dente interim stage when pasta should be removed from the boiling water. One reason is that in Pakistan, we don’t grow durum wheat, the variety Italian pasta is made of by law.
In Italy, pasta is often the first course. I used to wonder about this as it can be quite filling. I learned later that in the shortages after the Second World War when meat was scarce and expensive, people would fill up on pasta before getting a small main course of meat, fish or chicken.
My mother loved my pasta carbonara, a delicious cream based sauce in which eggs are cooked towards the end of the preparation. Not exactly what the doctor ordered if you have high cholesterol…