Are you a fan of spaghetti with meatballs? Asian curried noodles? Ooey, gooey macaroni and cheese? Where would we be without pasta? Available in a multitude of shapes—and made from wheat, rice, corn, beans, and a host of lesser known grains and vegetables— this simple food has been a staple in almost every major cuisine for millennia.
In fact, we know that pasta existed in Italy before Marco Polo made his famous journey to China. And there's even archeological evidence that noodles existed in China about 4,000 years ago.
Thankfully, Spanish colonists brought pasta to the U.S. But it wasn't until the large immigration by Italians in the last half of the 19th century that pasta gained a beachhead. By the 1920's, pasta was a comfort food throughout America.
Alternative grain pastas: This category includes the likes of KAMUT® khorasan wheat (a whole grain pasta), spelt pasta (made with 100% spelt flour) and quinoa (an ancient grain pasta similar to rice). The al dente quality of these pastas is directly related to the amount of durum wheat they contain.
Durum semolina pasta: This is the best choice for wheat-based pasta. Durum wheat is a high-gluten, exceptionally hard wheat, while "semolina" refers to the milling texture (that of fine sand, that is). If your pasta has a rich ivory color approaching yellow, you can bet it's been made with durum semolina.
Egg noodles: They may be delicate, but egg noodles absorb sauces more readily than regular durum noodles. These are best eaten with light sauces. (Here's a hint: Italian egg noodles contain more and better quality egg solids than those manufactured in the U.S.)
Gluten-free pasta: The primary ingredients used as flour in gluten-free pasta are brown rice, corn, a combination of corn and quinoa, potato and soybeans.
Whole wheat pasta: This tasty pasta choice offers optimum nutrition and rich, nutty flavor that stands up to robust sauces. Since production varies, if your first experience with whole grain pasta doesn't meet expectations, try another brand before giving up on this wholesome pasta choice.
Pasta in Asia
Asian countries have a robust pasta tradition of their own. China originated noodle cuisine in this part of the world, strongly influencing traditions in Japan and Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand and Vietnam. Most Asian pasta is defined as noodles and wheat, rice, beans and tapioca are all used to make them.
Noodles in China: Noodles in this part of Asia, particularly long, uncut ones, have acquired a cultural association with longevity. (Birthday celebrations often are attended by the sound of long noodles being slurped from a bowl.) Here, noodles are a true staple, eaten for meals and snacks at all times of the day, usually in soups. Some of China's most popular noodles are mian (a ribbon-like noodle), rice noodles (a.k.a. rice sticks), cellophane noodles, lo mein (egg noodles) and wonton (China's beloved nod to the ravioli).
Noodles in Japan: Nearly all Japanese noodles are made from wheat or buckwheat and due to their popularity in the U.S., we think you'll recognize a few of our favorites: soba (thin noodles sometimes made with mugwort or wild mountain yam), udon (thick and chewy white noodles) and ramen.
Noodles in Southeast Asia: Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines have evolved distinctive noodle cuisines from the original Chinese ascendancy. Rice noodles are dominant, with the exception of the Philippines, where wheat noodles are on equal footing. Delicious examples of Southeast Asian standouts are khao pun (a Laotian vermicelli dish) and Vietnamese banh pho.
Al Dente: Making Pasta Perfect
There's more to cooking pasta than tossing it in the pot. Perfectly cooked pasta is al dente, an Italian term referring to well-cooked pasta's still toothsome nature. (In other words, most folks prefer pasta with a bit of texture left, in lieu of boiling it until it's completely soft.)
If you want to learn to think outside the box (that is, without the directions off of the bag of pasta), here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Use a big enough pot. Pasta can expand in volume up to three times its original size, so be sure to make room.
- Use lots of water—at least 2 quarts for each ½ pound of pasta.
- Season pasta's cooking water generously with salt. (Don't worry, it won't all soak into the pasta. A generous amount of salt will simply yield more savory, flavorful results when the pasta is cooked.)
- Stir often to make sure that the pasta doesn't stick together.
- Test for doneness early and often. Basically, you want the pasta to feel firm and slightly resistant (almost springy) when you bite into it. If it sticks to your teeth when you chew it, it's not ready. Oh, and resist the temptation to throw spaghetti at the wall to see if it will stick. As much fun as that may be, it doesn't tell you anything useful about the state of your noodles.
- Remember that pasta will continue to cook after it is drained so you should stop cooking thin pastas like vermicelli just before it reaches the al dente stage. The same is true for pasta that will be baked with a sauce such as lasagna.
- Don't rinse your pasta after it's been drained. You'll risk losing the flavorful starches that will help sauces cling to it later.
- Most Asian pasta can be cooked much like dried Western pasta. The exceptions are noodles made from a base ingredient other than wheat or buckwheat, such as cellophane noodles. Unlike Western noodles, Asian noodles are rinsed with cold water and drained after cooking to remove the starch.
The 3 Fs of Pasta
Since dried varieties aren't the only pasta available these days, we thought you should know more about your mouth-watering choices — Fresh, Frozen and Fast:
- Fresh: If considering purchasing refrigerated fresh noodle pasta, such as fettuccine, know that there's little difference in flavor, nutrition and texture between high quality fresh pasta and high quality dried pasta, though fresh pasta does cook faster.
- Frozen: Because of their fillings, stuffed pastas like ravioli or tortellini can't be kept on the shelf like spaghetti or penne. Look for them in refrigerated or freezer cases where you can find high quality examples that taste just like homemade.
- Fast: Instant noodles—like packaged ramen noodles—are pastas that have been previously cooked, then dehydrated. (Bet you haven't tried ramen noodles like this before: Crunchy Cabbage and Ramen Slaw.)