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Is pasta the new pizza for middle-class Indian consumers?

Indians have consumed tonnes of pasta during the pandemic. Lounge looks at how this everyday Italian fare is fast replacing the popularity of the pizza from the ‘desi’ palate

Tri-color pasta rotini. Photo: Unsplash.
Tri-color pasta rotini. Photo: Unsplash.

For the 57 seconds that the footage runs, it’s hard to pull away your eyes from the screen. First, dosa batter is thickly spread on a skillet, followed by what appears to be a generous slathering of butter. Then chopped vegetables, dollops of luridly colourful sauces, some creamy stuff and—wait for it—a small mound of macaroni are heaped on to it. Next, this hotchpotch is showered liberally with cheese shavings. And finally, after a smattering of some unknown spices, the disc is sliced into modest-sized strips and rolled up into small cylinders before it is served with three kinds of chutneys, reminiscent of the Indian tricolour.

When this video was posted on social media in August, it quickly went viral. Needless to say, south Indian viewers were aghast at this sacrilege committed on their much beloved dosa. But dosa lovers from all over the country were no less outraged. Many felt that a signature Indian dish had been defiled by an unholy combination of ingredients, especially by that ladle full of macaroni. But should we be surprised by the intrusion of this everyday Italian fare into Indian kitchens?

Over the last few years, pasta seems to have turned into the signature Italian dish for millions in India, especially among the urban middle classes. Eating pizza and burger, once considered the epitome of aspirational eating and the sign of a cosmopolitan palate, appear to be on the wane. Indigenous variations on the pizza, created with inventive toppings on naan or kulcha breads, may still be popular in parts of the country but, of late, the humble pasta is turning out to be the rising star in the firmament of international cuisine for Indian consumers.

According to a recent report in The Times Of India, pasta saw the sharpest spike in consumption in India between mid-April and mid-July, when much of the country was in lockdown due to the covid-19 pandemic. During this 12-week period, consumption volumes jumped three-and-a-half times, from 2,200 tonnes to more than 7,600 tonnes. A recent report by market research company IMARC estimates that the sales value of pasta last year was $391.5 million (around 2,888 crore now) in India. Among the factors it lists for the popularity of the dish are rising urbanization and the changing lifestyle of a younger demographic, leading to a spike in demand for ready-to-eat products.

In its packaged form, pasta can be cooked easily and in large quantities, both of which would have been a blessing during the days of the lockdown, says chef Ranveer Brar. “People’s earlier inertia of can and cannot cook seems to have gone down,” he adds. Apart from being adaptable with regard to the toppings and sauces that can be added to it, pasta is also an easy route for vegetarians to add an international dimension to their taste buds.

“With so many brands of pasta being locally produced, it’s no longer an aspirational food,” says Manu Chandra, Chef Partner Olive group of restaurants. Neither is he particularly surprised by the attempts of street food vendors to experiment with pasta. “People need variety, and eating instant noodles can get very monotonous beyond a point,” he adds.

Indians are moving beyond Maggi—and so has Maggi itself.

“Consumers have regularly sought variety and convenience from the comfort of their homes,” says Nikhil Chand, director of foods and confectionery, Nestlé India, which owns the Maggi franchise. “Pasta was sometimes seen as a dish that required detailed preparation at home. The launch of our Maggi Pazzta range a few years ago was an attempt to make it easier to cook the dish at home.” The range offers flavours such as masala penne, mushroom penne, cheese macaroni and cheesy tomato twist. Traditionalists be damned — cheese macaroni and masala penne, among the most-loved flavours according to Chand, are here to stay.

Carb is king

The Indian fondness for pasta ties back to one of the defining characteristics of their palate: an abiding love for carbohydrate-rich food. According to a recent study published in the American medical journal Diabetes Care, 70-80% of the average Indian diet is made up of carbohydrates, and this high intake is the leading cause for the wide incidence of diabetes in the population. According to a 2019 report, India is home to 77 million diabetics, the second highest number in any country in the world.

Pasta is traditionally made with durum wheat, eggs and/or water, though on industrial scales it is commonly made with refined wheat, flour or semolina. Although whole-grain varieties of packaged pasta are now available in the market, they tend to be more expensive than the regular ones, which are high in calorific content and have less fibre. But, as the numbers show, these factors have not deterred Indian consumers in the slightest.

“Indians love their carbs and pasta, as a dish, is basically mainlining the carbs,” says food historian Kurush Dalal. Apart from being an easily available, ready-to-cook food, pasta also resonates with a number of items that already exist in the repertory of the pan-Indian kitchen. “Pasta comes from the Italian word for paste or dough,” Dalal adds. “And several variants of such food are made across the length and the breadth of the country.”

Traditionally pasta is made with durum wheat, eggs and/or water.
Traditionally pasta is made with durum wheat, eggs and/or water.

There is, for instance, chushi pithe, a rice-based dumpling, which is made by Bengalis and added to payesh, a creamy dessert. In some parts, the chushi is made with rice flour and sundried months ahead of the actual cooking. Then then are several kinds of dal wadis, little mounds of lentil paste that are dried in the sun, especially along the Konkani coast.

Dalal mentions a popular Sindhi delicacy made with potatoes and macaroni. According to Sindhi Rasoi, a food blog that has been showcasing recipes from the community since 2008, one variation of this macaroni-based dish is macroli (or macaroni) phool patasha aloo curry, a potato curry made with macaroni and lotus seeds. The Gujaratis, in turn, cook their dhokli, a kind of lentil dumpling, with French beans into a curry. The dish—fansi dhokli—is often referred to as “Gujarati pasta”.

Long before the street-food vendor in the viral video decided to put macaroni as dosa filling, macaroni had found a myriad uses in some homely Indian dishes.

Al dente to all-Indian

Pasta, which rose in Italy during the 13th century, was meant to be food for the nobility, until it caught up as plebeian cuisine. The 14th century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio mentions it in his story cycle The Decameron, where pasta is served with generous doses of Parmesan cheese. In an article titled "The Twisted History Of Pasta", published in History Magazine, Alfonso López mentions one Bartolomeo Scappi, a papal chef in the middle of the 16th century, who created a “third course for a banquet consisting of boiled chicken accompanied with ravioli filled with a paste made of boiled pork belly, cow udders, roast pork, Parmesan cheese, fresh cheese, sugar, herbs, spices, and raisins”.

Bizarre as this combination sounds, pasta went through many such iterations in its initial phases of evolution, and was even cooked as a sweetened dish, before it assumed its familiar contemporary version, in which it is cooked “al dente” (a texture that retains the solidity and shape of the pasta instead of turning it into soggy mush) in salted boiling water, and served, most commonly, with a tomato-based sauce and cheese. But variations and improvisations abound.

Olive Beach-Mezzaluna with spinach and ricotta. Photo: Sanjay Ramchandran
Olive Beach-Mezzaluna with spinach and ricotta. Photo: Sanjay Ramchandran

Even the notoriously difficult al dente texture is not a standard preference across Italy, Chandra points out, with the southerners preferring their pasta softer. Bianca Castafiore, the opera singer who is dubbed the Milanese nightingale in Hergé’s Tintin comics series, is hugely fussy about the texture of her pasta. Jailed by the South American dictator General Tapioca on false charges, she throws the overcooked pasta that is served to her every day on her poor prison guard’s head. Indians, however, don’t mind if their pasta is on the tender side.

“People are not accustomed to the al dente texture here and want to cook their pasta to death,” Chandra says. Many Indian chefs also have the habit of adding too much sauce to pasta, he adds, recalling the number of times customers have returned orders at his restaurants demanding their pasta be cooked softer. In the classic Italian style, the sauce should barely coat the noodles, but the desi propensity is to take the cue from “our dal-chawal concept”, as Chandra puts it, and turn the whole thing into a gloppy mess.

But all is not lost. The ascendance of spaghetti aglio olio, a dish marked by its wholesome simplicity (toss pasta in olive oil tempered with garlic and chilli flakes) among Indian restaurant-goers in the last few years, Chandra says, is a promising sign. The cuisine finally seems to be enjoyed in the form it should be. “Hopefully, in the next 10 years, we will learn to appreciate the simple pasta, cooked the way it ought to be,” he adds.

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