Sunday, November 10, 2013

I Don't Want Nirvana! I Want Great Food, Always! -- Part III -- Building Gastronomical Bridges

A couple of months back, Neeti visited Pali Village Cafe and came back gushing on the food and the ambience.
Since we were in Bandra last night, Neeti suggested that we go there. And I had to agree. Located in a quintessential East Indian bungalow, the Cafe has a rustic charm to it, with traditional furniture, antique lamps and bare walls! The place gave a Meditteranean "tavern-ous" look.
The fare was artisanal, with rustic breads on display. We ordered our meal and Neeti asked me "Aren't pasta, spaghetti similar to noodles we have in China?"
Indeed that's an exciting question. I replied that perhaps pasta in some form traveled with the legendary Marco Polo from China to medieval Italy.
After devouring our pasta, on the way back, I started Googling the query Neeti had posed.
There is indeed a theory that Ancient Rome did have something like the lasagne that we know of today. However, it were the Arabs, intrepid travelers and traders of the Silk Route that existed ub the Middle Ages who adapted the fresh Oriental noodles, dried them and carried them on their dhows from China to the Middle East and onwards to North Africa and then to South Europe! 
The Arabs used to stop by at Serendip (modern Sri Lanka), the Malaccas and the Malabar coast! Perhaps the noodles that originated in China inspired the Malay noodles and string hoppers (idiyappam) of the Malabar coast and modern Sri Lanka before settling in an alien land far away, in Italy!
Some believe that noodles existed in Asia much before Marco Polo’s trip to China. Archaeologists believe that central Asia is most likely the first area to have produced noodles thousands of years ago. From Asia, it traveled westward, perhaps through nomadic Arabs to Europe.
Once it reached the Mediterranean, the pasta / noodle making process was refined, and durum wheat became the ingredient of choice for pasta flour because of its high gluten content and long shelf life. When durum wheat pasta is dried, it lasts indefinitely, making it a very convenient food to store. Over time, because of pasta’s affordability, shelf life, and versatility, it became firmly rooted in Italian culture. The warm Mediterranean climate of Italy is suited to growing fresh vegetables and herbs, which meant that Italians could get creative with a delicious variety of pasta sauces.
Later, Italy became the centre of culinary innovation - tomatoes came in from the New World of the Americas, spinach and aubergines came in from North Africa. These new ingredients along with local delights like basil, olives, capers, cheeses, cured meats and wines resulted in a delectable cuisine that we call Italian! 
Is it also possible that the perishable, soft Chinese dumplings had been made since 1700 BC spawned off the concept of stuffed pasta. Today the “dumpling” style of pasta is manifested in ravioli, gnocchi and other preparations using regular wheat flour, eggs and water. 
Whether pasta is a part of Marco Polo’s legacy may be questionable, it is indeed true that gastronomical bridges between distant lands and civilisations may have existed for times immemorial, without us, modern people, knowing of them!
And talking of recent gastronomical bridges, I recently read of Sikhs who moved to California to work on farms in the late 1800s and early 1900s, who ended up marrying Mexican women because Californian laws prevented emigration of Sikh women for marriage. These Punjabi men chose Mexican women in marriage for a number of reasons. Physically, Mexican women at the time were thought to resemble Punjabis. They shared a rural way of life. Mexican women were also preferred for one important reason - their tortillas were somewhat like the makki ki roti that the Punjabis so missed in the Californian farmlands! So came about a melange of langars and chicken curry enchiladas!
Gastronomical bridges like these will continue to be built as people travel the world, we have already see that happening over the centuries, but today the pace of inter-cultural intercourse has only accelerated.
That's why one full year after I first wrote two editions of "I Don't Want Nirvana! I Want Great Food, Always!", I still believe in it, even more strongly than I ever did! 

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