Pasta around the World
A couple of years ago, Oxfam ran a poll in which they asked 16,000 people in 17 different countries to list their favorite foods. Pasta was the clear winner, and was joined in the top ten by pizza and ‘Italian.’ A Mediterranean trifecta. Oxfam did not have a ready explanation for this winning choice. But, in light of my own history with one type of pasta dish, lasagna, I will go out on a limb to suggest one.
Pasta, the curious, multi-faceted durum wheat creation, is the ideal conductor of memory. Memory sticks to pasta like a sauce – layered, interesting, cooked from a recipe labored over for years, passed down from generation-to-generation. That is pasta; that is memory. I make this statement based on my ever-growing fascination with one particular pasta dish, lasagna. I have no Italian heritage, nor have ever tasted proper Italian lasagna that I am aware of. But when I take a bite of lasagna, I am hit by a whole host of memories and associations. I find myself haunted by lasagnas past.
School Time Lasagnas
On the sweeter side is the lasagna of my high school days in the US. It featured gooey cheese and impossibly neat stacking; each layer of pasta topped with the sweet meaty sauce, cheese, and béchamel. This was lasagna with long-term effects. I spent the second period after lunch fighting a pasta-induced sleep (usually a subject for which I could not muster any enthusiasm, like pre-Calculus or Physics). It is also a lasagna I often ate in solitude.
Post high school, I moved into the university lasagna league. I relocated to London and met a battery of young men dressed in second-hand shop treasures. They liked to cook elaborate meals in our dimly-lit student hall kitchen while reading aloud Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac. Yes, it was that kind of place. Amongst the pot-stirring readers was Jak. He showed me a different kind of lasagna, one generously filled with the discounted vegetables he bought at the end of the market day. It was lighter on the cheese than the one of a few years earlier, and layered throughout with sprinklings of chili flakes. Spicy, warming food for a homesick soul.
Most memorable of lasagnas was one I had in Nepal. I trekked through the Himalayas for fifteen days with a group of Dutch travelers, scaling a pass high enough to take my breath away – both with its stunning views and the stunning lack of oxygen at 16,500 feet. In order to keep us going, the lodges we stayed at served a mountain of carbohydrates in different forms. These dishes consisted most often of potatoes and rice, but one lodge offered us a bit of change. In a five-house town with a pack of semi-wild dogs as chief resident, we were offered something labeled lasagania.
Our hopes were high, but the misspelling should have dashed them. The lasagania of Nepal was in actuality a plate full of spaghetti, topped with a nondescript tomato-based sauce and an oddly colored cheese. Nothing induces a hunger for unadulterated carbohydrates like mountain trekking, and I finished this lasagania in a couple of minutes flat.
Lasagna has staying power, and it has stuck with me as I have moved yet again. I now make my own here in the Netherlands. Living with my parents (which you can read about in ‘The Boomerang Kid Diet’), I turn to a new favorite: kale and mushroom lasagna, courtesy of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (of River Cottage fame), from his cookbook Veg.
Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe doesn’t specify which kind of mushrooms his lasagna requires. I usually throw in some of the more interesting varieties I find in the shop, like Oyster and Nameko mushrooms. A sprinkle of hard salty goat’s cheese on top makes a nice contrast to the creamy béchamel sauce. Kale, the other main ingredient, was a star of Dutch cuisine long before it became an international superfood. Cooked al dente, it offers just the slightest bit of crunch. There is nothing quite like the sound and wafting scent of bubbling lasagna fresh out of the oven, the cheese on top golden and just slightly crisp. Being able to serve it to the people you love and creating a new lasagna memory is the best part.
Food for the Soul
My own memories of lasagna could be an indicator of why its most important constituent, pasta, has taken up position number one on the list of the world’s favorite foods. In the US, London, Nepal, and the Netherlands (the places I have lived), pasta is a recurring ingredient. I experienced how it has outgrown its Mediterranean roots and taken up residence in people’s kitchens around the world. With that, it becomes the conductor of memory: human memory, that essential addition to each dish that has the capability of turning mere ingredients into food for the soul.Memory sticks to pasta like a sauce. No wonder it is the world's favorite food! Click To Tweet