What Is... Pasta?
A dish that is easier to define than the ingredient
Keywords What Is, Pasta, Italian, Udon, Soba, Noodle, Noodles, Japanese, Asian, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, German, Austrian, Taiwanese, Malaysian
How does that saying go? Something like, "There are no two ways about it." It's probably safe to say that's not quite true of the definition of pasta. Pasta, as far as the dish is concerned, is a bit easier to define than the ingredient. When thinking of pasta, many people associate the dish with Italian (and increasingly, American) cuisine and dearly cherished favorites such as lasagna, spaghetti with meatballs, linguine with clams, and mac and cheese.
When it comes to the ingredient, however, the definition is a bit more slippery, and perhaps, even contentious — matters of national pride begin to come under serious consideration. Pasta, as far as Italians and Italian Americans are probably concerned, generally refers to a mixture of semolina (a flour made from durum wheat), and water or eggs (or both), pressed or formed by hand into various shapes and sizes and then either dried or kept fresh.
But upon further thought, the term actually escapes easy definition. Even if one sticks to Italian cuisine, it is clear that exceptions to this first definition do exist, starting with the use of semolina. The most well-known exception to the rule is probably gnocchi, made often from potatoes, but not always — think gnocchi Parisienne, made from flour-based pâte à choux, the dough used for many desserts, such as profiteroles, cream puffs, and éclairs. It's an exception to the exception, if you will. And many recipes for fresh pasta dough stateside make do with plain-old flour as well. The point of all this is that pasta, more broadly defined, is made from all kinds of flour, including rice, tapioca, sweet potato, buckwheat, and spelt. Or is it? Because the clever folks out there have even figured out how to mimic the shape of pasta using the most un-pasta-like of foods, such as zucchini, spaghetti squash, and green papaya.
And pasta doesn't even have to have a shape. In Morocco, couscous is popular, a form of semolina pasta that, when spilled, is certainly not fun to clean up, but when served underneath a heady lamb tagine, becomes a medium for well, sopping up all of that saucy goodness.
Pasta can be found in many other places in the world as well. In Japan, ramen, udon, somen, and soba noodles, the last primarily made from buckwheat, are staples of loud and contented slurping in noodle houses everywhere (the polite thing to do, of course); in Austria and parts of Germany, spätzle consumed with a fine beer (or six) helps people get through the winter; in Korea, dangmyeon, made from sweet potato starch, is a staple and favorite, found in dishes such as japchae; in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, vermicelli, various other rice noodles, and egg noodles such as mi (or mie) form the basis of hundreds of different dishes. And of course, China and Taiwan go without mention. In one form or another, pasta has made its way around the world, whether one is strictly speaking about the ingredient itself or the Italian dish. And never mind that story about Marco Polo; it's complete rubbish.
But even though it is complete rubbish, he would probably be amazed anyway at what pasta has become. It's become more of a category than a single entity, and an ever-expanding one at that — a category that is becoming increasingly difficult to define as people become ever more connected through the exchange of different food cultures. And, as anyone can see, there are more than two ways about it.