What is it about pasta and noodles that makes us feel content and happy when we eat them? It is supposedly the heightened level of serotonin produced in the brain, which gives us the feeling of wellbeing and comfort. When I eat Chinese style noodles in a restaurant or at home, I usually have them lightly seasoned with soy sauce or oyster sauce, garlic, sesame oil and perhaps some fiery chile sauce. The thought of a bowl of sizzling hot Chinese noodles, glistening with delicious sauce, stir fried vegetables and tasty meats makes my taste buds tingle. I am already having a flash back to my childhood and a happy memory of my Dad buying us chicken chowmein from a “hole in the wall ” Chinese cook shop on Hadfield Street in Guyana. This was no “sit-down” restaurant, but rather a “take-away” joint. No frills, just basic Chinese wok cooking; but hands down in my memory, the best chowmein ever.
My own children have kept a stash of ” life-saving” ramen bowls while at boarding school and college. These were often made when the meals served in the dining hall were not their favorite. Sometimes when they had late night work sessions and needed a little pick me up to keep them through study time, a cup of ramen or a bowl of “Easy Mac” would help them curb their hunger pangs. These were the closest things which they could make in their rooms and would give them a distant reminder of home. These cheap foods could be made simply by pouring in some boiling water and heating through until the noodles plumped up. They often asked me for them in little food packages I would send to them. The noodles and pasta were not like homemade, but were comfort foods nonetheless. Older now, they have learned to elevate their noodle bowls with great sophistication by adding sliced meat or chicken, greens, chopped scallions and even a boiled egg.
The Chinese were making hand spun noodles as far back as the Han dynasty. Since then, noodle making has evolved and traversed the globe. So many cultures have their own type of “pasta” made from unleavened dough comprised of wheat flour, eggs and water. Pasta can also made of rice flour, buckwheat flour, millet and many others. In Middle Eastern countries, couscous is used and is a form of fine pasta made from semolina. The most notable pasta makers after the Chinese are the Italians. A plethora of glorious forms and shapes are found in Italian cuisine and they have undoubtedly mastered the art of pasta. I have had the debate with some of my Italian friends on whether it was Marco Polo and his travels to Asia, who brought knowledge of Chinese noodle making back to Italy. There’s a silence at this notion, but they agree after some thought that this is probably not far from the truth!
Whoever made it first, we are all thankful for the knowledge today. I think that the magic of pasta lies in it’s uncanny ability to absorb the flavor of a sauce. The most common pasta eaten is probably spaghetti. Today there are well over a hundred forms and shapes produced commercially all over the world. Each shape is meant to highlight the sauce. The swirls in rigatoni capture the sauce well and is great with a hearty meaty sauce. The shorter penne pasta with ridges, cylinder shape and hollow form is great for sucking up sauces like arrabiata or marinara. Macaroni shells are a favorite for macaroni and cheese. Each sauce coats the pasta and makes it the vehicle for carrying the flavor. From tomato Bolognese or creamy Alfredo, spicy, garlicky puttanesca or the humble caccio y pepe with olive oil, black pepper and Pecorino dressing; pastas can be prepared in a multitude of ways.
Here in Haiti, spaghetti has become a staple as it is an economical carbohydrate. A very typical breakfast which is eaten in practically every household is “spaghetti with hotdogs”. It might sound a little strange to many, and I must admit that I had to warm up to the idea of tasting this, but it is delicious. It is made by sautéing hotdog pieces with onions, sweet pepper slices and garlic. Tomato paste is added to form a tasty sauce and the spaghetti is then cooked together and absorbs the sauce. A sprinkle of Edam cheese or “tête de maure” and this copious breakfast dish which will keep you filled for the day!!
In homage to pasta; which my family loves, I made lasagna for dinner. There are different ways to making this dish, but I make mine layered with a bechamel sauce. I am most thankful for the availability of no-boil pasta. It just makes life easier, as the labor intensive “lasagna-making process” is lessened. I also added a layer of spinach this time. There are five layers of pasta and these are intertwined with a layer of Bolognese sauce, grated mozzarella and bechamel. I use lots of fresh herbs from my garden such as oregano and basil to make it fresh tasting. The lasagna is then baked for an hour and served with a lovely salad and garlic bread.
Both of the recipes for the Bechamel sauce and the Bolognese sauce are written in prior posts on Guyanese Girl Haitian Soul.