If you love pasta, and if you love Indian food, you won’t be able to resist this Masala Pasta. A fiery red tomato sauce seasoned with cumin and garlic and mellowed with cashew cream makes every bite one to remember. A vegan, soy-free recipe, can be nut-free.
Indo-Italian fusion food may be a newer concept than Indo-Chinese, but it’s arrived and it’s here to stay, with recipes like this Masala Pasta which has become popular, in all its fiery glory, on the streets of cities like New Delhi and Bombay.
We Indians — and Indian born — are the ultimate snobs when it comes to food. Even when we actually admit to liking a foreign cuisine (and it’s not often that we do so, at least not collectively), we don’t just adopt it as is. Operating with an implicit but unshakable belief that we can make anything taste better, we set out to adapt it to our spice-loving tastebuds.
In other words, we smother it in masala, sprinkle on a liberal quantity of chili pepper, and then, if possible, top it off with a tadka of more spices. (We even made McDonald’s, which resisted vegetarian offerings here in the United States long after other fast food chains had jumped on the wagon, cook up McAloo Tikki Burgers and Aloo Naans for us before they could set up shop in India).
If you want to learn how to make Indian style masala pasta, and if you think you know all there is to know about the Italian kind, you’ve got a huge surprise — and lots of education — coming your way.
And it begins by throwing everything you knew right out the window.
If you thought your Italian grandma loved garlic, think again. We love more garlic more (yes, that’s twice the more). The same goes for tomatoes. If you’re a tomato snob who knows every kind of tomato there is, and in which dish exactly to use it, we can still best you by using more tomato than you’d ever dream of using in your pasta.
Shouldn’t the pasta be cooked al dente? No, it should be boiled like crazy until it’s soft and squishy. Should the garlic be mellowed in olive oil? No, it should be added to the sauce in all its raw glory so it pummels your tastebuds and jars your brain. Should you add a dash of red pepper flakes? No, you should add at least four chili peppers and grind them up really fine first so every time you take a mouthful your hair stands on end. All in a good way, of course.
But relax. And don’t leave yet. If your mouth feels sore at the very thought of eating this Masala Pasta, you can breathe easy because it really isn’t as punishing as it sounds — or punishing at all. In fact, it’s actually really, really delicious. Differently delicious than what you may be used to, but delicious nonetheless.
How to make the most amazing pasta, Indian street food style:
- The buzz on the street is to overcook the pasta. But I’ll give you an out here: I prefer to cook the pasta al dente for this recipe. For two reasons. It will hold up better when you stir-fry it with the spices, and, more importantly, cooking pasta al dente keeps the pasta at a lower glycemic index, making it healthier and more waist-friendly. Overcooked, squishy pasta, on the other hand, has a higher GI. And while I understand that you may not be thinking about pesky stuff like healthfulness while eating on the streets, I probably wouldn’t, there’s no harm in doing things right when you do them at home.
- In fact, you could up the ante even further by using whole wheat pasta.
- Penne rigate is the best pasta for this recipe, again for two reasons: regular penne without the ridges is what most street food vendors in India appear to use, and that probably has more to do with ease of availability. But the rigate — or ridges — hold on to the sauce better. You can go with one kind of penne or the other, but use penne because it just is a sturdier pasta and therefore more likely to hold up to the frying and smothering than, say, a farfalle pasta or an elbow pasta would.
- I spoke earlier about being counterintuitive while making this pasta, and here’s something that may not make much sense to you. We’ll mix up the sauce raw, then add it to a wok or a skillet with the cooked pasta and spices and stir-fry all of it together, like Chinese food. Don’t look for logic here, or for the usual rules: it’s just the nature of Indian street food, where nothing makes sense at first but it all tastes amazing at the end.
- The sauce here is very tomatoey, with both fresh tomatoes and tomato paste, garlicky with a whole head of garlic, and smoky with roasted cumin. If you don’t have tomato paste, add another tomato — or two.
- You will need dry red chili peppers for this recipe, both to add that amazing red color and the heat this pasta requires. You can use either Kashmiri chili peppers or guajillo peppers, which I used. Both will add lovely color and enough — but not overpowering — heat. You should either lightly roast the peppers before using or just soak them in hot water for about 15 minutes before blending with your tomato sauce.
- You need a spice blend for this pasta, and the one that street food vendors usually use is Maggi Masala Magic. It’s available on Amazon and I’ll add an affiliate link in the recipe box below. But if you have all of the ingredients on hand, you can try making your own using this recipe. The recipe calls for two packets, but you can start out with one, check if it is to your taste, and add the other if you want to.
- You want to give enough time to stir-fry the pasta and the sauce. That’s because you’re adding raw tomatoes and garlic to the sauce and you want them to cook through while still packing a one-two flavor punch.
- You want some green bell peppers in your pasta. Not red, not yellow, just green. Green bell peppers have a unique flavor that works very well in Indian recipes, and they work particularly well with the flavors in this pasta.
- Finish off your pasta with a smidgen of cashew cream. This will mellow the flavors a bit and also add a nice smoothness and mouth-feel.
- If you want to make this pasta nut-free, use a quarter of a cup of coconut milk instead of the cashew cream.
- Wash down your Masala Pasta with a glass of piping hot cutting chai. It’s the perfect combination.
Ingredients for Masala Pasta:
- Penne rigate pasta
- Tomato paste
- Roasted cumin
- Dry red chili peppers, like Kashmiri peppers or guajillo peppers
- Green bell peppers
- Maggi Masala Magic seasoning (link in recipe)
- Curry powder
- Vegetable oil
Looking for more vegan Indian street food?
Masala Pasta recipe
Vegan | Soy-Free
Masala Pasta, Indian street style
- 16 oz penne rigate (you can also use the regular penne pasta without any ridges)
- 1/4 cup raw cashews
- 4 medium tomatoes (diced)
- 2 heaping tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tsp paprika (optional, will add more color)
- 4 dry red chili peppers (like Kashmiri red chilis. If using a guajillo pepper, use just one or two. Soak the chili peppers in hot water for 15 minutes before using)
- 12 cloves garlic (peeled)
- 1 tsp roasted cumin
- 2 green bell peppers (cut in a 1/2-inch dice)
- 2 packets Maggi Masala Magic seasoning
- 1 tsp curry powder
- 1 tsp oregano
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- After putting the pasta water to boil, place the cashews in a blender with 1/2 cup water and blend into a very smooth paste. Set aside.
- Place the tomatoes in a blender along with the tomato paste, paprika, soaked peppers (without the soaking water), garlic and roasted cumin. Blend into a coarse paste.
- Once the pasta has cooked (make sure you salt the pasta cooking water), drain and add to a wok or large skillet.
- Add the blended tomato masala, diced green bell peppers, oregano, vegetable oil, and the powdered spices–the masala magic and the curry powder–to the skillet along with salt. Turn on the stove to a medium-high flame.
- Stir-fry the pasta, moving it constantly, to ensure the sauce cooks evenly and the pasta doesn't stick to the pan. You can do this for about five minutes. You want the garlic to mellow a little, but not too much — you need a little of the raw flavor in there for the best results.
- Finish off by adding half the cashew cream, and mixing the pasta one last time. Serve with more cashew cream drizzled on top.