Masala pasta is an irresistibly delicious Indian street-style food. If you love pasta, and if you love Indian food, you need to try this recipe. A bright red tomato sauce seasoned with cumin and garlic and mellowed with cashew cream makes every bite one to remember.
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 brilliant 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 you add lots of garlic? Yes, lots, and then some more, just enough to pummel your tastebuds and jar 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 is actually really, really delicious. Differently delicious than what you may be used to, but delicious nonetheless.
Tips for making yummy masala pasta
- The buzz on the street is to overcook the pasta, as all Indian street food is. 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 try and 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. You can also use a corkscrew pasta or fusilli, or a spiral one like cavatappi.
- 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. Or if tomato puree is all you have, use that. In fact, I rather like the taste of canned, pureed tomatoes in this pasta, although this time I made it with fresh tomatoes.
- 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 byadgi chili peppers, both moderately spicy peppers, if you're in India or have access to Indian ingredients. Or add guajillo peppers, which I used. All of these will add lovely color and enough -- but not overpowering -- heat. You should lightly roast the peppers 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. You can add other veggies too, like green peas.
- 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 masala chai or cutting chai. It's the perfect combination.
Ingredients for Masala Pasta:
- Penne rigate pasta. While smooth penne pasta is usually used on the streets, penne rigate holds on better to the sauce, so use this.
- Tomatoes. Any kind are fine.
- Tomato paste
- Roasted cumin. You can pop the cumin in the microwave for half a minute, stir, and then zap for another 30 seconds. Or toast it lightly in a saucepan.
- Dry red chili peppers, like Kashmiri peppers or guajillo peppers
- Green bell peppers. This color pepper is best in Indian recipes because of the savory flavor.
- Maggi Masala Magic seasoning. You can buy this online or at an Indian store.
- Curry powder. Use any you have access to.
- Vegetable oil. Any flavorless oil is fine, do not use olive oil here because of the high temperature you'll be cooking the food at.
More tasty vegan Indian street foods
Masala Pasta, Indian street style
- 16 oz penne rigate (you can also use the regular penne pasta without any ridges)
- ¼ cup raw cashews
- 4 medium tomatoes (diced, or use 2 cups of tomato puree)
- 2 heaping tbsp tomato paste (tomato ketchup works nicely too)
- 1 teaspoon 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. You can also use a teaspoon or two of red pepper flakes. If using whole peppers, roast them lightly on a griddle before using.)
- 1 teaspoon roasted cumin
- 2 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 12 cloves garlic (peeled)
- 2 green bell peppers (cut in a ½-inch dice. You can also add other veggies like green peas or leeks)
- 2 packets Maggi Masala Magic seasoning
- 1 teaspoon curry powder (or a dash of garam masala would work too)
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- Salt and ground black pepper to taste.
For serving (optional)
- Cook the pasta until al dente. Drain before using.
- Place the cashews in a blender with ½ cup water and blend into a very smooth paste. Set aside.
- Place the tomatoes or puree in a blender along with the tomato paste, paprika, peppers and roasted cumin. Blend into a coarse paste.
- Heat the oil in a large wok or skillet. Working on a medium-high flame, add the garlic, stir-fry for a few seconds, then add the blended tomato masala and saute fora couple of minutes. Add the pasta, diced green bell peppers, oregano, vegetable oil, and the powdered spices--the masala magic and the curry powder. Season with salt and, if you like even more spice, some ground black pepper.
- Stir-fry the cooked 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 to 10 minutes.
- Finish off by adding half the cashew cream, and mixing the pasta one last time. Serve with more cashew cream drizzled on top. You can also garnish with scallions or with vegan cheese, like cashew parmesan (I'll link that recipe in the notes)