I’m pretty sure it was my dad who ordered the Spaghetti al Farouk at that restaurant on the beach. It was like nothing we’d ever had before—silky noodles tossed with fresh Adriatic seafood and cloaked in a creamy, golden saffron- and curry-laced sauce that was spiked with ginger.
This was a long time ago, more than 30 years—probably closer to 35—and many of the details are now lost, including which ingredients, exactly, comprised the original dish, as well as the name and even the location of the restaurant. That’s what it’s like sometimes when you delve into an old memory. You find it’s really not much more than a shadow.
I could have sworn that the restaurant was on the outskirts of Pescara, a port city on the coast of Abruzzo (you can see the beautiful blue Adriatic in the distance in the photo above) near the beach town where we spent our summers. My mother, however, insists it was in nearby Francavilla, and I must defer to her on this, since she is an Abruzzo native. I don’t suppose that detail matters anymore, though I like to think that the restaurant—in my memory a casual and boisterous place—is still around, serving up platters of Farouk.
I do remember that mussels were in the mix, as well as shrimp with their heads and shells still on, and pannocchie, which are something like crayfish or tiny lobsters. The platter that came to the table was alive with color—deep yellow from the curry and saffron, and bright orange and red from the shellfish, with splashes of glossy black from the mussel shells. The sauce was rich, spicy, and earthy; the seafood was briny and sweet.
The idea of adding curry or ginger to an Italian pasta sauce no longer strikes me as unusual—in fact it makes perfect sense if you think about it, about the many cultures that have passed through Italy through the ages, leaving their mark on the landscape, in the language, at the table. But back then it really did seem out of the ordinary. And I wonder, now, about the chef who created this fanciful dish, named for the deposed king of Egypt who fled to Italy in 1952.
I knew from the moment I began working on The Glorious Pasta of Italy that I wanted to include a recipe for Spaghetti al Farouk. If I had only my sketchy memory to rely on, I might not have been able to do it justice. Luckily, I had my mom. When we returned home at the end of that long ago summer, my mother recreated the dish in her kitchen, adding shrimp and mussels, and substituting scallops for the Adriatic seafood she could not get here. She seasoned the creamy sauce with ground ginger, thyme, and bay leaf, and enriched it with egg yolks. We all pronounced it as good as the original.
I’ve made minimal changes to it over the years, taking out the egg yolks to lighten the sauce a bit, and changing the selection of seafood every so often. To be honest, I have no idea how close to the original my version is, though I can say it is authentic in spirit. And I can also tell you that, to a person, everyone I’ve ever made this for has fallen for it. It really is a sauce like no other.
I think of myself a curator of sorts, of obscure and endangered recipes—recipes that, I worry, might vanish completely if I didn’t shine a light on them. There are a number of these in The Glorious Pasta of Italy, and Spaghetti al Farouk is one of them. It makes me immensely, ridiculously, happy to know that this recipe from the coast of Abruzzo circa 1975 has found a new home in the 21st Century, in my book, here on my blog, and, I hope, in your kitchen.
From The Glorious Pasta of Italy (Chronicle Books, 2011)
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 large yellow onion, chopped
- Large pinch of saffron threads, pounded to a powder
- 1 tablespoon curry powder (preferably spicy)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
- 1 fresh bay leaf
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- 3/4 cup dry white wine
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 pound dried spaghetti
- 12 mussels, well scrubbed and debearded if necessary
- 16 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 6 ounces frozen shelled cooked langoustine tails (see Cook's Note)
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and salt generously.
In a frying pan large enough to hold all of the seafood, warm the olive oil and butter over medium heat. When the butter is melted and begins to sizzle, add the onion and stir to coat with the oil and butter. Saute, stirring frequently, for about 7 minutes, or until the onion is softened but not browned. Stir in the saffron, curry powder, ginger, thyme, bay leaf, salt, and a generous grind of pepper, taking care to incorporate all of the herbs and spices. Stir in the lemon juice, raise the heat to medium-high, and pour in the wine. Let the sauce simmer briskly for about 3 minutes, or until slightly thickened. Reduce the heat to medium and stir in the cream. Bring the sauce back to a very gentle simmer. If the pasta water is not yet boiling, reduce the heat under the sauce to low and wait until the pasta boils.
Add the pasta to the boiling water, stir to separate the noodles, and cook according to the manufacturer's instructions until al dente. Once the pasta is in the water, proceed with finishing the sauce.
Add the mussels, shrimp, and langoustine tails to the simmering sauce, cover, and cook for 5 to 8 minutes, or until the mussels open, the shrimp are just cooked through, and the langoustine tails are heated through. Discard any mussels that don't open.
Drain the pasta into a colander set in the sink, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water. If the frying pan is large enough to contain both the pasta and the sauce, add the pasta to the frying pan and gently toss the pasta and sauce to combine thoroughly, adding a splash or two of the cooking water if necessary to loosen the sauce. If the frying pan is not large enough, return the pasta to the pot, add about two-thirds of the sauce, toss to combine thoroughly, and then top with the remaining sauce when serving. Transfer the dressed pasta to a warmed serving bowl or shallow individual bowls. If you are preparing individual servings, be sure to divide the seafood evenly among them. Sere immediately.
Cook's Note: Much of the shellfish available these days is farm raised and therefore contains less dirt and grit than shellfish harvested from the wild. To clean mussels, scrub their shells with a stiff brush under cold running water. Discard any that do not close tightly when handled. If the mussels have beards, the fibrous tufts they use to hold on to pilings and rocks, you need to remove them. Using a towel or just bare fingers, grasp the beard gently but firmly and yank it toward the shell's hinge. This will remove the fibers without tearing the mussel meat.
Frozen langoustine tails lack the flavor of fresh ones, but they are much more readily available and they have a nice meaty texture that captures the sauce and absorbs its flavor. If you like, you can use wild rock shrimp instead. They are delicious, though more expensive.