‘Good morning, miss. Do you like the sample?’
I’m browsing a selection of Southern Italian specialty food products at an outdoor fair. The fellow running this booth, having figured out in two seconds I’m not Italian, isn’t about to forgo a chance to show off his English. I’m not falling for the ‘miss’ bit, though. I’m in my forties, for Pete’s sake.
‘Thank you,’ I answer, ‘I do like the sample.’ Hey, I’m here to stock up on treats for my kitchen, not give a grammar lesson. Anyway, he started it.
He hands me a teeny toast (his words) covered with what looks like red jelly speckled with white strings.
‘Mediterraneo little fishes,’ he says.
The Mediterraneo little fishes are delicious. ‘I’ll take the Mediterraneo little fishes,’ I say.
He sets a jar aside for me and looks at his samplers. I think he’s trying to decide what to offer me next. To help him out, I point to a jar.
‘Oh?’ He is surprised. Handing me another teeny toast, he says, ‘You like the hot pork spread?’
I nearly choke. I can’t possibly repeat his words without risking internal injury of some sort, so I just nod and say one word before popping the toast in my mouth: ‘nduja.
‘Aaaah,’ he says, impressed by my familiarity with the stuff. ‘Do you….do you’—he’s searching for a verb—’do you…’nduja?’ Guess he didn’t find it.
‘Yes,’ I answer, ‘I do ‘nduja. Two jars, please.’
My husband returns from exploring the fair just as I’m paying for my purchase. I’m sorry he’s missed this exchange. These moments of linguistic levity can sustain a good mood for days, but only when witnessed firsthand (they lose too much in translation). We move along, and he asks me what I got. ‘The hot pork spread, of course’ I say. ‘You know I love it.’
‘Nduja is a dense, spreadable salami made with red chili peppers and possessing a words-cannot-do-justice-to spicy heat. Similar in name and substance to the French andouille, ‘nduja was likely introduced to Calabria, the toe of the Italian boot, by Angevins in the 13th century (or so I read on the Wikipedia). While andouille is made primarily from chitterlings—a word trying so hard to be cute it can only want to divert attention from its essential unpleasantness—’nduja is made from a mix of pork meat (from the neck and other less, shall we say, in demand parts of the animal) and pork fat, salt, and the distinguishing ingredient, Calabrian chili peppers. The paste is then stuffed into natural casings. If the idea of intestinal casings disturbs you (I’m tempted to say get over it! You’ve eaten far worse at the drive-thru), look for ‘nduja in glass jars.
‘Nduja should be available at most Italian specialty stores. If you find it, check the label or ask if it has come from Spilinga, the town in Calabria known for ‘nduja production and host every August to the Sagra della ‘Nduja. At the very least, try to find ‘nduja made in the Calabrian region, or by hands of Calabrian descent. Well-sealed, ‘njuda will keep in the fridge for many months, so don’t worry if you can’t find it sold in small quantities (I’ve never bought less than 400 grams at a time). You might ask a friend to go in with you on some ‘nduja.
A little ‘njuda goes a long way. On a slice of grilled bread, start with a teaspoonful, maybe more if you’re feeling brave. If you’re not among the armor-plated of palate, however, try cutting ‘nduja with olive oil or a soft, fresh cheese. Or try my personal favorite: blend a few small scoops of ‘nduja with a chunky paste made from finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes, spread on your grilled bread and sprinkled with dried oregano.
Another way to use ‘nduja is as a base for a pasta sauce.
350 grams (about 4 cups) penne or other short rod pasta
3 zucchini (4 if they are small)
125 grams (about 1/2 cup) of cream cheese, sour cream, or crème fraîche
1 Tablespoon of ‘nduja
Salt & pepper
Set your pasta water to boil. Rinse and prep the zucchini. I like to slice them length-wise in half, then cut them into thin half-circles, but any way you like to slice them up is fine as long as they complement your pasta, roughly, in size and shape. Heat the olive oil in a large pan. When it’s hot, add the ‘nduja and stir gently until it’s dissolved into the oil. Now add the zucchini and sauté for about 6 to 7 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. Turn off the heat and add the cream. Stir well, adding tablespoons of the hot pasta water as needed to obtain a thick but smooth sauce. Cook the pasta al dente. Save some of the hot pasta water before straining. Add the strained pasta to the pan of sauce, turn the heat on low if needed, and mix well. Add small amounts of the hot pasta water as needed to get the consistency right. Now sprinkle with dried oregano and serve.
A few tips: Take ‘nduja out of the fridge about an hour before you use it; at room temp it’s much friendlier. ‘Nduja stains red nearly everything it touches: wooden utensils, cloth napkins, your fingertips and the corners of your mouth. A wayward chunk left unattended will leave a mark on surfaces, especially porous materials. Storing jarred ‘nduja is a no-brainer (and less messy) but should you get the encased ‘nduja, be sure to keep it in its original wrapping as you gradually cut away the meat from one end. Then re-wrap, cover the opened end with a folded paper towel, and secure it tightly with a rubber band. I then put it inside a plastic storage container.
Lastly: it’s pronounced indooya.