3 minute read

Pasta seems such a ubiquitous part of culinary culture it’s difficult to pin down its exact origin. Is it as Italian as we all believe? It’s certainly fairly synonymous with Italian food. Right up there with minestrone and gelato. Whether it’s penne, linguine, fusilli or good old spaghetti we all know it, love it and consider pasta as true Italian fare. But where did this glorious mix of water and flour originate?

Is Pasta of Chinese Origin?

Some believe pasta came back to Italy with Marco Polo from his voyage to China and Asia in the 13th century. In some of the legendary explorers journals he mentions pasta-like dishes. Certainly the Chinese and other Asian cultures celebrate the noodle in many forms. But, as historians are quick to point out, how did Marco Polo know to reference pasta if he’d never laid eyes nor taste buds on any version of it?

Although the story was taken to heart by many it’s not likely that pasta was introduced to the Signore Polo by the Chinese or anyone else in Asia and certainly not in the 13th century. While records show China may have been the first to discover the art of noodle making pasta was present in the Mediterranean region long before Marco Polo picked up a navigational device.

Maybe a Gift From The Middle East?

So we can rule out Marco Polo as the one who introduced this glorious food to the Italians. Where, then, did pasta originate? Well, one of the most likely tales is this: Pasta came to the Middle East, perhaps from China, by way of nomadic Arab traders.

An Arab trader named Idrisi references a “food made from flour in the form of strings' ' in his journals dated 1154, which described his time in Sicily. This, you will note, precedes Polo’s voyages. At the Spaghetti Museum in Pontedassio in the region of Liguria there are documents spanning from 1240-1284 which describe such common local food stuffs as maccheroni,  Vermicelli and pasta. This was still quite a few decades before Marco Polo took the helm.

Also, earlier there is mention of a version of pasta of Persian origin called Rishta. And because of the large Arab population in Sicily at the time, Rishta was a fairly common dish, believed to have come to Italy via the Silk Road trade route from Asia to Europe.

OK, So China Was Involved in Pasta’s Creation

Everyone knows how simply delicious Chinese dumplings and noodles can be and the Chinese have developed their form of pasta making over many centuries. The first written reference (quite poetic at that, likened to the appearance and texture of fine silk) harkens back to 300 AD-nearly a millennium before Idrisi journaled his experience. But many historians believe noodle making in China predates even that period and goes as far back as 200 BC.

These silken noodles and dumplings may have served as prototypes of a sort for spaghetti and ravioli. In China the noodles were called mein (Lo Mein, Chow Mein) and a dish reserved for the upper class. Over the centuries that followed the working class Chinese developed a deep appreciation for this filling comfort food and the noodles in one form or another began to make their way to other cultures. For instance, Japan soon took a great liking to the easy dishes that involved noodles, or “men” as they are called in Japanese ( Ramen).

Back to The Middle East and Mediterranean

Around the 9th century Syrian texts referenced a dough called Itriya which was shaped into strings and dried. Hmmmmm. Then in France in the 11th century the term vermicelli (verm is latin for worm-not real appetizing but descriptive!) referred to pastas that were very thin. In the 13th century the term maccherone described other pasta shapes from round and fat to lumpy.

In Medieval times, inventive cooks made a form of pastas that were fermented and filled with cheese.

And Now to Italy

There are many ideas as to how pasta made its way to Italy. While pasta is known and loved throughout the world in many different forms, we are very happy it's here no matter who made the first noodle. There’s no doubt the Italians perfected their version and in Italy pasta is a serious business.

Italian pasta makers experimented with different types of wheat such as soft wheat in the north and durum semolina in Sicily. Pasta in the south of Italy was dried before cooking for a longer shelf life. Fresh pasta was a popular treat throughout the country. So serious about their pasta were the Italians that regional pasta makers formed guilds. In medieval times guilds were formed by certain artisans and craftsmen and wielded a good bit of power.

By the 1700s pasta was so widely a part of Italian culinary culture, across all economic classes, that it was easily recognized as one of the great foods of Italy. The term al dente (to the tooth) was first used to describe the degree of doneness of perfect pasta in the 19th century.

Pasta For Everyone!

Whether you attribute the origins of Italian pasta to the Chinese, the Middle East or simply the ingenuity of several cultures it is a very enjoyable dish. Topped with a basil-forward pesto, a marinara, bolognese or tossed with cheese and pepper (Cacio e Pepe), olive oil and garlic or a bit of butter there’s nothing that can beat a nice bowl of pasta!

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