Pasta: not a Chinese invention after all

16 May

This was news to me when I read it, though perhaps it had already gotten around to most that the story of Marco Polo bringing back noodles from China was a myth. The Chinese did indeed have noodles when Marco Polo got there, but the Chinese did not have durum wheat, the base of pasta, and thus could not have invented pasta as it is known. Linda Civitello in Cuisine and Culture explains:

“For hundreds of years, it was accepted ‘fact’ that Marco Polo discovered noodles in China and brought them back to Europe. Now, in his masterwork, A Mediterranean Feast, food historian Clifford Wright states flatly that there is no truth to the story of Polo and pasta. Wright unravels the tangled strands of the origin of pasta and takes it down to its basic ingredient: hard semolina or durum (Latin for ‘hard’) wheat. This makes pasta different from bread, which is made from soft wheat. The Chinese did not have durum wheat. Wright places the origins of ‘true macaroni’ – pasta made from durum wheat and dried, which gives it a long shelf life – ‘at the juncture of medieval Sicilian, Italian and Arab cultures.’”

The Chinese, of course, had noodles, but they were made from other forms of wheat or buckwheat. From all the other given theories, it is plausible that it was an Arabian or Sicilian invention sometime after the 5th century (Sicily was invaded by the Arabs who might have brought it over, later to be spread throughout Italy). The Arabs, after all, did have durum wheat as their staple.

More than likely, pasta was introduced during the Arab conquests of Sicily, carried in as a dry staple. The Arab geographer, Al Idrisi wrote that a flour-based product in the shape of strings was produced in Palermo, then an Arab colony.

Some historians think the Sicilian word “maccaruni” which translates as “made into a dough by force” is the origin of our word. Anyone who has kneaded durum wheat knows that force is necessary. . . .

But this theory suffers from a blaring deficiency: there’s no evidence elsewhere of pasta being invented in the Arab world, so why would it have made it to Sicily, only to pilfer out in the rest of the Muslim lands?

So, it could have been invented by Arab colonists in Italy, or by native Italians later on, during the Middle Ages. Either way, Italy would eventually become the world’s premiere pasta producer, making some artful designs and adding sauces to form the foundation of the Italian diet. The reason why Italy turned out to be the best place for pasta production is its geographic location, which allows for the growing of durum wheat in large quantities as well as the ability to dry pasta. A lot of this is pretty recent history. A History of Food says the following,

“the first production of pasta on any kind of industrial scale was indeed in Naples in the early fifteenth century. However, this pasta did not keep well, and it was not until 1800 that the process which would make it really asciutta (dry) was discovered. It involved natural drying alternately in hot and cold temperatures. Perfect conditions were found at Torre Annunziata, some kilometres south of Naples itself, where the climate changes four times a day, to a regular pattern. The macaroni of Torre Annunziata is the ne plus ultra of Italian pasta.”

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Posted by on May 16, 2011 in Food, History, Italy


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