As legend has it, Marco Polo is the one who brought back Chinese noodles from a trip to Italy in the 13th century. Noodles that would later inspire the Italian pasta we know today. But if the Venetian has indeed spent several years in China, it is not certain that spaghetti and other penne pasta are a direct legacy of these noodles.
In reality, the origin of pasta would be much older, and above all much more local. With the help of Italian researchers (obviously), the South China Morning Post traced the history of this Italian pride. To begin with, Anna Maria Pellegrino, food historian and member of the Italian Cookery Academy, reminds us: we must not confuse everything. “Noodles are one thing, pasta is quite another,” she warns.
There is no question of assimilating noodles and pasta, a true cultural, identity, heritage and quasi-ritual emblem, for the historian. “They are the reflection of two distinct culinary cultures, identities that have developed in parallel, their only common point being the need to eat and, above all, to share the same sensations and the daily events of life around a table.” She continues:
“The way of cooking them, the containers, the cereals used, their preparation, the ingredients and the seasonings are totally different, specific to each civilization. There is no direct link between the Asian, Italian or Mediterranean way of mixing cereals with water to create noodles or pasta.”
“Nothing to see”
A bias and a theory that goes against a Marco Polo importer of new flavors. Bad faith or plausible hypothesis? Who knows. One thing is certain, it is that beyond the cultural dimension of the dish, it is also its composition that varies between the two countries.
Giorgio Franchetti, specialist in ancient Rome and ancient Roman gastronomy, explains: “The noodles that Marco Polo may have brought back from China at the end of the 13th century are made with rice, and are based on a different, oriental culinary tradition, which has nothing to do with ours.”
If pasta doesn’t come from China, where does it come from? Giorgio Franchetti now has his little idea. Thanks to the texts left by Cato the Elder and to the documents and utensils found in the vicinity of Vesuvius, the volcano which sits on the Bay of Naples, the Italian was able to write a recipe book. Because the conservation of Pompeii, buried under the ashes of Vesuvius in the year 79 and then rediscovered fifteen centuries later, has made it possible to learn more about Roman cuisine and its civilization as a whole.
“An antidepressant dish, like today”
But that’s not all, since texts by poets and historians, which go back to even more distant times, allow us to set the scene… in Greece. “Between 1000 and 800 BC, the Greeks evoked for the first time the existence of laganon, a strip of flat dough that was cut into irregular strips, adopted by the Romans under the name, in the plural, of laganae It was used in soups, with leeks and chickpeas, a very popular Roman dish.”says Giorgio Franchetti.
These laganae would probably be the origin of the lasagna we know today. “In Roman times, people ate laganae daily, it was a democratic, simple, but very nutritious dish for the poor and working classesexplains Cristina Conte, presented in the survey as chief archaeologist. An anti-depression dish, exactly like pasta today for Italians.”
Is Spaghetti Arabic?
Word pastain Italian, is the diminutive of pasta asciutta (dry pasta), the ones you find today in supermarkets. Nothing in history specifies whether the pasta eaten by the Romans was fresh or dry pasta. This suggests another possible origin for Italian pasta.
The shape and texture of dry pasta that we know today could well be inherited from the lifestyle of Arab nomads. Peoples who would have started to dry their pasta in order to guarantee them a longer conservation during their journey.
In an Arabic cookbook from the 9th century, written by Ibn al-Mibrad, there is mention of a dish which would consist of mixing dry pasta with legumes. A recipe that would have given the righted of today, still consumed across the Middle East.
The Arab influence on pasta does not stop there, as spaghetti too seems to come from this same culture. An Arab geographer, Al-Idrin, mentions in a book dated 1154 “long strands of pasta rolled up like balls of wool and exported in wooden barrels along the Mediterranean routes” from Palermo in Sicily, then under Arab domination.
So, Roman, Greek or even Arabic, the origin of pasta is still unclear. What is certain is that they have crossed centuries and civilizations, and it is not likely to stop immediately.