When anyone suggests, “Let’s eat Italian tonight!” that invariable means pasta or pizza is likely to be on the menu. Both are synonymous with Italian cuisine but only one of these popular foods originated in Italy.
Historians tell us that pizza almost certainly was invented in Italy. Pasta almost certainly was not. However, nailing down the precise origin of pasta remains a significant point of debate among culinary historians.
A common myth is that pasta was introduced into Italian culture by the great explorer Marco Polo. He was a merchant born in Venice who embarked on an extensive series of world travels in about 1271. He most likely arrived in China in about 1285. He spent 17 years wondering that vast and varied Far East land before making his return to the West in 1291.
The oldest known sample of pasta
The authoritative Association of Food Industries states in its “Macaroni Journal” that Marco Polo brought pasta back from China and introduced it into the culture of several Italian states. Indeed, archaeologists and historians believe the first pasta was developed by the ancient Chinese. The oldest known sample of pasta discovered in an archaeological dig is dated to be about 4,000 years old and was found in northwest China.
This finding was composed of wonderfully preserved long and thin yellow-colored noodles discovered inside an overturned bowl at the Lajia archaeological site. The sealed bowl was 10 feet below the ground’s surface. The discovery suggests that pasta was being made in China for hundreds or even thousands of years before this sample was found. The grain used to make pasta is known to have been cultivated in China for at least 7,000 years. It also means that Marco Polo certainly encountered pasta during his years traveling around the Asian land.
By the way, the primary reason for turning grain millet into pasta is that it’s a good way to preserve foods over long periods. It helps that this form of long-stored food was easily made fresh and ready-to-eat simply by boiling it in water.
So, while we can be certain that pasta was not invented in Italy, the Marco Polo theory has a number of serious problems. For one, Marco Polo wrote in his book that pasta was much like Italian “lagana” – a pasta-like food. That means he knew about it before he left home and that a form of pasta was likely already being eaten in Italy.
Another strong indicator that pasta was in Italy from earlier times is a reference made to it in 1279 from the estate records of a Genoese citizen. A further nail in the coffin of the Marco Polo theory comes by way of an Arab geographer and explorer known as Idrisi. He reported encountering widespread use of pasta in Sicily about 100 years earlier than the time of Marco Polo.
Arabs from Libya
So, if Marco Polo was not the first to bring pasta to Italy in the late 1200s, when did it get there and from where? The most popular theory is that it was Arabs from Libya who introduced it to the Mediterranean country.
Arabs conquered Sicily in the 9th Century. It is known that these Arabic people had been eating pasta centuries before that. That’s proven by a reference in the Talmud which tells about boiling and eating pasta in the 5th Century AD. The Talmud was written in Aramaic. Furthermore, many early Sicilian pasta recipes feature introductions that are known to be Arabic gastronomical instructions.
Still, the theory that pasta first came to Italy by way of Libyan Arabs is not a proven theory. Some favor the possibility that pasta in Italy originated from nearby Greece. Indeed, the very word “pasta” comes from the Greek language. The Latin term “pasta” means “dough” and/or “pastry cake.” This, in turn, was derived from the Greek word “pastos.”
Ancient Greek mythology
A tantalizing clue is found in ancient Greek mythology. It’s a tale that features a pasta scene. In the story, the god Vulcan creates a portion of food that looks like a “thin, edible thread” by pushing a pasty substance through a machine. That sure sounds like pasta.
Despite all, Italy is a nation that embraced pasta like none other on earth. The culinary traditions of Italy made pasta something special by adding rich tomato sauces and other savory ingredients. Italian-style pasta is clearly the world’s favorite.