A thorough and fascinating essay on the history of pasta
No, the Chinese did not invent it. To sum up this marvelous article--which has fantastic detective work: pasta was invented during the Golden Age of Islam. Probably in Persia sometime before 579 CE. It spread to the rest of the world slowly, because you need durum semolina to make real pasta. But with the Arabic conquest of Southern Europe in the 9th and 10th centuries, pasta was introduced into local cuisines
Today, pasta con sarde, or pasta with sardines, is one of Sicily’s signature dishes. Yet as legends go, this version of how pasta became a staple of Italian cuisine is far less familiar than the tale of Marco Polo’s supposed discovery of noodles in China in the 13th century—a tale that has been subject to more spin than a forkful of spaghetti.
In the first place, Polo actually wrote in his account of his travels that the noodles he ate in the Orient were “as good as the ones I have tasted many times in Italy,” and likened them to vermicelli and lasagna. Second, there are commercial documents recording pasta shipments and production in Italy long before Polo’s journey. Most convincingly, scholars have pointed out that the whole story was a deliberate fabrication published in the late 1920’s by editors of The Macaroni Journal, a trade publication of North American pasta manufacturers.
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Italians were eating pasta long before they had a collective noun for it. Pasta is a word that comes to us unchanged from the Latin one that meant “paste,” “dough” or “pastry cake.” It was itself a loan word from the Greek for a collation of grain and water that was sprinkled with salt—pastos—that itself comes from another Greek word, passein, “to sprinkle.” The earliest written use of the word pasta, in the modern sense, came in 1584, in a guide to organizing banquets written by Giovan Battista Rossetti, head steward of the Duchess of Urbino.
Prior to this, pasta was more commonly referred to by its particular shapes. Among the most popular—all made by hand—were gnocchi (dumplings, from noccio, “a knot of wood”); lasagne (“sheets”); vermicelli (“little worms”); tagliatelle (ribbon-shaped strips or “cuttings,” from tagliare, “to cut”); tortellini (“little pie”) and ravioli, whose derivation is uncertain, but which was referred to as early as 1100 as raviolo and described a century before that by Ibn Butlan as sambusaj, indicating possible culinary (if not lexical) origins in Persian dough-wrapped meats.
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