by Aparajita Jaiswal
Origin of Pasta: The Ambiguous Kitchen History
7 July 2022
One of the many wonders of the world happens to be the origin of pasta. Pasta became an increasingly common sight on restaurant menus all across the globe, but the Italians’ love affair with pasta has a long, complex, and passionate history. While we do think of pasta as a culturally Italian food, it is likely the descendent of ancient Asian noodles, or is it? Let’s find out!
Nothing says Italy like its food, and nothing says Italian food like pasta. Pasta is integrant part of Italy’s food history and immaculate culture. Wherever Italians immigrated they have brought their pasta. Pasta happens to be the staple food of traditional Italian cuisine. All kinds of pasta is made of milled wheat and water and sometimes enriched with vitamins and minerals. Italian spaghetti is typically made from durum wheat semolina. Unlike other ubiquitous Italian products like pizza and tomato sauce, which have a fairly recent history, pasta may have a much older pedigree, going back hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
While unraveling the long and often complex history of this delicious and finger licking dish, we have to look at its origins and some of the myths surrounding it. Very often we come across the enduring myth, based on the writings of the 13th-century explorer Marco Polo, that pasta was brought to Italy from China, rose from being published in the ‘Macaroni Journal’ by the Association of Food Industries. Some may have also learnt that Polo’s was not a discovery, but rather a rediscovery of a product once popular in Italy among the Etruscans and the Romans, a common misconception that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy whereas in truth, the dish had already existed in Europe for centuries but there’s little doubt he made Westerners aware of many Chinese inventions.
Italian pasta enthusiasts organized a World Pasta Conference in 1995, they celebrate Word Pasta Day every year in October, since 1998. There is also an Italian Pasta Association and a Pasta Museum in Rome.
History of pasta: drying pasta toward the beginning of the 1900
There is indeed evidence of an Etrusco-Roman noodle, called lagane, made from the same durum wheat used to produce modern pasta. Lagane is where the modern word lasagna originated from. However this type of food, first mentioned in the 1st century AD, was not boiled, as it is usually done today, but oven baked. Ancient lagane had some similarities with modern pasta, but cannot be considered quite the same. The country will have to wait a few centuries for its most popular dish to make a further culinary leap forward.
Like so much of southern Italian life, the Arabic invasions of the 8th century heavily influenced regional cuisine. Today, the presence of Arabic people in the south of the peninsula during the Middle Ages is considered the most likely reason behind the diffusion of pasta.
Early pasta making was often a laborious, day-long process. How these early dishes were served is not truly known, but many Sicilian pasta recipes still include typically Middle Eastern ingredients, such as raisins and cinnamon, which may be witness to original, medieval recipes.
This early pasta was an ideal staple for Sicily and it easily spread to the mainland since durum wheat thrives in Italy’s climate. Italy is still a major producer of this hard wheat, used to make the all-important semolina flour.
By the 1300’s dried pasta was very popular for its nutrition and long shelf life, making it ideal for long ship voyages. Pasta made it around the globe during the voyages of discovery a century later. By that time different shapes of pasta have appeared and new technology made pasta easier to make. With these innovations pasta truly became a part of Italian life. However the next big advancement in the history of pasta would not come until the 19th century when pasta met tomatoes.
Although tomatoes were brought back to Europe shortly after their discovery in the New World, it took a long time for the plant to be considered edible. In fact tomatoes are a member of the nightshade family and rumors of tomatoes being poisonous continued in parts of Europe and its colonies until the mid 19th century (check the history of tomato here). Therefore it was not until 1839 that the first pasta recipe with tomatoes was documented. However shortly, thereafter, tomatoes took hold, especially in the south of Italy. The rest of course is delicious history.
Pasta was considered a dish for the wealthy, taking pride of place in aristocratic banquets during the Renaissance.
Pasta in America
Early Spanish settlers were among the first to bring pasta to America. Believe it or not, it was Thomas Jefferson that helped give pasta an initial push into popularity. During an extended stay in Paris from 1784-1789, Jefferson ate what he called macaroni back then, the word could have referred to any shape of pasta. He enjoyed the dish so much that he returned to America with two cases in tow. When his supply ran out, he sent for reinforcements via a friend from Naples. The first industrial pasta factory in the US was built in Brooklyn in 1848 by a Frenchman.
Pasta was originally solely a part of Italian and European cuisine. With an increase in popularity on a worldwide scale, pasta has crossed international borders and is now a popular form of fast food and a staple in North America and elsewhere. This is due to the great amount of Italian immigration into Canada and the United States around the beginning of the 20th century. Similarly, the immense immigration of Italians into South Africa ensured that spaghetti with meatballs became an essential part of South African cuisine.
The art of pasta making and the devotion to the food as a whole has evolved since pasta was first conceptualized. Several things that have changed drastically over time are the flavorings added to pasta. Sweetness has been replaced by savory, sugar swapped out for vegetables, which helped make pasta a nutritionally complete dish. Pasta is so beloved in Italy that individual consumption exceeds the average production of wheat of the country; thus Italy frequently imports wheat for pasta making. In contemporary society pasta is ubiquitous and individuals can find a variety of types in local supermarkets. With the worldwide demand for this staple food, pasta is now largely mass-produced in factories and only a tiny proportion is crafted by hand.