Pasta is an ancient food—not so ancient that it predates written records, but no one was taking notes when this popular food first came onto the scene. Scholars credit the Chinese with making pasta from rice flour as early as 1700 B.C.E. The pasta-centric Italians believe pasta dates back to the ancient Etruscans, who inhabited central western portion of Italy, that now are Tuscany, Latium and Umbria. However, both the Etruscans and the Romans baked their noodles in an oven, so boiled pasta had yet to be born in Italy.
Credit for the invention of boiled pasta is given to the Arabs. Traders from Arabia packed dried pasta on long journeys over the famed “Silk Road” to China. They carried it to Sicily during the Arab invasions of the 8th century. The dried noodle-like product they brought with them could easily be reconstituted into a hot, nutritious meal. This is most likely the origin of the dried pasta that began to be produced in great quantities in Palermo at this time. The word “macarone” derives from the Sicilian term for making dough forcefully; early pasta-making was a labor-intensive, day-long process. How the pasta was eaten is not known, but many old Sicilian pasta recipes still include other Arab culinary introductions such as raisins and cinnamon. The oldest macaroni recipes in existence are from Sicily and still part of today’s cuisine: macaroni with eggplant (eggplant was introduced by the Arabs in Sicily around the year 1000, via India) and macaroni with sardines. What the Italians most likely did add is sauce to pasta.
What about the belief that the great Venetian explorer, Marco Polo, introduced pasta to Italy from China? We know from written records that pasta was in Italy before Marco Polo’s return. Dry pasta was unknown to the Chinese.
What Polo did bring back in 1295 was rice flour pasta, the perishable, soft kind from which Chinese dumplings had been made since 1700 B.C.E., and the concept of stuffed pasta. Today the “dumpling” style of pasta is manifested in ravioli, gnocchi and other preparations using regular wheat flour, eggs and water. It is referred to as “dumpling”-style or soft pasta, even when it is dried hard.
That a basket of pasta was bequeathed in a will shows that it was still a luxury in the 13th century. By 1400 it was being produced commercially, in shops that retained night watchmen to protect the goods. Why was it so costly? Labor! Barefoot men had to tread on dough to make it malleable enough to roll out. The treading could last for a day.
The next big advancement occurred a hundred years later, with the marriage of pasta and tomatoes. Although yellow cherry tomatoes (the original tomato color) had been brought back from the New World by Christopher Columbus at the turn of the 16th century and then by Hernando Cortez in 1529, they were used as houseplants. (The Italian word for tomato is pomi d’oro, golden apple.) The fruit, a member of the nightshade family, was viewed as poisonous. Lean times drove peasants to try the fruit, with happy consequences. The first documented tomato sauce recipe is from 1839.
Pasta first came to the U.S. long before the Italian immigration. Thomas Jefferson served as minister to France from 1785 to 1789, and was introduced to pasta during a trip to Naples. He returned to the U.S. with crates of “maccheroni” and a pasta-making machine (which he proceeded to redesign). The huge wave of Italian immigration that began toward the end of the 19th century was ultimately responsible for pasta becoming an American staple.
How do you like pasta? Do you use it with tomato sauce and meatballs? Do you make baked pasta dishes? What about pasta salads? How often do you make pasta?
Please share your ideas and recipes.