Italy and pasta are synonymous. Many people believe that Marco Polo brought Italian spaghetti back from China. This is a fallacy and even some Chinese sources suggest that indeed Chinese noodles originated from Italy, but this is uncertain. Whether they did or not, pasta, in general, and spaghetti, in particular, have a history stretching back long before Marco Polo’s visit to China.
Pasta is simply a way to preserve the wheat harvest. People all over the world found good ways to preserve wheat by turning it into flour, to make bread, but flour does not keep indefinitely and neither does bread. However, by making flour into pasta, you can then dry the pasta and keep it indefinitely. Humans are ingenious and it is likely that many ancient human populations found how to do this independently from one another.
The ancient Romans ate pasta, as did the ancient Greeks, but pasta is older even than that. The ancient Greeks made a flat dough called “laganon”, similar to modern lasagna, but made from spelt, an ancient wheat species. The Greeks cooked this pasta by baking it rather than boiling it. Some assert that Arab traders bought dried noodles or pasta to Italy because they were easily transportable, light, and easily rehydrated, thus making an excellent travelling food. Ancient Etruscan tombs bear paintings, which some archeologists believe show pasta making, and they found a small tool, which they believe to be a pasta extruder, an early pasta machine. Some doubt whether this is clear evidence but others assert that the tools are very similar to those used for pasta making today.
The Ancient Romans also ate a similar baked pasta and laganon eventually became lasagna. However, in 2002, an archeological dig at Lajia, China on the Yellow River found a bowl of noodles. These were later examined using radio-carbon dating techniques and dated to 4,000 years old. The noodles, made from millet, which is a Chinese native plant, were 50 centimetres long. Archeologists think that millet flour mixed with wheat flour gave the dough the necessary elasticity. The noodles resemble La-Mian noodles, made by pulling and stretching dough repeatedly. The Chinese today make noodles from rice, wheat or millet flour depending on what starch grows well in the particular region. The effects of a devastating earthquake had caused a vacuum between the upturned bowl and the noodles preserving them.
Although the Chinese archeologists would like to claim that Chinese people were the first to preserve the wheat harvest, by turning the wheat into dried noodles. The Italians too have historically eaten pasta from early times. The Roman writer, Apicius, wrote in 1AD giving suggestions for layering lasagna with meat and fish. One must remember that for most of its history Italy was a collection of warring kingdoms, and dukedoms, and did not become a unified country until the late nineteenth century.
The Jerusalem Talmud, the book of the earliest known Judaic text, records the boiling of dried noodles in 5 AD. The text uses a particular Aramaic word clearly showing that these were bought dried noodles.
Al Idrisi, geographer, cartographer, and cartographer to King Roger II of Sicily, writes about a thriving industry producing string pasta, made from flour, in Palermo, Sicily, an Arab colony, around 1150. String pasta must be what we know as spaghetti, since the word derives from the Italian word for string. He also says that Palermo was sending pasta not only all over Italy but also outside the country, to “many Muslim and Christian countries”. Marco Polo returned from China in 1292. Furthermore, a recipe book, “De Arte Coquinaria per Vermicelli e Macaroni Sicilian” or The Art of Cooking Sicilian Macaroni and Vermicelli, by Martino Corno, a chef working for the Patriarch of Aquileia, Northern Italy, around 1000AD, proves that pasta was popular then. Macaroni in Italian is a general word for pasta. A soldier from Genoa, in 1279, listed in his estate inventory, a basket of dried pasta, calling it macaroni, meaning dough made under force. A document in Liguria in 1244 is evidence of commercial pasta production there. Boiled pasta was already a common and popular food throughout Italy well before Marco Polo’s return from China, in 1292.
Fifteenth century Italian monastery documents record many different pasta shapes, all over Italy. By 1546, there was a craftsmen’s guild for pasta makers in Naples and the Genoese pasta makers guild formed in 1574. Giordano Bruno writing in 1584 quotes a popular Neapolitan saying “e cascato il maccarone dentro il formaggio” meaning the macaroni has fallen into the cheese”.
Eating spaghetti would have been rather messy before forks, since people ate the dish with their bare hands. Spaghetti would have been simply served perhaps with cheese or olive oil and pepper. The spaghetti sauce now called spaghetti Bolognaise, is ragu in Italian and was popular well before 1400. Spaghetti Neapolitan had to wait until the tomato came to Europe from the New World. An Italian cafe owner invented Spaghetti Carbonara, to please American troops during World War 2, as the Italian equivalent of their beloved bacon and eggs. Spaghetti spread throughout the world, and today is popular in many countries including the United States and the United Kingdom, where every cook has a favourite spaghetti recipe.
Spaghetti is a cheap, versatile, and filling food. However, do not stick to just the old favourite spaghetti dishes, there are many more wonderful pasta sauces.
When you visit Italy, ignore the tourist restaurants, watch where local families and workers go to eat. Down a back street you will find an unprepossessing family restaurant, where you will eat the most amazing pasta, perhaps the delicious creamy mushroom sauce popular in Northern Italy. It does not taste quite the same under rainy English skies as it does under the stars in Italy, but is nonetheless remarkably good
Spaghetti’s history is complicated and obscure; its origin is lost in the mists of time. However, a few things are clear. Martino Corno’s recipe book proves that boiled pasta was popular in Italy before 1000 AD. In 1150, dried spaghetti was made in Palermo and exported to other parts of Italy and elsewhere. Although Chinese noodles are more than 4,000 years old, Marco Polo did not introduce pasta to Italy. Humans are ingenious and preserving wheat by making flour into dried pasta or noodles may have originated simultaneously in many areas, because it is a very good idea, or Arab traders may have brought the skill from China to Italy, no one really knows.