Dawn of the Noodle

So where did pasta come from exactly? Nobody knows. It could have been Italy, might have been China, was perhaps the Middle East, but then might have been someplace else altogether. Anyplace people were cultivating wheat and pounding it into flour. The thing is, boiling a paste of flour and water (like cooking it on a hot rock or frying it up in fat) doesn’t exactly represent a giant technical leap. It’s something that might have occurred to just about anyone with a little dough and some time (and water) on their hands.

However there’s a significant qualitative difference between, say, a central Asian peasant who occasionally cooks leftover wheat paste by boiling it, and a culture that actively sought to refine the practice of noodle making — and we know there were at least three of those. The Chinese were almost certainly the first. Noodles were known there as early as 300 BC. Whether the techniques for making them traveled westward via the Silk Road in later centuries isn’t known, though it seems at least plausible, since the next place noodles crop up in written records is the Middle East. There, boiled doughs were being eaten as early as the 5th century AD, and were all the rage by the 9th.

There’s no written evidence at all that noodles were being consumed in or near Europe until the 1100’s, when they were remarked upon by a traveling Arab geographer by the name of al-Irdrisi. But then that was in Palermo, Sicily, which on the one hand isn’t part of mainland Europe, and on the other had been occupied by Arabs well before then (first in 627 AD for a short period and then from roughly to 850 AD to 1050 AD). Noodles (pasta) don’t appear definitively in mainland Europe until 1279 in the great trading city of Venice.

Of course the predominant myth about Italian pasta is that it was introduced to Italy via the Venetian merchant Marco Polo, who traveled to China via the Silk Road about that time. Yet it’s well documented that Marco Polo didn’t return from his trip to China (and other places East) until 1298, by which time Venetians in black felt hats were slurping up pasta by the gondola-load.

There are those in Italy who credit the Etruscans with the invention of pasta. Their society thrived for centuries (from about 1000 BC to about 400 BC) in the northwest of Italy in a region around modern Tuscany. That is, until the Roman conquest, which left precious little of their literature behind. But then even if the Romans had left plenty of literature, it wouldn’t do us any good, since we still haven’t learned how to decipher their language.

The Etruscans liked to paint, though. One particular piece of surviving artwork depicts some items that look very much like modern pasta-making implements. But there’s really is no way to tell. One day the language may finally be worked out, at which point an inscription might be discovered that reads: “The Pasta-Magic 4000 has been precisely engineered to meet the most exacting requirements of today’s Etruscan-on-the-go”. Until then, though, the origin of pasta shall remain a mystery.

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