The Origins of Pasta

The one thing synonymous with Italy is Italian cuisine and pasta has been its pride and glory through much of its history. Eaten on all five continents, it has become the main Italian culinary symbol embraced globally. Since Italians have immigrated to different countries all over the world, settling throughout the New World and Oceana, they have taken this typical food with them everywhere.

Pasta consists of flour, water, salt and sometimes egg. Pasta mainly comes in two types, fresh and dried. Over the centuries Italians invented a myriad of shapes and sauces to enhance the taste of pasta. Today, there are more than 600 different shapes produced worldwide.

Unlike other ubiquitous Italian foods like Pizza and tomato sauce, which have a rather recent history, pasta may have more ancient origins going back several centuries. More than a few legends surround this now worldwide food. There is a long-standing belief that pasta was a Chinese invention that was brought by the Italian merchant Marco Polo to his home country on his return trip from the Middle Kingdom in 1279. Still, there are Italian recipe books including references to pasta dishes that were written more than 20 years earlier, indicating that pasta was in the country before Marco Polo's time. Moreover, though the Chinese ate a noodle-type food which looked similar to pasta, it must be pointed out that while noodles are made from breadfruit, pasta is made of wheat.

Thus, the famous Venetian traveller may have tasted pasta in China, a very ancient civilization dating back over 5,000 years that probably knew about pasta very early, however, according to another view, he may simply have rediscovered a food item which was already present in the Etruscan period. There exists some evidence that the Etruscans prepared a food made out of a wheat and egg mixture, first mentioned in the 1st century AD, but it was actually baked instead of boiled. Therefore, such ancient recipe had some similarities, but cannot be considered pasta. Moreover, though carvings on some of the stucco reliefs found in Etruscan tombs depicted a knife, board, flour sack and an iron pin, tools which could have been employed to prepare pasta, such devices may have had other uses and there is no further evidence to support the conjecture that the Etruscans conceived pasta.

The claim that pasta spread from Arabia to Italy via the incursion of Islam into Sicily in the 8th century is maybe the most accepted theory for the introduction of pasta. A flour based product in the shape of strings was being produced in great quantities in Palermo, then an Arab colony. A number of historians believe the Sicilian term "maccaruni" which translates as " making dough forcefully" is the origin of the word macaroni which is currently used. Anyone who has kneaded durum wheat knows that it is a laborious daylong process.This recipe 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.

It is interesting to note that pasta was a luxury in 1200's. Then, in the 14th century, pasta makers got better and better at their craft; so more were able to afford it. A very large pasta machine was invented, and pasta makers were finally able to mass-produce this delicious food and pasta shops began to pop up all around the Italian peninsula. It became much more affordable for the general public to purchase pasta, and it soon became a family staple. Even if it was more affordable, there was still a class distinction involving this food: wealthy people regularly ate fresh pasta with many wonderful sauces and fixings. The poorer population usually bought it off the street and ate it dry with their hands.

Dried pasta became very popular for its nutrition and long shelf life, making it ideal for long ship voyages. By that time different shapes of pasta have appeared and new technology made pasta easier to make. The next big advancement in the history of pasta came when the 19th century when pasta met tomatoes. The ubiquitous macaroni and cheese, certainly together with, one of the most popular pasta dishes achieved the status of soul food or comfort food amongst American slaves in the Deep South by the time of the civil war in the mid 19th century. Pasta was brought to the United States since the end of the Nineteenth century: since then, macaroni cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, spaghetti bolognaise, lasagna and a great many other forms of pasta have become an integral part on American diet.

Almost every culture that was introduced to pasta immediately integrated it into their cuisine. Whether it is dry pasta from a grocery store or pasta made from scratch, it is a great food that offers a lot of flexibility and variety.
Whatever the origin of pasta was, there is no doubt that Italian cooks changed it to what we know as the nourishing, versatile and appreciated food that we know. One thing is abundantly clear: no matter what its past was, Italian pasta, in its many forms, is here to stay on our tables for a long time in the future.

Marzia Vaccaro - I Like Italy

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