Pasta is Italy’s staple food, but it’s not only Italians who indulge in platefuls of the doughy concoction every day. People all over the world adore it.
It comes in more than 300 shapes: long, as in spaghetti; flat, as in fettuccine; hollow (bucatini); short, as in penne; the butterfly-shaped farfalle and ear-shaped orecchiette; tubular (rigatoni); and stuffed, in varieties such as tortellini and ravioli.
It can be bought dry or freshly made from egg-based dough. World Pasta Day, held each October , celebrates the universal love of this staple of the Mediterranean diet.
But who invented pasta? Legend has it that spaghetti is descended from noodles , based on the premise that Venetian nobleman and merchant Marco Polo imported long, worm-like strands of the latter to Italy from China in the late 13th century.
To many, though, the Chinese origins of Italian pasta are a myth.
It is true that Marco Polo did spend several years in China, learning the country’s traditions and culture, and he may have brought Chinese noodles and other foods back from his journeys.
But Italian food historians say pasta culture was already flourishing in the Mediterranean region centuries before he travelled east, among the ancient Greeks and later among the Romans.
“Noodles are one thing, pasta another food altogether,” says Anna Maria Pellegrino, a food historian and a member of the Italian Academy of Cuisine. “They reflect two separate culinary cultures and identities that have developed in parallel , the only conjunction being the need for nourishment and, above all, to share around the same table feelings and everyday life events.
“The way they are cooked, the pots, the types of cereals used, the preparation, ingredients and toppings are completely different and specific to each civilisation. There’s no direct link between the Asian and the Italian or Mediterranean ways of mixing cereals with water to create noodles or pasta,” she says.
Pellegrino adds: “Ever since the birth of agriculture, man has learned to hone crop techniques and shape these to his needs, thus mixing grains with water was an automatic step which happened across all civilisations at some given point in time, probably simultaneously,”
Historical texts and works by classical poets help to date the first type of primeval pasta to the time of the ancient Greeks.
Giorgio Franchetti, a food historian and scholar of ancient Roman history, is the author of a book, Dining With the Ancient Romans , which was recently translated into English. He roundly dismisses the Marco Polo theory about the origins of pasta.
“It’s pure nonsense,” he says. “The noodles that Marco Polo maybe brought back with him at the end of the 1200s from China were essentially made with rice and based on a different, oriental culinary tradition that has nothing to do with ours.”
His book’s recipes are based on texts, including some from the Roman soldier and historian Cato the Elder, that clearly describe food preparation and the quantities required. The recipes also draw on documents and food culture artefacts recovered in the area around Mount Vesuvius on the Gulf of Naples.
Franchetti says his culinary research includes insights derived from relics found under the ashes of Vesuvius’ eruption in AD79 that destroyed Pompeii , including documents and well-preserved food remains.
“As opposed to the stereotypical image of lavish aristocrat Roman banquets overflowing with rich food, opulent meats and precious wines, the ordinary Romans didn’t indulge in culinary excess,” he says.
“Between 1000BC and 800BC, the Greeks first mentioned the existence of laganon, a flat pasta sheet sliced into irregular strips that was later adopted by the ancient Romans with the plural name of laganae. It was used in soups of leek and chickpeas, a very popular Roman dish,” he says.
The laganae were the inspiration for what would later become lasagne, stratified pasta sheets usually cooked with meat and tomato sauce.
The Roman strips of pasta were similar to a particular type of pasta still served in Italy today. Called maltagliati, meaning “badly cut” in Italian, the pasta’s irregular shape resembles a flat rhombus, or a rough rectangle.
Roman poets and philosophers often wrote of their delight in laganae, says Franchetti. In one of the pieces in his famed collection of poems, Satires , Horace writes that he cannot wait to get home to enjoy a bowl of leeks, chickpeas and laganae.
The philosopher and statesman Cicero was another enthusiast, enjoying laganae’s highly nutritious and filling properties, though he is reputed to have overindulged, eating huge portions and suffering from terrible stomach aches.
Cicero was the Roman empire’s main cheerleader for the pasta, says Franchetti. He says it remains unclear whether his stomach pains were due to eating too much laganae or to health problems.
Cristina Conte, an “archaeo-chef” who blends archaeology with cooking by recovering lost recipes of the classical world, says laganae was for less wealthy Roman households.
“Back in the [ancient] Roman times, laganae was a daily meal in each household, a very democratic, simple but highly nutritious dish for the poor and the working classes, not the wealthy,” she says. “It was the main comfort food, just like pasta is today for Italians.”
Working with Franchetti, Conte has brought back to life many ancient Roman recipes, including laganae, which she serves at picturesque events and soirées. Conte dresses in the typical robes of ancient Rome and prepares Roman dinners at top archaeological sites across Italy to recreate a real “ancient” world vibe.
She also cooks a “sweet pasta” dessert variant served by the Romans, called placentia and made with layers of dough, honey and fresh ricotta cheese. The recipe, included in Franchetti’s book, was documented by Cato in his book De Agri Cultura .
According to Conte, it is likely that pre-Roman tribes, such as the Etruscans, invented an early type of rudimentary pasta, though there is no proof of this.
In the absence of historical written sources, it remains unclear whether the pasta of ancient Rome was dried or fresh. Pasta in Italian is short for pasta-asciutta (or “dry pasta”), the kind sold in supermarkets and which has a long shelf life. Fresh pasta, made with eggs, takes less time to cook and should be eaten within a day.
The birth of dry pasta has been linked to the culture and lifestyle of nomadic Arabian tribes. To cope with long journeys across the desert where water was scarce, Arabs dried their pasta in hollow cylindrical shapes, similar to macaroni.
Ninth-century Arab food scholar Ibn-al-Mibrad wrote in a cookbook that the dry pasta could then be mixed with legumes, especially lentils. Called rishta, the dish was popular with the Berber and Bedouin desert tribes of northern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant, and is still eaten today across the Middle East.
Spaghetti, in particular, appears to have had Arabic influence. Franchetti has found a book dating to 1154, more than 100 years before Marco Polo’s journeys, written by an Arab geographer called Al-Idrin. It mentions long strands of dough called triya, curled up like balls of wool and exported in wooden barrels along Mediterranean merchant routes from the city of Palermo in Sicily, then under the Arab rule.
“If we take dry pasta as reference and look for written sources, we need to wait for the ninth century, when we know for sure that the Arabs were the first to dry pasta,” says Franchetti. “Or at least, they were the first to document it.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.