The History of Pasta: Everything You Need to Know About This Pantry Fave

Words: Katrina Rose Wind

It’s almost impossible to find someone who doesn’t like pasta. It comes in various different shapes and sizes catering to different preferences. This integrant Italian dish has become a staple in households around the world, with some countries even having their own version of the dish. While we can agree that pasta is delicious, the roots behind pasta are not only interesting but still up for debate.

First up, What Is Pasta

pasta

Pasta is actually Italian for ‘paste’ getting its name from the paste-like texture of the dough when it is first mixed. Unlike Asian noodles, pasta is made from the flour of durum wheat and water or eggs. This type of dough is high in gluten and low in moisture, which gives pasta the ability to be dried and then later become soft again after being boiled. This process of making pasta is inherently Italian and stands out from how the rest of the world was making their own version of noodles.

The History of Pasta: Where Did It Reeeeeally Originate

This is a point of contention, with many food historians arguing three different stories of its origin. Some argue that there is evidence that pasta existed in pre-Roman Italy, some that argue that it was brought over from China by the Venetian traveller Marco Polo or that it made its way to Italy from the Mediterranean by the Arabs.

Italian historians and writers have argued that pasta equipment had been found in a tomb from the fourth century B.C., arguing that the dish was being eaten in pre-Roman Italy.

The problem with this argument is that writings and references from the fourth century don’t seem to mention pasta or anything resembling pasta. There is evidence however suggesting the Etruscan civilization was making a flat “noodle” made from durum wheat called ‘lagane’ but this was only mentioned in the 1st century AD.

The second theory is that in the 13th century Marco Polo brought back pasta from his travels to the orient, specifically China. However, this could be boiled down to a misinterpretation of his writings seeing as pasta was already being made in various parts of Italy, specifically by the Etruscans. In Polo’s writings, he mentions a tree in China where something like pasta was being made. Historians believe he was referring to the sago palm, which is used to create something similar to pasta from barley flour.

pasta19th-century Painting by Saverio della Gatta, portraying the “macaroni eaters” of Naples.
Image source: National Geographic/Christie’s Images/ Scala, Florence 

It is also believed that pasta actually made its way to Italy from Arab travellers trading in the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages. However, despite all these theories, it seems that all roads lead to Asia. Archaeologists believe that noodles were most likely first produced in central Asia; then making their way westward to the Arabs who then travelled with them to the Mediterranean, where the process was refined and durum wheat began being used.

The History of Pasta: How It Became the Food of the Common Man

In the 16th century Italy, pasta was actually considered a dish that only the wealthy could afford and enjoy. The famous Italian Renaissance chef, and chef to three cardinals and two popes, Bartolomeo Scappi, actually wrote a cookbook in 1570 named “Opera dell’arte del cucinare”, which translates to Opera, the Art of Cooking. In this cookbook, Scappi wrote about how to make fresh egg pasta dough and how to use a “special” rolling pin. One of the recipes he created was a banquet dish suited for the elite of that time. The dish consisted of boiled chicken accompanied with ravioli filled with a paste made of various parts of meat and cheese, roast pork, boiled pork belly, cow udders, herbs, fresh cheese, Parmesan, spices, raisins and sugar.

It was around the 17th century that it started becoming a staple of the common man. This had to do with the deterioration in people’s standard of living, which limited the access and affordability to meat, and how cheap the Kingdoms of Sicily and Naples were selling wheat. Another contributing factor was religion.

Italy has been a religious country for centuries and around the 17th century is when religious restrictions started having an impact on what people were eating. In Catholicism, there are days when meat is forbidden and that’s when pasta started filling the gap.

Tomato Sauce and Pasta

pasta

Although hard to believe, Italians did not like tomatoes pre-pasta, they were considered too sweet and exotic. It actually wasn’t until the 19th century when the first recipe appeared for the most common pasta dish we all know and love today, spaghetti in tomato sauce. It only makes sense that the Italians combined the two, the warm climate of the Mediterranean is perfect for growing tomatoes, herbs and other fresh vegetables and only meant that it was inevitable that they would start testing out different ways to enjoy pasta with a variety of sauces.

Dried Pasta

There are reasons for having different types of pasta; dried pasta in particular, especially the ones that are more intricately shaped, were actually designed for holding onto sauces. There are about 300 different varieties and shapes of dried pasta, ranging from tubed shaped to ones that look like wheels.

When it comes to dried pasta, there is actually a law in Italy stating that it has to be made with 100% durum semolina flour and water.

One thing that makes dried pasta stand out is the drying process. Of course, like any popular food, there is the process for mass production and then there is the old-school way. Mass-produced pasta is typically dried in very high temperatures for a short period of time in order to get more pasta dried in a smaller amount of time. Whereas with the traditional method, pasta is dried a lot slower and at a much lower temperature. The reason why old-school methods are still used today is that it ensures a quicker cooking time, a much better texture and overall better eating experience.

Fresh Pasta

Fresh pasta takes time and care to prepare and the result is a much softer and fresher pasta. Unlike its dried counterpart, the fresh version can be made with ingredients other than durum semolina flour. Some use all-purpose flour and eggs, some use durum flour and water but there is more wiggle room than its dried counterpart. Being served fresh, homemade pasta by someone in Italy shows a great deal of respect and shows they take a high level of pride in their cooking.

Now that you know about the history of pasta, we know you have a hankering for a delicious bowl of it. Make sure to check out our round-up of our mouth-watering pasta recipes.

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