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Did Marco Polo bring pasta from China?

Marco Polo spent 17 years in China.
Marco Polo spent 17 years in China.
©istockphoto/wynnter

­Long before paper, gunpowder and the compass, the Chinese had invented yet another staple of human civilization. A coil of dry noodles, preserved for 4,000 years, sat beneath an overturned earthenware bowl at an archaeological site in northeastern China. In 2005, archaeologists discovered the spaghettilike tangle, effectively settling the score about whether the Chinese, Italians or Arabs began producing pasta first [source: BBC].

Instead of being made from ground wheat, as most pasta is, those ancient noodles were prepared from another cereal grass called millet. Although not native to their country, the Chinese later began growing wheat in the northern regions along the Yellow River by 3000 B.C. The first written records of a mixture called bing appeared between the fourth and second century B.C. [s­ource: Serventi, Sabban and Shugaar]. Bing referred to all products made from wheat dough, including breads and pastas. Around 300 B.­C., the Chinese scholar Shu Xi wrote an ode dedicated to the culinary cornerstone, describing the "fine and thin" bing stuffed with pork and mutton [source: Serventi, Sabban and Shugaar].

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­By the time Marco Polo arrived in China in 1274, the Chinese had well established their pasta cuisine. The medieval Chinese didn't cook pasta from dried strands, like the kind we buy from the grocery store. Instead, theirs always was made from fresh dough. They also isolated gluten, the compound in wheat that provides elasticity for kneading and stretching, and created pastas from different starches, such as rice and soybeans.

In the 17 years that Marco Polo ­spent in China, dining with the likes of Kublai Khan, he certainly sampled the various forms of Asian pasta. According to one edition of Marco Polo's "Description of the World," which the Venetian merchant wrote after returning home from the East, he ate dishes similar to macaroni during his stint. From that brief mention, a legend arose that the famed explorer must've introduced pasta to Italy. What else could explain the gastronomical bridge between two distant countries?

But as any gourmand worth an ounce of orzo will quickly tell you, there isn't a grain of truth to Polo as the pasta pioneer.

­

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Durum wheat grows naturally in Italy.
Durum wheat grows naturally in Italy.
©istockphoto/elianderic

­Incredibly, the emergence of Italian pasta occurred in total isolation from China. Before Marco Polo left for his China expedition in 1292, Italy had discovered the culinary delights of pasta centuries earlier. The Arab geographer Idrisi described the pasta he encountered in Sicily in 1154 as made from flour and formed into long strings [source: Needham and Wang]. By the Mi­ddle Ages, Sicily and Sardinia had developed pasta trades as well.

When tracing the origins of Italian pasta, historians look to a plant, rather than an individual. The cultivation of durum wheat offers more clues to how Italian pasta evolved into the country's trademark food. Today, most of the pasta on store shelves comes from durum wheat, which has high levels of gluten. That gluten adds malleability to the pasta dough, making it easier to work with. The Chinese climate isn't conducive to durum wheat production, whereas the cereal thrives in Italy's environment. Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations grew durum wheat, but written records indicate that they stopped short of converting the ground grains, or semolina, into pasta and settled for breads and gruel [source: Serventi, Sabban and Shugaar].

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Yet some food historians argue that the Greeks had more cooking in the kitchen that paved the way for pasta. For instance, the ancient Greek word meaning "ribbon" is itrion, and the Arabic word for "noodle" is the similar-looking itrijab [source: Bober]. In addition, Greek mythology includes a tale about the god Vulcan pushing dough through a device that converts it into thin, edible threads.

But that etymological explanation doesn't completely account for the leap from bread to pasta in Italy. A majority of food historians credit the Arabs for bringing pasta, along with spinach, eggplant and sugar cane, to the Mediterranean basin [source: Bober]. By the ninth century, Arab groups had expanded into Sicily and southern Italy, likely bringing along noodle-making techniques learned from their Eastern neighbors. By the 12th century, Arabs had also taught Italians their methods for drying pasta, which they would have used for preserving the food while traveling [source: Capatti, Montari and O'Healy].

As pasta production traveled up the Italian boot, Naples became the center of durum wheat pasta manufacturing. Today, Italians gobble up between 66 and 77 pounds (30 and 35 kilograms) of pasta every year, more than anywhere else in the world -- including China [source: Dendy and Dobraszczyk].

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Sources

  • Bober, Phyllis Pray. "Art, Culture, and Cuisine." University of Chicago Press. 2001. (Jan. 26, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=3EoIE8vCHwQC
  • Capati, Alberto; Montanari, Massimo; and O'Healy Áine. "Italian Cuisine." Columbia University Press. 2003. (Jan. 26, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=yeN7ycEYq1sC
  • Dendy, D.A.V. and Bogden, J. Dobraszczyk. "Cereals and Cereal Products." Springer. 2001. (Jan. 26, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=b38oZ0QW-98C
  • Flandrin, Jean Louis; Montanari, Massimo; and Sonnenfeld, Albert. "Food." Columbia University Press. 1999. (Jan. 26, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=FnwnXzTRA44C
  • Needham, Joseph and Wang, Ling. "Science and Civilization in China." Cambridge University Press. 2008. (Jan. 26, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=FgtFxedkgbcC
  • "Oldest noodles unearthed in China." BBC. Oct. 12, 2005. (Jan. 26, 2009)http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4335160.stm
  • Serventi, Silvano; Sabban, Françoise; and Shugaar, Antony. "Pasta: The Story of a Universal Food." Columbia University Press. 2002. (Jan. 26, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=FFV9NEUIewkC

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