Food Fights: Who Invented the Noodle?
For years, a myth persisted that Marco Polo was the man behind the age-old China-Italy noodle connection. According to legend, the Venetian merchant introduced Italian pasta to China during his historical 17-year visit to the country, which included a lengthy stay at the court of Kublai Khan. Or was it the other way around? Another similar myth has it that Polo brought Chinese noodles back with him to Italy, making China responsible for the popularity of pasta there. Although researchers long suspected that neither theory was correct, the story persisted for centuries. Finally, in 2002, an astounding discovery was made at an archaeological site called Lajia in Northwest China's Qinghai province which put the age-old argument to rest.
According to archaeologists, the site—a Neolithic settlement— had borne witness to sudden disaster. An earthquake, followed by a catastrophic flood had completely destroyed the ancient community, killing its inhabitants. Like Pompeii, the site provided archaeologists and historians with a perfectly preserved snapshot from a terrible moment in time. Contained at the site were a number of artifacts which had been buried by sediment for centuries. Human remains lay where they had fallen while trying to flee. Scattered around them were the ephemera of an entire society, including buildings, sites of worship, and a large number of everyday objects, including earthenware vessels, bowls, and other utensils. Upon lifting an overturned bowl, archaeologists found something incredible: there, nestled between a mound of earth and the bowl, lay a small tangle of long, yellow noodles, perfectly preserved for over 4,000 years.
Analysis showed that rather than wheat, the noodles were made from millet, a type of grass which was cultivated in China even earlier than rice. Though archaeologists believe the ancient noodles were placed in the bowl as an offering rather than a meal, the discovery confirmed that noodles were a staple in China long before the earliest written evidence of their existence showed. So if Marco Polo didn’t bring noodles to China from Italy (or vice versa) how did the food become such a complex, varied staple in both cultures?
The answer lies partially along the Silk Road, a series of ancient trade networks that extended between East and Southeast Asia, East and West Africa, and Southern Europe. According to journalist Jen Lin-Liu’s book on the subject, a variety of similar noodles and dumplings can be found in the cuisines of countries along those ancient routes. In an interview with NPR, Lin-Liu discussed the similarities between the jiaozi of China and the manta of Central Asia. Both feature minced meat or vegetables wrapped in dough, which are steamed or boiled before being served.
"Some people theorized that Ghengis Khan was responsible for carrying these filled pasta dishes all the way from China through Eastern Europe,” Lin-Liu explained in 2013, “where of course you have pierogies and other similar dishes.”
Dumplings are also found in Bosnian and Turkish cuisines, with Italian tortellini representing an indirect “end-point” for the dish. While these connections are relatively obvious, others are not.
Incredibly, it appears that many of the sophisticated noodle dishes found in both Chinese and Italian cuisines developed independently of each other. As the discovery of the bowl of 4,000-year-old millet noodles made clear, the Chinese were producing noodles even prior to the widespread availability of wheat in China. By the fourth century B.C, written records detailed the existence of a food group known as bing, which encompassed all products made from wheat dough, including breads and noodles. Later records testify to the fact that the Chinese were also adept at isolating gluten, allowing them to make fresh, flexible noodles from sources like rice.
Dried pasta, like the type found in Italy, was essentially non-existent in China because the country’s climate was not conducive to growing the type of wheat needed to produce it. One place this type of wheat--called durum, from the Latin word for “hard”-- grew in abundance was Italy. It was popularized by Arab merchants and settlers, for whom dried pasta was a staple, beginning around the 9th century. By the 1100s, records indicate that a pasta trade flourished throughout Sicily and Sardinia and pasta quickly spread throughout the rest of Italy. The word pasta means “paste” or “dough” in Italian, in reference to the food’s pre-shaped, fresh form.
So while Marco Polo might have enjoyed noodles in China, he was certainly not responsible for introducing them to the country. Instead, he was more than likely astounded at the variety of noodles and cooking techniques he found during his time there, much like many visitors to China today.