Like many ancient foods, pasta’s history is complex and challenging to untangle. Whilst today we almost entirely associate pasta with Italian cuisine, it is likely that this quintessence food was invented elsewhere, or even in many places at once. As we define it today, pasta is the mixture of durum wheat flour, water, and occasionally egg. It comes in dried or fresh forms made with slightly different recipes. Many cultures have long had similar foods, such as Chinese noodles and lesser-known German Spätzle. However, it’s the durum wheat which gives the pasta it’s distinctive nature. Its high gluten content makes it more elastic and suitable for shaping into the many different forms we have today. Want to try some authentic pasta in London? Check out Grapevine Shoreditch.
A common myth perpetuated about pasta’s history is that Marco Polo brought back the original recipe during his 13th Century expedition to China. Whilst Marco Polo does talk of returning home with a type of noodle from China, his contemporaries in Italy had already been enjoying pasta dishes for many centuries at this point.
As with many foods, it is likely that recipes moved back and forth between cultures, falling in and out of fashion, with each being refined and altered to local taste. Some of the earliest pasta recipes in existence are very different from how we think of it today, with the original cooking method in Italy being baking rather than boiling, and sweet recipes containing raisins and spices being used.
Today it is thought likely that pasta may have been brought to Italy by Arabic traders, possibly having originated in Asia. The traders are also thought to have developed methods for drying their rations in order to carry them on long journeys.
Wherever pasta originated from one thing’s for sure, the Italians have the credit of developing industrial production methods and making it their own. Today over 300 types of pasta exist, different shapes developed for various purposes. One key aspect with all pasta types is for it to hold onto the sauce, with designs such as ridges or folds created to encourage this behaviour. Yet for a long-time, its most popular partner, the tomato, wasn’t a key component of pasta recipes, as it did not grow naturally within Europe. Even after it was brought over from the Americas and established in the country, people often believed it to be poisonous, and therefore did not include it in their cooking.
Today pasta is a global success, in part due to its long cupboard life and low cost of production, but also due to the Italian immigrants who carried it over to their new homes in America and other nations. As with all foods, it continues to adapt around the people who cook with it, changing with the fashions of the times and the tastes of the cultures that consume it.