Pasta, noodles, or dumplings are found throughout the world. Every culture seems to have their own unique take on this simple flour and water mixture. Sometimes eggs are added, but what pasta, or whatever you want to call it, comes down to is two simple things, flour and liquid.
We probably all know the story of how pasta reached Italy. After years of traveling, Marco Polo returned home and brought this culinary delight to the Italian peninsula where it flourished and became the symbolic dish of Italy. How true is this story though?
According to many scholars, not very. Many of pasta’s origins are hidden in a bit of mist and shadow. As it was a peasant’s dish, its history wasn’t very well documented. It didn’t appear in early cookbooks and the like but was made at home and passed down from generation to generation of hard-working peasants. Some things we do know, however.
Firstly, pasta was already gaining a foothold in parts of Italy before Marco Polo had even returned from his travels, or wrote his now lost book about them.
So here’s what little we know from historians. Noodles probably did first appear in Asia thousands of years ago and spread westward from there. The most common theory is that nomadic Arabs carried early forms of dried pasta westward, as it was a good lightweight food source for their long journeys.
Once noodles reached the Mediterranean, the process was refined and durum wheat became the ingredient of choice for pasta flour because of its high gluten content and long shelf life. Dried pasta made from durum wheat can last almost indefinitely.
From there the culture of Italy and the vast varieties of fresh herbs and vegetables available to people in the Mediterranean took over. Pasta took on hundreds of shapes and this once-peasant dish turned into the numerous varieties, both simple and complex, we know today.
I tend to doubt the nomad story, though. Pasta is simply ground grain mixed with either water and/or eggs and boiled. I find it hard to believe that this simplest of things did not evolve throughout the world almost simultaneously as each culture learned to turn grain into flour. Naturally, and I think most cooks would agree, the first thing you would do with flour is mix it with some water or other liquid and try out different cooking methods. With the cooking methods available at the time, boiling is one of the obvious choices. Whether just pieces of it, or wrapping something in it, pasta, to me, seems like the likeliest earliest flour dish. Probably even predating bread, as to make leavened bread you first have to figure out yeast and how to control it.
However, all this is just conjecture. We will likely never know the true origins of pasta. Noodles and noodle dishes do appear throughout most cultures with access to some form of flour, so I do believe my theory holds some merit.