Think of Italy and think of pasta, delicious cheap and versatile. Simple to cook and easy on the eye, pasta is such an important food across the world.
Pasta is one of my great food weaknesses. In my world, there are few dishes that can compete with the yum-factor of orecchiette pasta in a simple tomato garlic & basil sauce.
Pasta is one of the worlds most accessible foods. Nearly every country has its own unique version of this popular, inexpensive staple. In Germany and Hungary they have spaetzle. In Greeze, orzo
The history of pasta is difficult to trace for several reasons. The word itself translates to paste in Italian. This is a reference to the dough, made from a combination of flour and water or eggs, all simple components that have been around for centuries. This makes it hard to differentiate pasta from other ancient dishes made from the same ingredients. In addition, since pasta has long been a food of the common people, it has not received as much attention as more extravagant foods, a pity, since its one of the most popular foods on the planet! Lets remedy that by exploring the roots of pasta.
The word pasta is generally used to describe traditional Italian noodles, which differentiates it from other types of noodles around the world. Pasta is made from unleavened dough consisting of ground durum wheat and water or eggs. The use of durum wheat sets pasta apart from other forms of noodles. Durum wheats high gluten content and low moisture make it perfectly suited to pasta production. The durum wheat dough is pressed into sheets, cut into a variety of shapes, and cooked before serving.
While we do think of pasta as a culturally Italian food, it is likely the descendent of ancient Asian noodles. A common belief about pasta is that it was brought to Italy from China by Marco Polo during the 13th century. In his book, The Travels of Marco Polo, there is a passage that briefly mentions his introduction to a plant that produced flour (possibly a breadfruit tree). The Chinese used this plant to create a meal similar to barley flour. The barley-like meal Polo mentioned was used to make several pasta-like dishes, including one described as lagana (lasagna). Since Polo’s original text no longer exists, the book relies heavily on retellings by various authors and experts. This, combined with the fact that pasta was already gaining popularity in other areas of Italy during the 13th century, makes it very unlikely that Marco Polo was the first to introduce pasta to Italy.
Noodles existed in Asia long before Polo’s trip to China. Archaeologists believe that central Asia is most likely the first area to have produced noodles thousands of years ago. From Asia, it travelled westward. The way it reached Europe is unclear, though there are many theoriessome believe that nomadic Arabs are responsible for bringing early forms of pasta westward. Once it 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. When durum wheat pasta is dried, it lasts indefinitely, making it a very convenient food to store. Over time, because of pastas affordability, shelf life, and versatility, it became firmly rooted in Italian culture. The warm Mediterranean climate of Italy is suited to growing fresh vegetables and herbs, which meant that Italians could get creative with a delicious variety of pasta sauces. Tomato-based sauces emerged as a favorite complement to pasta, and tomatoes remain the most popular ingredient in pasta sauce today.
Pasta is, for all intents and purposes, a comfort food. One of its most comforting qualities is how little it has changed over the centuries. It is still made with the same essential ingredients and preparations that it has been since antiquity. When we eat pasta, we can be assured of the likelihood that our ancestors, and our ancestors ancestors, ate something similar. Pasta, with its long, multicultural history, is a culinary connection to our past.
Credit: Theo Turvill