How did pasta come to Europe and when did it first become established in Italy?
Where in the world did pasta originate? And when did it come to Europe? Eugene Byrne investigates the history of pasta…
Greek, Roman, Chinese, Indian and Jewish history, to take a few examples, record various foods which you could claim were antecedents of pasta. That pasta crops up in so many cultures isn’t surprising: pasta is basically unleavened bread that has been boiled rather than baked.
There was long a fond myth that Marco Polo (1254–1324) brought pasta back to Italy from his travels in China, though what in fact he said was that he had found the Chinese eating lagana (sheets or ribbons of noodles or wheat pasta) similar to that already found in Italy.
Pasta as we know it today, made from durum wheat and water, was being produced in Sicily by the 12th century (and probably much earlier), and was probably introduced by Arab colonists. North Africa’s variation on pasta is, of course, couscous. It’s thought the Arabs used dried noodles on journeys and military campaigns as it kept well for long periods. Dried pasta would later be used by European seafarers.
Pasta spread across Italy where production remained hard, physical work; pasta-makers would generally sit and knead the dough with their feet. For this reason, it was expensive until industrialised kneading and extrusion methods were pioneered in Naples in the late 1700s. Only then did it become part of the diet of most Italians, before spreading across the world.
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Answered by Eugene Byrne, author and historian
This content first appeared in the Christmas 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine