The Great Noodle Debate (Asian 258)
Updated: Feb 25, 2022
My first encounter with food history was in the fourth grade. One evening, my father came home to tell us over dinner that he had served as a judge in a cooking case. A local group had invited him, San Francisco’s Public Defender, to adjudicate a longstanding controversy: Who invented pasta, the Chinese or Italians?
At the time, I did not grasp the import of the question. I was also unfamiliar with the story of Marco Polo bringing pasta back to Italy from China. I didn't even know who Marco Polo was (the Netflix series would not premier for almost three decades). On that day, I was mostly interested in my mother’s reaction.
“Of course it was the Chinese,” she scoffed. “The Europeans steal everything.”
My father shook his head and laughed. Apparently, the Italian and Chinese communities had sent representatives to attend the event. My father naturally thought it best to find a diplomatic solution -- and dodged the question. “I said that both groups came up with pasta on their own,” he told me. “Besides, how would you ever know the difference?”
I have periodically thought about this debate over the last thirty-six years. It has been a story I tell people about my late mother, or about the dynamics of growing up in a bicultural household.
In recent years, though, I have pondered the conversation as a scholar. It touches upon many of the issues we discussed last week. What makes something a particular dish? Is it the ingredients, a specific process, or a well-defined recipe?
As you all know, these questions are not just philosophical ones or points of academic disputation (think of Stephanie Izard and her mint bibimpap). The practice of naming is caught up with issues of cultural ownership. And it points back to my parents’ argument about who should get credit for pasta.
Before giving my opinion, let’s back up: What do I mean by noodle or pasta (I use both terms interchangeably). Rather than give you an overly broad definition, let me start with a recipe for the classic noodle.
Take wheat and grind it into a fine flour. Then drizzle water into that flour, to turn the grains into a stiff ball. Now knead. After a few minutes, wrap the dough in a damp cloth and set it aside (saran wrap is fine). Wait about twenty or thirty minutes. As you wait, the gluten -- or what the ancient Chinese called the “tendons” or “sinews” -- will relax and endow your dough with its special powers.
Knead the soft ball a few more minutes. Now take out your rolling pin and flatten that ball into a thick disc. In some traditions of pasta making, you’ll cut the dough into strips, brush them with oil, and then set them out again to sit. After two hours, it will be time to stretch those babies. Grab two ends of the strip with your hands and then pull, and bounce the noodle off the top of the counter. Bam bam bing! The noodles are ready for prime time: heat your water to a boil, drop the strips in, and wait a moment. Voila, you have noodle! (For my very simple noodle recipe, which requires less time, click here).
The basic concept behind the noodle is simple. It’s so simple, in fact, that many people argue that the noodle must have been invented independently multiple times over the course of human history.
Until a few years ago, I would have agreed. But I began having second thoughts after a trip to Mexico City in 2011 to meet the future in-laws. While there, I had a taste of something that made me do a double take. It was sopa de fideos: an intense tomato-based soup with short strands of wheat vermicelli. After a little digging, I discovered that fideo had a long history. It goes back to Spain: Sephardic Jews brought them to Spain from the Near East during the many centuries of Muslim rule in the Iberian peninsula (ca. 8th-15th centuries).
Oddly enough, no one has claimed that this little noodle came from Italy. This last fact surprised me. After all, Spain is a lot closer to Italy than the Near East.
Besides, I had assumed that the Italians had been making noodles since time immemorial. But I soon was disabused of this notion. According to Silvio Serventi and Françoise Sabban, noodle making represents a fairly *recent* development. Italians -- or Sicilians to be precise -- only became well known for their pasta in the twelfth or thirteenth century. Before that time, they were mostly bread eaters. For thousands of years, people in this part of the world have loved their bread: not just yeasted things that puff up in ovens, but flatbreads that you can throw on the grill or lovingly place in a tandoor. In this, people in the Mediterranean were like the Egyptian pharaohs and the Hebrews.
To explain why Italy -- and ultimately, Europe -- was so late to the pasta game, Serventi and Sabban point to religious beliefs and social attitudes. For convenience, I will call these the cultural matrix. The cultural matrix is what determines which foods are valued and how they are prepared. It is also the way foods are classified -- in other words, how they are lumped together or split apart. And the cultural matrix captures the social context of eating: who eats what, with whom, and why.
In the Roman world, the cultural matrix worked against the invention of pasta. According to Serventi and Sabban, the ancient Romans and their neighbors split up grains according to their sources of heat: dry (baking) versus moist (boiling, steaming). The former, exemplified by bread, was civilized fare. A proper Roman ate his bread with cheese and drank his wine. By contrast, the barbarian -- typified by my proto-German and English forebears -- ate porridge and guzzled beer. This distinction apparently stuck around for centuries, only losing its grip in the eighth or ninth century AD.
As I read more, I became increasingly interested in the origins of fideos and pasta products. So I did what any China historian would do. I looked at China.
China was not a bad place to look. In 2002, archaeologists dug up what looked to be like the first evidence of pasta making in Lajia, China. The site, located in the far northwestern province of Qinghai, was about 4,000 years old. Chemical analysis subsequently suggested that the noodles were made *not* with wheat but rather with millet -- a yellow grain that looks like bird seed. Now marketed in the United States as a super grain, millet was once the staple of the ancient northern Chinese diet. In fact, the dawn of Chinese civilization ten thousand years ago came on the heels of millet farming in the Yellow River Valley. From the looks of things, this discovery seemed like an open and shut case. The Chinese came up with the idea of pasta and developed it with a quintessentially Chinese grain. Score for Team China!
But there were problems with the story. Archaeologists can be worse than lawyers. They are sticklers about evidence -- and in particular about the way evidence is handled. Some of them, including the very distinguished Professor Liu Li of Stanford, started poking holes in the theory. She and her team not only pointed to signs of possible site contamination, but more importantly, she questioned whether it was possible to make noodles only from millet.
Millet, she pointed out, is gluten free. It lacks the gluey powers of wheat. It thus cannot become a stretchy dough by its lonesome. Inspired, I did my own experiment. Instead of a smooth ball, I ended up with all grit and no stick!
Professor Liu also argued that the Lajia noodles probably once contained wheat. Her suggestion, of course, makes sense. The Lajia site is not just anywhere in China. If you look at the spot on a map, it sits on a track of land that connected the Chinese heartland in the Yellow River Valley to Central Asia and beyond.
In other words, Lajia stood at the crossroads of civilizations. It was at a place in ancient times where different peoples mixed, and where disparate food traditions and technologies met, and sometimes collided. This, not coincidentally, would also turn out to be an important spot on the Silk Road, the trade route that would connect China to the West from the first century BC to the eighteenth.
It was in this area that China, in fact, acquired its taste for wheat. Wheat came with other things that traveled through Central Asia: the chariot, the tandoor, the rotary grindstone, flatbreads, grape wine, sesame seeds, hops, and cheese (more on that next time).
It would take many centuries, however, before wheat products became popular in central China. The reasons may have been economic. By the middle of the Stone Age, millet was already an established crop and thus a safe bet for farmers. Farmers don’t like to do things that risk starvation. But according to food historian Rachel Laudan, the arrival of the rotary grindstone in China from the West, in the third century BC, was a game changer. It mechanized the process of producing flour, turning it into less of a workout.
Within a few centuries of the arrival of the rotary grindstone, the Chinese developed an enduring passion for wheat products. Their poets wrote poems -- yes, poems -- about string-like pasta and stretchy noodles, as well as steamed buns. More than one Chinese ruler also became addicted to grilled flatbreads and baked cakes.
Indeed, I suspect that grilled bread is a distant relative of the noodle. The ancient Chinese lumped the two together. They called them both bing 餅, a term that they used loosely for doughy things and foods shaped like discs. Grilled and baked breads were Hubing 胡餅, or Barbarian Cakes. Noodles were Soup Cakes. The common name makes sense when you consider the recipe.
To see this, let’s pretend we are making a scallion pancake:
Take hot water and pour it into the flour to relax some of that gluten. Then roll it up into a ball, flatten it into a disc (bing). Then coat the surface with sesame oil, salt, and scallions, and roll like a cigar. Then roll the cigar into a coil, and flatten it back into a disc. That disc will go into an oiled pan.
A number of you noticed that the process was similar to the techniques used to produce South Asian paratha. Both belong to the same class of flaky dough pastries. The real surprise is this: Making an archaic Chinese noodle wasn’t all that different. You just lengthen the resting period and instead cut the disc into strips, which you can roll or stretch. (For medieval Chinese figurines that show you a lot about the process, click here).
The biggest difference, however, is the source of heat: dry versus moist.
It turns out that someone had changed up -- even mangled -- the recipe. We do not know the identity of that cook. But Serventi and Sabban believe that they were from China. That person, I would further guess, was also probably a millet eater most of the time, as wheat was a specialty food with foreign associations.
So why suspect a millet eater? It comes down to the source of heat. Since ancient times, people in China have most often eaten millet in the form of porridge. Unlike the ancient Italians, the Chinese saw nothing strange about boiling or steaming their grains. Their cultural matrix was different. In it, wet heat was the default setting. Grilling and baking marked a food as something exotic and foreign.
So far, we have talked about how intercultural borrowing, foreign technology, and recipe mangling contributed to the Chinese noodle. But this leaves the elephant in the room. Did Europeans get the idea of noodles from China? And what about that bowl of sopa de fideos?
If you ask Serventi and Sabban, they’ll tell you European noodles are unrelated. They believe that Sicilians came up with the idea on their own -- during a period of Muslim contact and rule. By the eighth century, Sicilians began experimenting with strips of unleavened dough which they boiled and fried. At some point, they began to bake those boiled strips in layers. Out of this experiment, modern lasagna was born.
I suspect that something else happened. Here are *my* interpretations of the facts (yes, I agree with Mom, up to a point).
Go back now to that sopa de fideos, the dish that no one wants to label Italian. Rewind the video and watch how the cook does it.
He doesn’t make fideos by boiling the noodles. He first sautés the strands with oil (dry heat). Only after they turn brown does he add modest amounts of tomato liquid. The result is something more than a soup. It’s a stew.
If you’re familiar with pilaf or paella making, the process should ring a bell. In fact, the Spanish also stick vermicelli in their paella, and sometimes make pilaf with it. They treat the vermicelli like rice: pan-fry it first in oil, then add liquid.
The Spanish are not alone in treating their vermicelli this way. As I mentioned at the onset, Spain and Portugal were under Muslim rule for several centuries. It thus makes sense that you find commonalities between its cuisines and foods found throughout the Islamic world.
In fact, this way of preparing noodles is common in the Islamic world: in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, and throughout Central Asia. As a Turkish friend told me, “We don’t make our vermicelli like the Italians. And we often take our noodles with rice in pilaf.”
So what happened?
I suspect that noodle pilaf resulted from a cook -- probably in Central Asia or Iran -- switching out the source of heat. Today, noodles are common foods in Eastern Central Asia. Go to Uzbekistan and you’ll find noodles that look very much like they do in Western China. They’re called Laghman, a word that derives from the Chinese lamian 拉麵 (pulled noodle), and they are boiled creatures. But in Central Asia, you’ll also notice something interesting. The noodles turn up in pilaf. Sometimes, they replace the rice. Other times, however, the noodles serve as garnishes on top of rice.
The reasons for such a change should be obvious. In Central Asia and the Middle East, pilaf is king. At some point in the past, cooks began to prepare their noodles like long-grained rice. They toasted it in a pan and then let it steam with the juices. In other words, like their ancient Chinese counterparts, these cooks took an unfamiliar food and assimilated that food to their cultural matrix.
I would be *surprised* if this way of preparing noodles reached Spain but skipped Italy. Sicily also saw centuries of Muslim rule (ca. 827-1091). Besides, there is a noodle stew called fidelini in Liguria, on the Italian peninsula. Serventi and Sabban believe it is a relative of the Mexican fideos. It too is cooked first in dry heat.
The real question is when the Italians began boiling their pasta. This is a question that I can’t answer. I suspect that at some point, some medieval chef started goofing off in the kitchen and realized that thick noodles cook faster in water or broth.
One thing is for sure. Pasta is a *complicated* food. To be sure, it reflects humans' capacity to learn from each other. If we step back and think about it, it’s truly impressive that equipment like the rotary grindstone and the oven traveled from the Western hemisphere to Asia. It’s also equally unbelievable when we think about how far grains and other foods (like apples) have moved across the globe.
Pasta also tells us something else: the human penchant for going off script. Ancient cooks thought little about changing or mangling the recipe. They were also sometimes intellectually lazy and did not strive to preserve the belief systems that motivated other peoples' recipes. In other words, these ancient cooks did not subscribe to Genevieve Ko’s way of thinking. They were opportunistic borrowers.
What do you think? Let us know how you like the links and videos. Where do you think your favorite noodles come from? Questions?
English-language Sources (aside from the ones hyperlinked)
Paul D. Buell, E.N. Anderson, Montserrat de Pablo Moya, Moldir Okenbay, Crossroads of Cuisine: The Eurasian Heartland, the Silk Road and Food
David R. Knechtges, “Dietary Habits: Shu Xi’s ‘Rhapsody on Pasta’” In Wendy Swartz, Robert Ford Campany, Yang Lu and Jessey Choo eds. Early Medieval China : A Sourcebook (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).
Rachel Laudan, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); Chapter 1-2.
Robert Spengler, Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019).
Silvano Serventi and Françoise Sabban, Pasta: The Universal Food, tr. Antony Shugaar (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002). UM-library ebook.