Pasta is a type of food typically made from an unleavened dough of wheat flour mixed with water or eggs and formed into sheets or other shapes before being boiled or baked. Rice flour or legumes such as beans or lentils are sometimes substituted for wheat flour to produce a different flavor and texture or as a gluten-free alternative. Pasta is a traditional Italian dish. But did you know when it was first consumed?
No Roman Emperor ever consumed pasta. It was first mentioned in the 13th-14th centuries in Italy.
The Invention of Pasta
The origins of pasta are divisive. A common misconception is that in the 13th century, the explorer Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy. This concept was inspired by an excerpt from Marco Polo’s journals in which he describes a pasta tree, which is now thought to be a Sago tree. The word ‘pasta’ can mean dough or paste in Italian, and the flesh of the Sago tree can be used to make a type of starchy bread, which is why he called it a ‘pasta tree.’ While pasta had existed in China for centuries before the Venetian explorer’s visit, he did not bring it back to the Kingdom of Italy.
Though the Polo origin story is widely considered a myth, the true origins of pasta are far more difficult to trace. Pasta existed in Italy long before Marco Polo set out to explore new lands, but its precise origins have unfortunately been lost to the ages. Some credit its origins to the Etruscans, a pre-Roman civilization from central Italy. However, the evidence for this belief is quite flimsy: a relic from an Etruscan tomb allegedly shows pasta-making equipment. Even if the equipment was used for cooking, it was most likely to make testaroli, an ancient flatbread/pasta hybrid popular in Tuscany and Liguria.
The pasta we know today was likely introduced to Sicily by Arab traders in the 8th and 9th centuries. Traders from North Africa would bring dried strands of durum wheat and water with them on long journeys. (Source: Pasta Evangelists)
Pasta For Everyone
Although the origins of pasta are debated, we know that pasta was widely consumed in Italy during the Medieval period. Pasta is depicted in various Renaissance artworks and is mentioned numerous times in literature. Boccaccio depicts a hill of melting Parmesan cheese upon which pasta chefs make ravioli and macaroni before rolling it down to a group of ravenous gluttons in his 14th-century work The Decameron. That is some art we can get behind.
While such scenes were reserved for literature, poor and rich alike ate pasta. When the meat was scarce, pasta was a source of energy for the poorest members of society – and it was generally eaten plain. On the other hand, wealthy nobles would stuff and cover it with various ingredients. Many of the combinations they devised would appear strange today; they combined savory, spicy, and sweet ingredients in their pasta. A 16th-century ravioli recipe worth mentioning is one filled with boiled pork belly, cow udders, and raisins. (Source: Pasta Evangelists)
Image from Sugarlovespices