The history of pasta

Chinese-American author asks if Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy

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We meet Chinese-American author Jen Lin-Liu, to talk about the history of noodle making and discuss her new book.

In the 13th century, Italian merchant and explorer Marco Polo travelled the Silk Road, the ancient trade route that connected China with the Middle East and Europe. His stories, written in The Travels Of Marco Polo, brought the first glimpses of Asia and China to many in Europe. But that might not be all he brought back: many say that Polo also introduced pasta to Italy, in the form of Chinese noodles.

Inspired by this claim, and by her own experiences of the Silk Road, Chinese-American author Jen Lin-Liu made her own expedition along the way, writing her experiences in a travelogue On The Noodle Road: From Beijing To Rome, With Love And Pasta. We spoke to her about stretching noodles and the true history of the Marco Polo pasta story.

You travelled quite some distance on your trek. Did you see noodles all along the way?
Noodles became more important in different places. In northern China they are very important, but they start fading once you get to Xinjiang – rice becomes more important there. In Central Asia there are a number of noodle dishes that have very obvious Chinese influences – when I got to Iran, for instance, I did see noodles, but not freshly made ones. I read some historical sources that state pasta was very common in Iran back in the 11th and 12th centuries. Once we got to Turkey they weren’t that prevalent but, of course, in Italy the whole pasta culture becomes more popular again.

Is there any connection between the different pasta-heavy areas?
You see some of the transfer linguistically. In China, there’s a dish called lamian, which is pulled noodles. In Central Asia, it’s called laghman. There’s a number of theories of how this occurred: one of the strongest has to do with Genghis Khan and how his armies conquered China and then moved on to the rest of Asia and a lot of central Europe. All along that route, you see a lot of – not noodles per se – but a lot of dumpling dishes.

So where did noodles come from in the first place, then?
The Chinese tradition of noodle making began with the Chinese tradition of bread. They began ripping up tiny pieces of bing – Chinese flatbread – and throwing them in a wok full of boiling water.

What about the Marco Polo pasta story?
The Marco Polo myth came about in America, in a 1929 issue of a pasta trade magazine called Macaroni Journal, and was meant to spur pasta consumption in the US. I think it was a clever marketing gimmick that ended up working very well. I heard it a lot on the Silk Road journey. I heard that it’s even been written into European children’s textbooks.
On the Noodle Road: From Beijing To Rome, With Love And Pasta by Jen Lin-Liu is available from Dhs96 from www.amazon.co.uk, or for pre-order from Virgin Megastore from Dhs112, www.virginmegastore.me.

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