Pasta has become synonymous with Italian
cuisine the world over. Eaten on all five continents, it has become
Italy's culinary flag embraced globally. "Pasta" is Italian for paste,
referring to the combination of flour and water. It is a term that also
encompasses the many forms and shapes it comes in. Pasta mainly comes in
two types, fresh and dried. Generally, the ones most people are familiar
with are the ones bought in packets. Durum wheat, a hard wheat, is
milled into semolina and mixed with water to form a dough which is
kneaded and cut into different shapes and dried and packaged. Today,
there are more than 600 different shapes produced worldwide.
The standard way of cooking pasta is to
boil then strain from the water. It is usually eaten with different
types of sauces or tossed with oil, herbs and spices. The exception
being layered flat sheets like lasagna, which is baked and tubes and
pillows which are stuffed. Spaghetti is the most common type of pasta
and the word is the diminutive of spago, meaning string in Italian.
Italians are very descriptive of their many different types of pasta and
when translated into English sound most curious. Examples include,
angels' hair, ribbons, worms, little ears, butterflies, etc. Despite the
odd names, Italians tend to treat pasta with the utmost seriousness.
In Italy, pasta is served as a first
course, but of course it is enjoyed any old time everywhere else. Not
only was there a World Pasta Conference organized in 1995 in Italy, but
to commemorate this, Italians promote their culinary pride by
celebrating Word Pasta Day every year in October since 1998. Not only
does Italy have an Italian Pasta Association, but there is also a Pasta
Museum in Rome. There, visitors can view antique pasta-making machines,
study dried specimens of centuries-old pasta, gather nutritional value
of pasta and learn about pasta processes.
It is a matter of much controversy with
regards to the origin of this well-loved comfort food. The history of
pasta is in fact as convoluted as a bowl of spaghetti. The romantic
legend that Marco Polo brought pasta back to Italy on his return from
travels in China is, as can be expected, totally rejected by
nationalistic Italians. They claim that Marco Polo returned in 1295 but
in 1279, a Genoese soldier listed in the inventory of his estate a
basket of dried pasta, thus debunking this particular myth. Most do
concede though that the Chinese are known to have been eating a
noodle-type food but point out that pasta and noodles are different.
Noodles are a starchy product known to have been made from breadfruit
and not wheat!
Another theory is that the origin of pasta dates back to an
archeological find of Etruscan tombs. Carvings on some of the stucco
reliefs in the tombs depicted a knife, board, flour sack and an iron
pin. It is interpreted that these instruments were sued to make pasta
and the iron pin in particular to shape tubed pasta. However, this is
just conjecture as the instruments may have had other uses and there is
no further evidence to support the claim that the Etruscans invented
However, the first certain record of pasta
cooked by boiling is made in the Talmud, written in Aramaic in the 5th
century AD and coems from Arabic references. Known as Itiyah, it refers
to dried pasta which was portable and carried as a dry staple. More than
likely, pasta was introduced during the Arab conquests of Sicily. Some
historians believe that the Sicilian word maccaruni, which means made
into a dough by force, is the origin of macaroni. In ancient times,
kneading was done with the feet and often took all day.
Some pasta dishes still eaten today in Sicily include raisins and spices
that were brought in by the Arabs, another indication that perhaps it
was the Arabs that introduced pasta. Dried pasta became popular
throughout the 14th and 15th centuries as it was easily stored for long
periods and evidence shows that ships setting on their voyages of
discovery to explore the New World had pasta in their stores. Various
types of pasta are also mentioned in the records of many monasteries in
the 15th century and by the 17th century, pasta had become part of the
daily diet of many Italians. It was an affordable staple, readily
available and very adaptable. In the 16th century, the Spanish brought
back many culinary discoveries including the humble tomato. When pasta
met tomato, the way pasta was eaten was changed forever. Before this
coupling, pasta was eaten dry with the fingers. With the introduction of
a liquid sauce, the traditional use of a fork to eat pasta was born.
Cheese is one of the earliest documented
condiments for pasta. Even before the earliest recipes were written,
cheese with pasta was all the rage in the Middle Ages and present in all
the medieval collection of recipes that feature pasta. Grated cheese was
often mixed with spices. This practice survives until this day.
Thomas Jefferson has been widely credited
with introducing pasta to America. He served as the American Ambassador
to France and upon his return in 1789, brought the first "macaroni"
making machine to America. He also later invented his own pasta machine.
In Naples, commercial pasta making took off
when King Ferdinand II hired an engineer who devised a system of using a
machine to knead and cut the dough. Naples soon became Italy's center of
pasta. Macaroni and cheese was a popular dish in America during the
Civil War, but it wasn't until the large scale Italian migration to
America that pasta as we know it today became widespread.
Many anecdotes about as to the creation of
pasta recipes of which there are many and growing year by year. In 1914,
Alfredo Di Lelio, a Roman restaurateur, created the famous dish of egg
noodles with butter and cheese. It is said that Alfredo's wife lost her
appetite while pregnant, and to entice her to eat, he went to the
kitchen and created Fettuccine Alfredo. Alfredo and a family friend then
went on to open a chain of Alfredo restaurants in America and many
Hollywood stars of the time ate there, popularizing the dish.
Another interesting story as to how another
famous pasta sauce was invented is that of Carbonara. It is said that
during World War II, American soldiers stationed in Italy asked for
bacon and eggs for breakfast. The Italians compromised but creating a
pasta dish that incorporated what the soldiers craved.
The history of ravioli is yet another interesting tale. So far as Italy
is concerned, the earliest records of ravioli appear in the preserved
letters of Francesco di Marco, a merchant of Prato in the 14th century.
The pasta is described as being stuffed with pork, eggs, cheese, parsley
and sugar, and during Lent a filling of herbs, cheese, and spices was
used. There were both sweet and savory kinds. The city of Cremona claims
to have created ravioli. But Genoa claims that too, insisting that the
word ravioli comes from their dialect word for pasta, rabiole, which
means "something of little value" and referred to the practice of poor
sailors who suffered leftovers into pasta to be eaten for another meal.
So the heated debate continues down the
ages paralleling pasta's continued development. Regardless, though, as
to who did what and when, more importantly the world now enjoys pasta,
and it has evolved without a doubt through the creativity and
inventiveness of many including Italians who have embraced it as their
own with the creation of shapes, sauces and processes.