The origin of pasta
Although it has often been said that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from China, this seems unlikely because he only mentioned the word “Lazanas“, the ancestor of the word lasagna, two times in his Book of the Marvels of the World, or The Description of the World, with reference to China: “And the wheat (…), they only eat lasagna or other pasta dishes”.
The other quote does not strictly include pasta, but the use in Indonesia of a type of flour from some trees: it is a tree flour known as Sago: “It is prepared and made into lasagna ... And, as to this flour, me, Marco Polo, I have brought a little of it to Venice. Bread made with this flour is like barley bread and has the same taste”. The role of Marco Polo in the invention of pasta in Italy is, without no doubt, a legend, because the Book of Wonders is often regarded as a work of fantasy, and because pasta already existed in Italy before 1295, the date when Marco Polo returned to Venice.
We must seek the ancestors of pasta in ancient times, during the Fertile Crescent: milling wheat millstones, known since the Sumerians, yielded a wheat flour, which gave rise to a type of bread that gradually replaced boiled cereals, and specially millet; and probably some pasta types. Egyptians were already regarded by the Greek as bread eaters.
In Rome, there is literary evidence on the existence of pasta, “Lazanas”, which are probably different from the current pasta: Cicero spoke of “mambranulasn es farina aqua“ , that is thin strips of flour and water, cooked in a meat broth and seasoned with cheese, cinnamon, pepper and saffron. Apicius served, in the first century of our era, this type of flour preparations.
Noodles appeared in China in the first century AD, and were part of the menu of the imperial court from the second century. Their production was made possible by an invention that came from the “West Country”, that is, the kingdoms of Central Asia, which were controlled by the Parthians and the Sassanids: the use of millstones to grind the grain into flour. Wheat also came from Western countries, and became popular in northern China, as this region was not very favorable to the cultivation of rice some 2000 years before our era. Contrary to the belief that Marco Polo brought pasta from China to the West, it was the West that took wheat, grain milling and therefore the noodles in China.
Noodles really became popular in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and were known by the generic name “bing” or “Hubing” (Foreign noodles). They were served at all the tables and in all the streets. Mostly, they were cooked by steaming, and were often sold on the street by foreign cooks from the Sassanid Empire. It is also very likely that some preparations, such as ravioli, may have travelled from Central Asia to China in the same way. Chinese inventive then multiplied the number of pasta presentations (noodles, udon, somen), so the products used (rice flour, buckwheat flour) and consumption patterns (hot, cold, in miso soup) have conquered all the far East countries starting from Japan and Korea.