Oodles of Noodles
By Allan Wu | 17 Nov 2017
In 1271, Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Polo embarked on a journey to Asia with his father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo. Marco later chronicled this epic expedition in Livres des merveilles du monde, which we know today as The Travels of Marco Polo. It’s been said that on this journey to Yuan Dynasty China, Marco Polo brought back with him noodles – long thin strips of dried dough that became, through generational iteration, the Italian pasta we know today. This story, however, is nothing more than baloney. (You can tell it to your kids at night.)
It doesn’t even appear in The Travels of Marco Polo. Instead, this noodle to pasta story was a marketing ploy cooked up by the National Pasta Association, a trade association of USA pasta industry professionals. In 1929, the National Pasta Association, in an effort to promote the sales of US-made pastas, spins an elaborate tale about “Spaghetti”, a made-up sailor from Marco Polo’s ship, who discovers dried, string-shaped dough in China. Beyond its complete fabrication, there are two big flaws within this tale: (1) pasta was invented before Marco Polo and (2) Marco Polo didn’t even have a ship in China, having travelled on land for most of the voyage to China and only sailing on his way back.
The origins of pasta are just as entangled as a bowl of noodles. American food writer Jen Lin-Liu writes in her book On the Noodle Road that the earliest documentation of noodles dates back to the third century B.C. while University of Adelaide Professor Barbara Santich argues they date back even further to fifth century B.C. In one of her journal articles, Food historian Rachel Lauden claims official editor of ancient texts Shu Hsi wrote a poem on noodles titled A Rhapsody on Pasta in about 300 B.C. A Nature article suggests the earliest consumption of noodles in China occurred even earlier at over 4000 years ago – the age of an unearthed earthenware bowl containing foxtail millet and broomcorn millet that was discovered in China in 2005. The first concrete evidence of pasta in Italy dates to the 13th or 14th century, but some claim that an early 5th century Italian cookbook mentions lagana, a possible ancestor of modern-day pasta. The International Pasta Organisation suggests that pasta and noodles date back to before 300 B.C. in ancient Rome. Professor of Italian Studies at University College London John Dickie claims pasta was first introduced in Italy from North African regions where it was known as itriyya, the Arabic term for long, thin strands of dried dough cooked by boiling. The Jerusalem Talmud notes itrium, a primitive kind of boiled dough and a possible ancestor of pasta, was common from the 3rd to 5th century in Palestine6. While most historians argue that Chinese noodles came first, there’s no concrete evidence bridging modern Chinese noodles and Italian pasta to a common ancestor.
The tangle of inaccuracies and claims volleyed back and forth by the Italians and the Chinese (and even the Arabs) seems awfully petty but suggests that there is certainly some national pride at stake. Who doesn’t want to be named the sole creator of long and stretched, dried dough?
Yet this very human tendency to over-obsess about being the first or the only one to do something has blinded everyone, leading all on a futile search to determine the single originator of pasta when one simply doesn’t exist. Historians and researchers have been pushing far too hard to mold historical evidence into a form that fits the man-crafted storyline that noodles were conceived at a singular location. Instead, noodles were invented twice: once in the Western world and once in the Eastern world. This claim is more valid than any other, yet because it fails to support our widely-accepted beliefs that things are only invented once and humans are unique, most people overlook it as a plausible answer.
Consumed by their discussions and arguments, historians and academics have given too much credit to the idea that humans are truly unique, buying too quickly and too early into the idea that nothing is ever invented twice when, in fact, no single idea is as special as it seems. Let me make it clear: we are not all that special. Take a moment and consider how two distinct regions separated by thousands of miles of uninhabited desert and unscalable mountain ranges, with supposedly infinite culinary potential, both manage to create the same, identical staple food item that is nothing more than an over-glorified long and stretched strand of dried dough. There’s no shame in this, however. This only means we’re closer than ever as a world – that different humans and cultures managed to create the same noodles indicates that we share similar instincts, problem-solving approaches, and even tastes.
The list of things invented more than once is endless. (There is, in fact, a Wikipedia page dedicated to this.) The idea that the solar system is heliocentric or revolves around the Sun? Calculated and derived first by Aristarchos of Samos three hundred years before the birth of Christ, yet “originally” derived by Nicolaus Copernicus, who himself genuinely believed it was a first-time discovery, 18 centuries later. What about the atom bomb used in World War II? Independently thought of by two scientists: Leó Szilárd and Józef Rotblat. Calculus, the jet engine, the electrical telegraph, and the idea that heavy and light balls fall at the same speed were all invented or discovered more than once. Even the selfie stick was invented twice, two decades apart, and both times as a result of issues experienced on a holiday trip in Europe. It’s both remarkable and ironic to think that after all we do to celebrate our differences and uniqueness, we still manage to invent numerous things more than once – yet again an ode to the similarities within us all.
What noodles and pasta have done is unite a world that can’t seem to agree upon anything. Noodles are now found on every continent (even Antarctica and even in outer space aboard the Discovery shuttle). They have served as war-time rations and as the essential snack-time meal. 100 billion instant noodle packets were sold in 2012 or 14 packets per person. 16 million tons of pasta are sold worldwide every year. If all this pasta came in the form of noodles or spaghetti, it would circle the Earth over 90 times. Pasta has been enjoyed by generations of Vietnamese farmers and generations of Russian households and by liberal Seattleites and conservative Southerners, adored by both activist daughters and deer-hunting dads. Toss noodles with some tomato sauce and meatballs and it becomes a simple Italian home-cooked dinner. Pour it in a spicy beef broth, top it with tenderly-cooked braised beef, and you get the traditional meal eaten by centuries of Chinese families. Stir fry it with eggs, fish sauce, shrimp, chicken, shallots, and peanuts and you’ll have an authentic pad thai dish. Simmer it in a clear chicken broth and toss in pieces of vegetables and chicken? Good ol’ American chicken noodle soup. There are few food items that touch every corner of the globe, and noodles are one of them.
So beyond the fact that we may not be as unique or intelligent as we are led to believe, we are also more similar than we have been led to believe, which is really a good thing. In a world characterized by the ever-increasing emphasis of our differences and disagreements, it’s important to remind ourselves of how similar we truly are, to recognize that many of our differences are no less misunderstood and petty than the origin of noodles. The universality of noodles means that we approach and operate within this world in the same way.
Earlier this year in April, South Korea celebrated “Black Day,” which many thought had to do with the ever-rising tensions with North Korea, especially since there were concerns that North Korea would conduct a weapons test on that Friday. Black Day, however, has nothing to do with North Korean relationships but is a holiday for singles, celebrated by eating jajangmyeon, a noodle dish topped with thick black sauce. But what a poorly conceived holiday. Eating a bowl of noodles is anything but celebrating our singlehood – rather, it celebrates our unity as a world.