Sunday, October 4, 2009

So, who really invented noodles? China or Italy?

The 2005 discovery of 4000-year-old millet noodles in China was for some the closing argument in a debate that has gone on for years about the origin of noodles.

"Our discovery indicates that noodles were first produced in China," said Professor Houyuan Lu, one of the team that made the find.

There is a commonly believed story that the Italian explorer Marco Polo visited China in the late 13th Century, and brought back the noodle to his native land, where it became pasta.

This may be a good tale but it is most likely rubbish. Even before Polo's return, there are references to a dried food called macaroni, and Roman records speak of a dough for layering in pies called lagana, thought to be the predecessor of lasagne. Indeed, in Polo's writings about Chinese food, he describes them as eating a kind of pasta, using the Italian word to describe noodles.

The debunking of the Marco Polo story doesn't mean that the Italians invented the noodle, only that they already had it long before the 13th Century. So what is the real origin of this dish, in its many forms? Does it indeed have a single origin?

When you think about it, pasta is not a particularly difficult dish to invent. Ever since mankind started consuming grains, one of the first steps was to make porridge or gruel, a dish that exists in virtually every culture worldwide. The logical next step is to make that into dough, which then could be roasted or baked (bread) or boiled (dumplings and noodles). Noodles which could be dried would have made a convenient food which could be kept a long time.

And the China-or-Italy question is fundamentally an ignorant one, which is based on some sort of assumption that those are the only civilisations to eat lots of noodles. Because the noodle is in fact ubiquitous across the continent. While we can assume that Southeast Asians learned the use of noodles from the Chinese, what about the rest of Eurasia?


Right: Kheer seviyan, an Indian milky pudding with vermicelli.
Below: Stringhoppers, or iddiappam, from Sri Lanka.

Indians are not normally thought of as a noodle-eating people. But while flatbread and rice are far and away the two main staples of South Asia, vermicelli-like noodles are quite common. Seviyan is a type of wheat vermicelli which can be cooked pilaf-style instead of rice, or even cooked into a sweet milk pudding (kheer). The iddiappam or stringhoppers of Sri Lanka and South India are flattened cakes made from strands of rice-flour which very closely resemble rice vermicelli; they are typically eaten as a base for curries.

It is hard to say whether the noodle idea arose independently in South Asia or came from elsewhere. But cultural exchange between India and China and South East Asia goes back a long, long way, so it would be unsurprising if it came via this route. But a greater influence on Indian cuisine comes from Persia and Afghanistan; could it have come from there?

The Middle East is rarely thought of as a pasta-eating region. But pasta of various varieties pops up throughout the region. Afghans, Pakistanis, Georgians and Turks all eat boiled dumplings stuffed with meat. Arabs have long used noodles in their soups, while one of Egypt's national dishes kushery is a combination of lentils, pasta and rice. In the ubiquitous rice pilaf or biriyani, broken-up vermicelli is often cooked amongst the rice. The couscous of Northern Africa is technically a kind of pasta, although it is most likely indigenous to that area.

Right: A cabbage and noodle casserole from Hungary.

Italy is far from the only European nation to consume a lot of pasta. All of Eastern Europe does it in fact. That most famous Russian dish, beef stroganoff, is classically served over noodles. Filled dumplings (pierogi, vareniki and others) are major players in the Russian, Polish and Ukrainian culinary canon. Germany has its spaetzle and Hungary its tarchonya. Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine also has a number of common noodle preparations, with noodles a common addition to the famous Jewish chicken soup, or the sweet pudding lokshen kugel.

While it is entirely possible that the use of noodles in Europe started in Italy and radiated eastward to Russia, it is more likely that the noodle moved west out of Asia. Or both things could have happened.

(Right: Pelmeni, a type of Siberian filled pasta now popular throughout Russia)

Any discussion of the origin of the noodle must factor in that great expanse of wilderness that lies between Italy and China. The nomadic herding peoples who roamed the steppe of Central Asia were mostly feared by the settled folk of the surrounding lands for their warlike tendencies. But they played an important role in the transmission of culture and food as well. In peaceful times they would trade with their neighbours, while they would also settle on the fringes of the steppe through assimilation into, or conquest of, those settled lands. The Turks, Manchurians, the Aryans of Northern India and Hungary's Magyars are all descendants of Central Asian nomads.

The nomads are credited with having introduced cheese and yoghurt to the rest of the world. But their geographical position meant that they would spread some foods far and wide. Russia is thought to have acquired its taste for tea from the Central Asians, and it is highly likely that noodles also took a similar route. The Mongols are reputed to have spread filled pasta from
China to Siberia, where the popular dumplings known as pelmeni are virtually indistinguishable from the Chinese jiaozi potstickers. It probably accounts for the similarity in dumpling names across the continent, from the Korean mandu to the Turkish manti.

(Right: Lagman, a lamb and noodle dish beloved of the Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Uighurs.)

Today, noodles and dumplings are a major part of the diet in all the Central Asian republics.

So in truth, it is difficult to know the story of the noodle. It is highly likely that it had more than one point of origin. Or if not, which route did it take across Asia? I'd wager the picture is complex. Consider the various types of pasta - fresh soft noodles like kway teow, dried durum semolina pasta like spagetti, filled dumplings like ravioli or dough-ball dumplings like gnocchi. It is possible that some or all had different origins.

Confusing? Sure. But it just shows however much different countries love to claim to have invented certain things, history often paints a far more complicated picture.

Like this? Try these:

Pilaf, paella and pulao - how a rice dish conquered the world

Green tea is intent on world domination

Is chai latte only a drink for wankers?

The Malaysian-Indian food experience


  1. wow, thanks for the info!! I was looking for noodles info and I found your post very useful! Once again, tq!

  2. what a wast of time

  3. what i thought that Italians made pasta. But it turns out Chinese made noodles. wow

  4. when you think about it, the idea of evolution is not particularly difficult to come up with.
    Noodles looking like pasta meaning that noodles and pasta are different. But today's pasta is the same as noodles, besides, it doesn't make logical sense for a culture to come up with noodles if the people are using their hands to eat. Forks came much later around the time of Saint Francis Xavier, if my history is correct. noodles and quazi (aka chopsticks) go together like peas and carrots.

    1. That's an interesting point. However, I would also point out that noodles needn't be of the long type which require forks or chopsticks to eat. Macaroni, fusilli, orecchietti, are all examples of short pasta which would easily be eaten with a spoon or even with hands. You might be right though.

  5. Who invented noodles? Italians or Chinese.
    Europeans are smart enough to have come up with noodles, Marco Polo never even went to China. Besides, China copied everything nowadays. Europeans never copied anything from other races. End of story.

    1. Ah, but who invented paper, gunpowder, tea (not an invention), porcelain, kites, silk, seismograph, compass, rockets, guns, cannons, water clock, the wheelbarrow, golf, chess, playing cards, dominoes, printing, paper money, toilet paper? hint: it wasn't the europeans.

    2. Plus, do you expect China to come up with their own idea, NOBODY except a FEW countries are actually REALLY coming up with their own ideas, Someone invented the fighter jet, a year later ALMOST EVERY country has at least a plan for one. What happened when the GUN was invented; NOBODY uses a sword anymore!

    3. PS? Why do europeans DRINK TEA? GUNPOWDER? PAPER? COMPASSES? Based on YOUR theory everyone in the world shouldn't be able to use PAPER!

    4. To IDIOTIC Anonymous,
      "Europeans never copied anything from other races."

      Of course they don't. They (many of them) PLAGIARIZED . That's WORST than's practically STEALING and unabashedly putting your own name on it. Now even this skill of invented in the West...China only can copy. Bravo, Idiotic Anonymous!

  6. The last comment is as dumb as the myth of Marco Polo bringing noodles to Europe! Gunpowder, paper, noodles, the printing press, the compass, stern post rudder all came from China via the Arabs to Europe. I'm an Italian -American & I know history.

  7. I am afraid the overwhelming evidence paints a rather disappointing picture for those who would like to see an European root for the noodle and its related types. In China alone, there's a large variety depending on the regions. If you include the Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, the variety is even more impressive. But when you take into account the negative stereotype that the Chinese live to eat, as opposed to eat to live, it makes more reasonable sense that so much food-related inventions have a Chinese origin: the idea of cooking in oily greasy stuff, ice cream, smelly guts/intestines (also known as sausages), tofu, doujiang (also known as soy milk), different kinds of spices...

  8. I think the thing is who needed an easy to make, cook, and store, food? I mean it's kind of rare for a random guy to come up and say, " HEY! I just got and AWESOME idea called a NOODLE!"

  9. The writer/webmaster is asking the wrong question.

    To the Four Great Ancients (sorry to all you Greece lovers, Greece didn't make the cut by thousands of years), the question has never been one about China and Italy, as Italy was "nonexistent" and the people in what later became Italy were mostly eating raw things still (nothing wrong with eating raw stuff though), the question has always been about which region of Asia, the cradle of what has come to be known in Indo-European language as noodles, or you want to be more specific about your question, which part of China (e.g., North China or Central/South China).

    That's just the way it is!

  10. Good article but u need a history lesson. The aryans of india are descendants of the indo-european nomads, as are italians and 99 percent of europeans. The "war like" nomads people who so scared the settled people are the ancestors of most modern europeans, iranians, and northern indians. Look up indo-european languages before u make uneducated comments.

  11. to the idiot who said marco polo didnt when to China, please do read a little more so that you wont look idiotic. you white supremacy mentality

    1. Marco Polo never went to China, there is no recorded evidence from the Chinese people or their government.

    2. Dumb! There is recorded evidence for a long time now that Marco Polo went to China... your info is so outdated. tsk tsk tsk!

  12. When you exam closely at the argument, here is really no evidence whatsoever of an INDEPENDENT reinvention of noodles (aka pasta) in the West, but we do know that the Italians sure love them today. That we know for sure.

  13. Whatever the argument it's definitely Chinese evidenced by the widespread eating of noodles in China and Chinese areas elsewhere which has become a staple food. The only European we know that is big on noodles are the Italians period. Greeks themselves are never known to be big on pastas. Clearly noodles spread via the Silk Road.

    1. Of course the Chinese invented Noodles. The skill of making long strands of noodles by hand is still only accomplished by the Chinese as a rather coomon household skill and the Japanese have this skill too but noodles was introduced to Japan centuries ago. Just visit China and there are hundreds of different types of noodles and colours from different regions. This can only be historically true of Noodles originating from China that such diverse types of noodles can flourish. Much like the hindreds types of masala that India has and the numerous variations of Baklava that exists in Turkey. It's really silly to dispute this just because China presently has a bad name for copying brands. But they dont plagerize which is a western speciality I'm afraid.

  14. Evidence now suggests that the story of Marco Polo was indeed a collection of stories from the silk road, and he, if he even really existed, did not do all the things we give him credit for.