"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.
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?
SOUTH WEST ASIA
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.
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.)
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