The History of Pasta in the Italian Kitchen
There are a lot of different foods that make up Italian cuisine but the first one that comes mind for most people is pasta. It is a staple of the diet for most Italians and is now widely eaten around the world. This makes it somewhat surprising that pasta is not an Italian invention. Regardless of who invented it the Italians have made the most of it and it is no synonymous with their cuisine.
The widely held belief is that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from China in the thirteenth century, this is almost certainly not the case. It appears that this legend first appeared in the United States centuries later as an advertising campaign for pasta. There are two problems with the Marco Polo story, the first is that pasta was introduced to Italy long before he ever went to China. The second issue is that there is debate about whether pasta itself was created in China at all. This debate revolves mainly about what constitutes pasta.
It is certainly true that the Chinese were eating noodles as far back as 3000 BC what is more open to debate is whether or not these would qualify as pasta. In general what we think of as being pasta today is made out of durum wheat semolina, this was not available in China so their noodles were made mainly out of millet flour. The reason that Chinese noodles are not generally considered to be pasta is that the durum flour has a high gluten content which makes the noodles very malleable which is really the defining characteristic of Pasta.
If Pasta didn't come from the Chinese and it didn't come from Marco Polo then where did it come from. The answer to that appears to be the Arabs. The Arabs were first introduced to noodles by the Chinese however since the flour that they had available was the durum semolina this is what they made them out of. Pasta was particularly popular with the army and navy of the Arabs because dried pasta could be transported long distances without spoiling. It appears that pasta was introduced to Italy when the Arabs invaded Sicily in the eighth century.
In the early days pasta was not particularly popular in Italy, mainly due to its high price. Making pasta out of semolina was very labor intensive because it required so much kneading. Because of the high cost it was mainly a luxury item however it also found favor amongst Italian sailors for the same reason that it had with the Arabs, they could store it for a long time without going bad. On voyages that could last for more than a year this was a valuable quality.
Pasta really didn't start to become a widely consumed food in Italy until the industrial revolution came along. This is because a machine that could do the kneading was invented dramatically reducing the price of pasta. The machine was invented in Naples and it is probably no surprise that Naples was the first Italian city to really embrace pasta in a big way. The result is that most pasta dishes in the Italian diet were first created in the city of Naples.
The other big event in the history of pasta in Italy that really saw its popularity increase was the introduction of the tomato. Given how common the tomato is in Italian cooking it comes a surprise to many people to learn that the tomato is not native to Italy, or Europe at all for that matter. It actually comes from South America and was introduced to Europe by the Spanish who brought it back from the new world. Like pasta the tomato was hardly and instant hit, many people thought it was poisonous and avoided it altogether. As time went by however it soon became clear that eating tomatoes wouldn't do you any harm and they were soon being used to create pasta sauces.
The idea of using the tomato to create a pasta sauce was pretty revolutionary itself, since for hundreds of years it was eaten with no sauce. Up until the introduction of the tomato pasta was eaten dry. This had another impact on the way that we eat, it brought the fork into wide spread use. Up until that time with pasta being eaten dry most people simply used their fingers, forks were generally only used by the upper classes. However once the sauce was added to the pasta it became unacceptable to eat with your fingers so forks went into common use amongst all Italians and eventually they became standard throughout Europe.
Since the introduction of pasta it has obviously grown dramatically in popularity in Italy and has really become the staple of the diet. In large part this is because it can be produced at a fairly low cost. However it also offers the advantages of being quick and easy to cook and being something that can be stored for a long time, a great asset in the days before refrigeration. The other big advantage that pasta offers is that you can do almost anything with it, there are literally hundreds of different pasta dishes available in Italy, you can put almost anything that you want on top of it and create something completely different. This variety is appealing for people who often eat pasta at least once a day.
Pasta has a long history in Italy and even thought it wasn't created in the country it is the food that is most associated with it. As a result when people think of Italian food they invariably think of pasta. The country takes it so seriously that there are laws about how pasta has to be made. This ensures that if you eat pasta in Italy you are getting the authentic item.