PIZZA AND PASTA: the hallmarks of the ever-popular Italian cuisine. For centuries, these two dishes have captivated taste buds around the world, prompting Italian food to rise to star status among the world’s hundreds of cuisines.
Whether you grab a one-dollar slice on the streets of New York City or wait months for a seating at the coveted Carbone, the vast scope of Italian dining options prove that these particular forms of carbs transcend all class distinctions.
After all, most everyone loves pizza and pasta: the combination of carbs, sauce, and melty cheese is so simple yet so sensationally mouth-watering that you cannot help but reach for more.
So, we give major props to the Italians for their contributions to our big smiles and full bellies.
However, are they the right people to credit with these delightful dishes? Maybe not.
CLUES TO THEIR ORIGINS
Let me offer a new perspective: the poster children for Italian cuisine may actually have been born in China. According to retellings of Marco Polo’s travels in Asia, there is a widely held belief that the Venetian explorer introduced the ideas for pizza and pasta to Italy after trying similar dishes in China.
Since Marco Polo’s original travel diaries no longer exist, these stories are based on years of various interpretations and recounts of his travels. Nevertheless, this narrative has become increasingly popular as it challenges the long held belief that the Italian people were the first to make the foods we love so dearly.
Legend goes that during an expedition to China, Marco Polo stumbled upon the Chinese scallion pancake, 葱油饼 (congyoubing). Just like millions of Chinese people before him, the explorer fell in love with the flaky flatbread folded with an oil and minced scallion filling. Needless to say, he was eager to get his hands on the tasty treat after he returned home to Italy.
Unable to stop daydreaming about 葱油饼, the legendary traveler begged chef after chef to recreate the dish for him, but no one could quite get the recipe right: they struggled to fold the filling inside of the crust.
CHEF FROM NAPLES
Eventually, Marco Polo met a chef at a dinner party in Naples who came up with an innovative solution: rather than adding scallions to the inside of the dough, he would put them on top of the dough. As years went by, adaptations were made to this idea, eventually giving way to the classic cheese and tomato sauce toppings that we love today.
So, did the Chinese invent pizza? Not directly. But there is no doubt that they were responsible for the invention of the dish that inspired it. Had Marco Polo not tried Chinese 葱油饼,, perhaps pizza would never have been born.
SPAGHETTI AND NOODLES
While the origins of pizza are hotly contested, there is relative certainty among food historians that Asian noodles existed in China and other parts of Asia long before Italian noodles – or pasta – existed in the Mediterranean world.
Noodles can be traced back to the Han dynasty, over 4,000 years ago. In 2005, scientists uncovered a sealed bowl of long yellow noodles buried under three meters of rock at the Lajia archaeological site in China. A scientist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences told National Geographic that the bowl represented “the earliest empirical evidence of noodles ever found.”
So, how did noodles reach Italy? Well, there is a common belief that Marco Polo was responsible for bringing them back to Italy as well. However, many food historians argue that this theory is more than likely inaccurate. Noodles are much more ancient than pizza, and historians have found evidence of the dish in the Mediterranean long before Marco Polo’s travels.
Regardless of how they reached Italy, noodles were first found in China. The art of making 面 (mian) – or noodles – was developed thousands of years ago by the northern Chinese. Although initially reserved for the upper class, 面 eventually became a dish to be enjoyed by all people.
And we are certainly happy it did!
Ultimately, the origins of pizza and pasta remain a little blurry. Even so, it is intriguing to think that there is an Asian–not Italian– origin for these two staple dishes. Regardless of where they came from, pizza and pasta continue to be savored across the globe and we thank whichever nation – China or Italy – for bringing them to our lives.
Who knows? Maybe we will next discover that sushi originated in China, too.
Readers may like to keep an eye out for that story, to appear soon on this website!
Image at the top is a montage featuring a Song Dynasty dining scene, overlaid with images of a classic Chinese “bing” pancake and an old depiction of an early pizza maker.