Open up your pantry cupboard and chances are, you have a box of pasta in there.
Click start to play today’s Word Search, where you can find various kinds of pasta, from “macaroni” to “rigatoni”. Don’t forget to visit Gulf News’ Food section for a guide on all you need to know about pasta. You can also find delicious recipes, like this one for pasta chips or an elegant ravioli caprese.
Pasta’s ethnic roots have long been disputed. One version that often makes the rounds, is based on 13th century Venetian explorer Marco Polo’s writings. A famous passage in his memoir, Travels, was misinterpreted, and people began to assume that pasta was brought to Italy from China. In the passage, Polo mentioned a tree, which produced the raw materials with which, something like pasta was made. Historians think he was probably talking about the sago palm – a tree that does produce starchy food that looks like pasta, but decidedly isn’t.
Pasta’s arrival in Italy is often credited to Arab travellers, who were also responsible for bringing spinach, eggplant and sugar cane to the Mediterranean basin. The ancient Greeks, for instance had a version of pasta that they called itrion (meaning ribbon), which is derived from the Arabic word for noodle – itrijab.
According to the 2003 reference book Italian Cuisine, in the ninth century, Arab groups could be found spread across Sicily and southern Italy, and they brought with them noodle-making techniques that they had learned from their Eastern neighbours. In the 12th century, they also taught Italians various methods to dry their pasta – a technique they developed to preserve food while travelling.
Regardless of the origins, Italians embraced pasta with a passion. Their region’s climate was well suited to the growing of durum wheat, the primary ingredient in pasta, and the main ingredient that sets it apart from Asian noodles.
But what did the early years of pasta look like? In the 1390s, according to a report in the National Geographic, writer and poet Franco Sacchetti shared his gastronomical experience of eating pasta with friends in his journal. They all ate from the same dish – a common custom at the time. But one friend had a far larger appetite than the rest, which brought about some resentment.
Sacchetti wrote: “Noddo started to pile the macaroni together, roll it up and swallow it down. He had sent six mouthfuls down the hatch while Giovanni’s first one was still on the fork. He did not dare put it in his mouth as the food was steaming.”
The delicious pasta that Noddo was eating with such gusto would not have resembled what you’d find at Italian restaurants today. During the Middle Ages, right up to the start of the 16th century, pasta would have been cooked for much longer than we cook it today. There was no preference for pasta al dente. And the dish would have been served with ingredients that would seem surprising to us – with elements that were sweet, savoury and even spicy.
It was a favourite dish of the wealthy, and elaborate, heaped plates of pasta were the norm at aristocratic banquets in the Renaissance. But time passed, and by the late 17th century in Naples, it became part of the common diet. Fast forward to today, and pasta is a regular on menus and in pantry cabinets, all around the world.