Besides Corona, these 2 dishes probably went viral from China!


OK, may not have spread as fast as the virus, but since it happened at a point in time, when ships and horses were the primary means of transport, and the only things that flew in the sky were the birds, I believe it is fair to say that it did a decent job.

What are we talking about? The noodles, of course!

Where did it spread? What so viral about it? Turns out, a lot. The first instance of the mention of noodles in Japan appears to be in the 7th century in Japan. It references to a thin long dish made of wheat flour and coated with oil. In China, these were called mein, (that's why chowmein), and the Japanese didn't do much to change the name and probably stuck to their pronunciation of the word.

And thus was born somen, probably the first Japanese noodles that, though initially served to the royalty in Japan (specifically in the Nara period, which was from the 7th to the 11th century), but became popular soon after, where large makers of noodles started shop. Apparently, the skill of the maker was judged by how thin the noodles were.  And it was only a matter of time before ramen took shape and became synonymous with Japanese cuisine.

But Japanese food didn't stop with Japan. Heard of the ceviche, the Peruvian national dish? Well, it came by fusing Japanese techniques with the Peruvian ingredients. There was a huge Japanese migration to Peru (the details of which is out of scope of this article), but let's just say that while Nikkei is the Japanese stock index, Nikkei cuisine refers to the Japanese Peruvian cuisine. The contribution was so high, that the national dish of the country is actually a fusion dish! 

'But seriously? The noodles went from China to its neighbour Japan and you call it viral?' you may ask. There is a lot more to this. Does a thin dish from the western world come to mind? Thin long, drenched with red or white sauce? Or just some oil and garlic?  If you're thinking I'm crazy to say that the spaghetti  came from China, hang on a minute.

It appears that Marco Polo, in the 13th century brought back noodles from China. But from China to where? This gets interesting, because he didn't exactly hop on a plane and arrive in Italy. This traveler spent nearly 17 years in China, with Kubail Khan, in the Imperial court of Beijing where he apparently gained his trust enough that the emperor sent a princess with Marco Polo to marry her off to a Persian prince. The legend goes that the princess died before they reached Persia!  By the time Marco Polo came back to Italy, it was nearly 2 decades and apparently he hardly spoke any Italian, but had documented his journey in his journal, The Travels of Marco Polo. Clearly, he spent a lot of time in Persia, so did he then bring the noodles to the middle east? 

But there is one small problem here. In fact two small problems. The fact that Marco Polo had written the word 'pasta', probably means that he knew what it was, so the noodles might have been familiar to him. Pasta is derived from the Italian word for paste, to denote the dough. Also by the 11th/12th century, vermicelli, a French word for tiny thin noodles was already in place. So clearly Marco Polo didn't bring noodles back, but along the way, he probably introduced steaming dough to Persia. 

Look up a dish called the Ashak. They look like tortellini. It is now an Afghan dish, but Afghanistan was part of Persia upto circa 1750. So did the tortellini reach Persia before Italy? That poses another large question. Are tortellinis and steamed pasta dishes, actually a type of dim sum then? Ooh, now it gets interesting.

Let's get back to pasta now. The Museum of Pasta in Sicily refers to pasta long almost half a century before Marco Polo came back to Italy, but also interestingly refers to one Arab trader called Idrisi, somewhere around the middle of the 12th century. And he refers to a dish called the Rishta a kind of mid eastern noodles. Apparently, a few years before Marco Polo's return, there are references to dishes called the maccherroni, which may as well be today's macaroni. Also Italy was the number one producer of durum wheat, which is used to make pasta, long before Marco was alive, so pasta was always a staple in Italy, but, may did he introduce the spaghetti as a new way to shape the pasta? 

For a minute let us leave Marco Polo out of this. Quite intriguing is the fact that besides Italy, the noodle kind of dish didn't become a staple anywhere else in Europe. You've not heard of spaghetti in Spain, have you? Or in French cuisine, for that matter! While breads have taken different shapes all over Europe, why didn't the noodles go beyond Italy? This gives some bite to the story that maybe someone brought that dish to Italy after all? If it existed long before Marco Polo surely, it would have travelled all over Europe, wouldn't it?

More interestingly, how come the noodles skipped the mid east on its way to Europe? While there are a few dishes here and there, you don't really find noodles as mid eastern staples anywhere, do you? Or did they simply make it sweet and consumed it as dessert? While it would have been nice as a story, the Turkish kunafeh, kadayif and the likes have already been around since the 10th century, long before Marco Polo was a baby, but then, did some other traveler bring it back from the far east? 

The food we take for granted may not be ours in the first place. The contribution of cultures plays a huge role in where we are today, be it food or even our own DNAs. While Marco Polo may not have played a big role in the arrival spaghetti in Italy, clearly someone did. Who is that guy?

Would be a great whodunnit story, if we ever find out. 


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Grub Waz: Besides Corona, these 2 dishes probably went viral from China!
Besides Corona, these 2 dishes probably went viral from China!
Grub Waz
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