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The Origin of Pasta: The Marco Polo Connection

John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.

Marco Polo: A 19th-Century Mosaic

Marco Polo: A 19th-Century Mosaic

The Marco Polo Connection

Pasta, in its various forms, has been a mainstay of the Italian diet since the Middle Ages. However, it is known that the Chinese had been eating noodles, a closely related foodstuff, for thousands of years prior to that. Could it be that the Italians learned about pasta from the Chinese?

The Venetian explorer Marco Polo returned from more than 20 years of travel in the Far East in 1295, so could this be the connection? Did pasta reach Italy from China thanks to Marco Polo? It sounds like a highly plausible story.

In 1929, an article appeared in the Macaroni Journal, which was an official publication of the National Pasta Association of the United States. This article, entitled “A Saga of Catai,” purported to tell the full story.

It appears that an Italian sailor on the ship that brought Marco Polo home from China had met a beautiful Chinese girl who was making noodles. She offered some to him, which he tasted and found to be delicious. He asked if he could take some of the noodles back to his ship so that he could show them to Marco Polo, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Marco Polo on his Travels

Marco Polo on his Travels

On the Other Hand...

Unfortunately, however, the rest is not history but pure bunkum. For one thing, the story includes Marco Polo naming this new dish after the enterprising sailor, whose name was Spaghetti. Given that “spaghetti” is a variant of the Italian for “thin string,” this derivation is highly unlikely.

There is another excellent reason why the story, attractive though it may be, should not be given much credence. This is that pasta was being eaten in Italy long before Marco Polo turned up with his traveller’s tales. There is a record dating from 1154 to the effect that pasta was being made at that date in Sicily. It is also known that soldiers in the 13th century carried pasta as part of their food rations. If Marco Polo did, by some happy coincidence, happen to bring some noodles back with him from China to Italy, they had nothing to do with introducing something new in the food line, because pasta was on the menu in Italy long before he started off on his journey in 1271.

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Whether the author of the Macaroni Journal article was being serious in his claim or not is a debatable point, but the fact remains that it acquired a patina of reliability about it. After all, if the National Pasta Association did not know where their product originated, who did? It seemed to be the sort of story that could easily be true and so, as it spread beyond the limited confines of the pasta trade into the outside world, it was taken by many people to be absolutely true.

There are many examples in history of what we now call "urban myths" acquiring such a devoted following that they turn into the truth even when they are palpably false. If "everybody knows" something to be a fact, it is a brave person indeed who dares to challenge common knowledge and advance a different theory, even if they can produce proof that their own version is the true one. The truth becomes "fake news" and the myth continues to be unchallenged by most people. The Marco Polo pasta myth is just one of many such examples.

Not named after Signor Spaghetti!

Not named after Signor Spaghetti!

Doubts About Marco Polo

The romantic story of Marco Polo, who spent 17 years in China before returning to Italy in 1295, has come under critical scrutiny in recent years. This is because doubts have been expressed about what he wrote in his book Il Milione, which he wrote after he got home.

The problems arise from what he seemed to have missed about life in China, despite apparently spending such a long time travelling around and being a keen observer of people and places. How, for example, could be not have been aware of the Great Wall of China? Why did he not comment on the prevalent Chinese customs of foot binding and tea drinking? If—as he claimed—he was employed by Kublai Khan as a special emissary to other nations in the region, why was no record of this work recorded by the Chinese, who were usually meticulous about such matters? The conclusion must be that Marco Polo’s account of his travels has to be treated with a huge degree of scepticism.

The Travels of Marco Polo

The Travels of Marco Polo

So What Is the Origin of Pasta?

If pasta did not originate in Italy, and it was not introduced by Signor Spaghetti and his boss Marco Polo, then where did it come from? There are various mentions of products made from dried sheets of dough from as far back as the 5th century, with the Arabs apparently being their first users. When Arabs from Libya invaded Sicily in the 7th century, they brought durum wheat with them, this being the most suitable wheat type from which to make pasta. It could be that it was at this time that pasta production began in Sicily, thus making it several hundred years older than the 1154 date noted above.

In any event, one thing that can be taken as being beyond the shadow of a doubt is that Marco Polo had nothing to do with it.

© 2017 John Welford

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