Who invented pasta?

Pasta has become one of the most popular foods in the world due to its ability to easily cross cultures, versatility and adaptability. As we begin this inquiry into the invention of pasta it’s important to clarify what we’re discussing. What is meant by pasta is the dried staple food product made from durum wheat based dough that is shaped into delicate noodles or other shapes which is then dried for preservation and finally cooked by boiling.

Linguistically some of the names for types of pasta existed before what we’ve defined as pasta such as the Greek laganon and the Latin laganum which would of course become the Italian lasagne. While we unfortunately don’t know who exactly invented pasta, the short answer to where its origins lie is in medieval Sicily. The Arab geographer Muhammad Al-Idrisi, who is most famous for his world map that he made for King Roger II of Sicily, has provided the first historical record for pasta production in the twelfth century. He wrote describing Sicily “To the west of Termini there is a town called Trabia, an enchanting place to live, abounding in streams that drive numerous mills. Trabia sits in a vast plane with many great estates, where great quantities of pasta are made and exported everywhere especially to Calabria and other Muslim and Christian lands; many shiploads are sent.”

However there are indications that a more primordial pasta may have predated this Sicilian version. It’s important to note that the term pasta derived from the Italian pastaciutta appeared later in history. One of the common names for pasta was itriyya which was an Arabized version of the Greek word itrion basically referring to any dough. It was in the writing of the eleventh century Persian polymath Ibn Sina, known in the west as Avicenna, that we discovered that itriyya was pasta. This also alerts us to the fact that all the way in modern Iran they were familiar with pasta and apparently regularly eating it by the tenth to eleventh century suggesting an earlier date for its invention.

Looking farther back into history, a Syriac commentary of a ninth century Jewish physician named Jesu Bar Ali indicates that itriyya was a string-like pasta made from semolina that was dried before cooking. Boiled dough, perhaps something similar to fresh pasta, seems to have existed in ancient Palestine inferred through references in commentaries on the Babylonian Torah. Rashi, who was actually named Shlomo Yitzchaki, mentioned in his eleventh century commentary the terms trijes and vermishelsh, obviously related to the terms tri/itriyya and vermicelli, thus we can deduce these terms were also familiar in medieval France.

I know what you’re thinking now…Fermare! Terrificante, scioccante, un disastro! Muhammad Al-Idrisi, Shlomo Yitzchaki, Bar Ali and Ibn Sina…these hardly sound like paesanos! The truth of the matter is likely some forms of pasta existed in the ancient Mediterranean but it was in medieval Sicily where production was refined and brought onto a larger scale probably due to the conducive environment and from there exported extensively. This is also supported by the fact that Al-Idrisi was quite specific about pasta production in Sicily and did not refer to other centers of production.

In modern Sicily you can find the famous dish pasta alla Norma or Norman style pasta which basically pasta with cheese and sauce topped with fried eggplant- it’s delicious. There is a lot we can conclude from the existence of this dish. The main ingredients are pasta and eggplant so these must have existed in Norman Sicily in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Sicily was an Arab-Islamic country before the Norman conquest through immigration and conversion so many foods may have an Arabic origin; this is the case of the eggplant itself which was introduced to Italy by the Arabs. The Normans were Arabophiles loving everything Arabic including clothing, architecture, administrative systems and of course food. If the eggplant was brought by the Arabs then it’s quite possible they also introduced it or at least a primitive form of it. After all, couscous is basically a type of pasta and many scholars believe it existed in North Africa prior to the Arab conquest of Sicily where it remains a part of cuisine there until today.

Despite that the origins of pasta are probably not Italian, it was the Italian ingenuity and love for the food that saw a more sophisticated production in terms of methods and eventually a blossoming of different types. And it was the Italians who mastered cooking it as well! Surely we don’t rely on the Tunisian, French or Palestinian to make a delicious pasta. So the next time you are enjoying a meal with pasta, don’t forget the journey of this amazing food.

For more on the origin and history of pasta have a look at Serventi and Sabban’s Pasta: The Story of a Universal Food. The featured photo is serving of Sicilian pasta alla Norma.

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