Noodles: The Shape’s the Thing (Final Paper)

            When it comes to eating pasta, we rarely take note of the unique texture and formation of the particular pasta that we are consuming; however, long ago, the shape and size of each pasta type was chosen with specific purpose in mind.  Moreover, contrary to popular belief, shape does matter in the world of pasta; not all types of pasta taste the same or hold the same value.  Believe it or not, different noodles were created with a plan—a topic that I will now explore and analyze from two crucial sides; first, through an Italian perspective, and next, from the Chinese approach.

            In Italy, it all started with Marco Polo’s arrival and the introduction to spaghetti—known as macaroni at the time.  “The modern word ‘macaroni’ derives from the Sicilian term for kneading dough with energy, as early pasta making was often a laborious, day-long process” (History of Pasta).  On that note: “Spaghetti means ‘a length of cord’ in Italian.  This long noodle works well with a variety of sauces, and can even be used in Asian stir-fries” (An Intro to Italian Pasta).  In addition, different spin-offs on this basic form of pasta evolved as a result of modifications in width, such as spaghettini—a thinner version—and spaghettoni—a thicker version.  One example of a sauce with which spaghetti pairs well is tomato sauce—a staple dish on any ‘kid’s menu’ in a restaurant—which leads me to the discussion of another major discovery in Italy—that is, the “discovery” of the tomato in the 19th century.  Interestingly, while tomatoes had been around for quite some time, people stayed away from them, believing them toxic:

“Although tomatoes were brought back to Europe shortly after their discovery in the New World, it took a long time for the plant to be considered edible.  In fact tomatoes are a member of the nightshade family and rumors of tomatoes being poisonous continued in parts of Europe and its colonies until the mid 19th century.  Therefore it was not until 1839 that the first pasta recipe with tomatoes was documented” (History of Pasta). 

From that point on, the tomato took off in Southern Italy and led to its establishment as a staple for spaghetti—that is, in the form of tomato sauce.  Early on, pasta was made by hand and typically required drying—a time consuming and laborious process—a rate-limiting step for the variability of pasta shapes at the time; however, with the rise of technology and machinery, the pasta “ensemble” of expanded dramatically.  On that note, Oretta Zanini De Vita’s book, Encyclopedia of Pasta, discusses the importance and arrival of various pasta shapes.  In terms of technology and production, the pastaio was a great advancement for the Italians, as it eased the drying process.  Moreover, further improvements brought multiple “variations on a theme”—there were many more shapes and sizes, and of course, a lexicon to go with them:

“The pastaio was still needed, however, to dose out the water, the quantity of which was his secret; he made the dough harder for the largest sizes; softer for fettuccine, vermicellini, and capellini, and softer still for spaghetti and bucatini.  If the pasta came out defective, the pastaio would eliminate it as munnezzaglia (trash).  The shapes multiplied with the invention of new dies, now made not only with bronze but also with nickel and other noncorrosive materials.  Local scholars have estimated that the number of formats grew from about one hundred fifty to eight hundred or more” (Encyclopedia of Pasta, 8).

With that in mind, the next question we must address is the “deeper meaning” underlying pasta shapes in Italy—what purpose do such shapes serve, and how is each one special to an Italian?

            One major difference between pasta shapes is geographical, as various pasta shapes hail from specific parts of Italy.  Another major difference is the way in which they are made and the ratio of ingredients from which they are comprised.  One of the greatest differences, however, (per a plethora of sources) is how each is designed to be served.  From the owner of an Italian restaurant himself (whom I interviewed for the final project), pasta shapes are of utmost importance when it comes to deciding which sauce or “supporting” ingredients with which to serve the pasta; Antonio—proprietor of Bacio Trattoria, who is from the isle of Capri—told me that pastas with holes, such as penne or ziti, go really well with meat or cream sauces, as the holes allow for the chunks of meat or cream to become “trapped” inside of the pasta—hence the common pairing of Bolognese with ziti, and the creamy dish, penne alla vodka; Bolognese sauce is comprised of ground beef, tomato, onion, and herbs, while vodka sauce is a tomato-based sauce that incorporates a few additional ingredients—the most important one being heavy cream, giving it the creamy flavor, and rich mouth-feel.  On the other hand, Antonio firmly believes that long pastas, such as linguini and spaghetti (mentioned earlier), go really well with seafood or substantial meat, hence the two popular dishes: linguini with clams and spaghetti with meatballs.  The length of such pasta shapes allows for the pasta to be twirled around the fork, followed by the seafood or meat at the end of the fork, in order to keep the pasta “in place.” These lengthy pastas do not go well with thicker or meat-based sauces, as such sauces or small chunks of meat would tend to slip off.  Pastas with ‘pockets’—such as ravioli or tortellini—go well with any sort of filling, often cheese-based or of a similar consistency to ricotta cheese.  From a personal standpoint, mushroom-ricotta is my favorite filling, having tried many raviolis over the course of my life, from eggplant-ricotta to “three-cheese “ filled; after all, ravioli is my favorite food to this day.  The formal definition of ravioli stands by the earlier statement—Ravioli: “These square or round pasta pillows can be filled with cheese, meat, or vegetables” (An Intro to Italian Pasta).

            Antonio’s belief, that there are particular pairings for each pasta type—is widely held; it can be found across the internet and is prevalent in literature as well: “Pasta comes in many shapes and sizes, and each shape helps trap the sauce, stand up to a casserole, or elevate a salad” (An Intro to Italian Pasta).  On the site, life in italy, writer Justin Demetri discusses a brief History of Pasta, in which he further discusses the variety in pairings for two main categories of pasta—first, dried pasta, and second, fresh pasta.  Dried pasta is a category that includes the many popular, ever-evolving (and somewhat ridiculous) pasta shapes: “Shapes range from simple tubes to bow ties (farfalle, which actually means ‘butterfly’), to unique shapes like tennis rackets (racchette)” (History of Pasta).  Moreover, Demetri lists the common pairings for a variety of dried pasta shapes and the logic for such pairings: “Dried tube pasta (ziti or penne) often has ridges or slight abrasions on the surface to hold onto the pasta sauce as well.  These ridges and bumps are created during the extrusion process when the pasta is forced from a copper mold and cut to desired length before drying” (History of Pasta).  Here stands yet another reason for pairing tube-shaped pastas with meat or cream-based sauces, in that the ridges give the fine chunks of meat or thick, creamy sauce, a surface to which they can adhere.  Fresh pasta, on the other hand, is made differently and is meant to be eaten “soft;” “Many northern regions of Italy use all-purpose flour and eggs while southern Italy usually makes theirs from semolina and water but it depends on the recipe” (History of Pasta).  In addition, fresh pasta serves a different purpose from dried pasta, and it is often argued that the former is inherently better:

“Fresh pasta has been made in households throughout Italy for generations but the region of Emilia-Romagna has the reputation of making the best.  Here fresh pasta is often served with cream sauced or a simple sauce of butter and safe while light tomato sauces are reserved for the summer months” (History of Pasta). 

The above quote describes another reason for why fresh pastas, such as homemade linguini—which are less often found in unique shapes—are should be “married to” thinner sauces, such as butter or tomato-based sauce. So not only are these ingredients less likely to “slide” off the elongated noodle, but because of the freshness and simplicity of the “shapeless” noodle, it does not invite complexity: “A good rule is to remember simple pasta works best with simple sauces while complex shaped pastas are ideal for thicker sauces” (History of Pasta). 

So, why do the Italians have such a wide variety of pasta types?  The answer should be easy—and it is far from being for mere “looks.”  Cesare Marchi states it well:

“The introduction of dies for extrusion meant that there were no longer any limits on the number of possible pastas, whose shapes had very much to do with taste and enjoyment.  Cesare Marchi stresses the importance of the various shapes: ‘Try to drink a spumante first in crystal glass and then in a coffee cup. . .’” (Encyclopedia of Pasta, 19).

In other words, Cesare Marchi says here that the taste of spumante—an Italian sparkling white wine—is appreciated much more when served in a crystal glass versus a coffee cup, similar to the way flavors of different sauces are appreciated more when served with certain pasta shapes than with others.  Overall, Marchi’s quote serves as an accurate summation of the role the pasta shapes plays for an Italian. And the array of Italian pasta shapes is so wide that it impossible to count them all. The sky’s the limit to the assortment of pasta shapes and their assigned nicknames—hence the reason that a true encyclopedia of pasta types has neither been attempted nor does it exist, as the amount of varieties that exist is infinite.

            On the other hand, in the Chinese culture, different types of noodles  differ not only in terms of how best to pair, but also—and especially—in terms of the ingredients comprising the noodles.  The history of Chinese noodles began in the Han dynasty, during which noodles were originally referred to as cake; from then on, two staple noodles emerged in the Wei, Jin, and Northern and Southern Dynasties, giving rise to the expansion of noodle shapes for the future: “Two special kinds of noodles, called shui yin and bo tou, were included in the book Qj Min Yao Shu in the middle ancient era.  Shui yin is cooked by pulling the dough into strips as thick as chopsticks, cutting these into segments 30 cm long, soaking in a dish of water, then pressing them into flat noodles shaped as a leek leaf and cooking in a pot of boiling water.  Bo tuo is especially smooth and delicious” (Noodles, traditionally and today, 1).  Following this, the variety of noodles expanded at a rapid rate:

“There was a kind of cold noodle with a unique flavor, called Leng tao. . .There was another kind of noodle with full tenacity, referred to as ‘one of the seven wonderful health foods,’ which was saying ‘wet noodles can be used to tie the shoe.’  In the Song and Yuan dynasty period, fine dired noodles appeared, such as pig and sheep raw noodles and vegetable raw noodles sold in Linan city during the Southern Song period. . .In the Qing dynasty, five spicy noodles and eight treatsure noodles were included in Xian Qjing Ou Ji by dramatist Li Yu.  These two kinds of noodles were made of five and eight kinds of animal and plant raw material powder, respectively, and mixed into flour, which were considered top grade noodles” (Noodles, traditionally and today, 209).

The point is made that the emergence and growth of difference noodle types in ancient China arose not only from the ability to change the shape of the noodle, but most importantly, they sprung from different combinations of ingredients—unlike the Italian culture, in which some (but not all) of the noodles were modified solely by shape, via machinery.  The following quote summarizes this idea, in that the composition of noodles varies from one noodle to the next:

“Most kinds of noodles are made of flour (the powder made from wheat).  There is also another special composition of noodles: rice noodles. . .In addition, noodles can be classified according to thickness: they can be as thick as chopsticks or as thin as hair, such as the dragon beard noodles.  Some can be classified according to the how they are made, suchas hand-pulled noodles, shaved noodles, and so on” (Noodles, traditionally and today, 211).

Additionally, noodles can be otherwise categorized by methods such as seasoning, cooking crafts, and so on. In contrast to Italian noodles—which are classified mainly by their appearance and by their accoutrements—Chinese noodles are more often recognized in terms of their composition.  In comparison to Italian noodles, variations of Chinese noodles tend to go hand in hand with corresponding variations of sauces, broths, or seasonings.

            Ramen noodles—one of the biggest revolutions in Chinese noodle history, especially with the rise of instant ramen noodles—are almost always served in a meat or fish-based broth, sometimes with additional seasonings such as soy sauce or miso.  Instant ramen noodles come in a dry package, and are boiled in water.  The instant ramen noodles that I ate as a child  were seasoned with a small packet of ‘chicken,’ ‘beef,’ or ‘shrimp’ flavored seasoning.  It was not until I was much older that I learned how much sodium these seasonings contained, and I finally had to limit my intake! At authentic ramen restaurants however, these noodles are served in a natural broth, often accompanied by a soft boiled egg, cilantro, and meat—thin slices of pork or chicken, for example.  Udon noodles are a thicker, wheat flour-based noodle, often served in one of two ways—the first being in a stir fry, and the second being in a broth, mixed with vegetables.  Rice or rice vermicelli is another type of noodle that I have eaten on multiple occasions—these noodles are thin, white, rice-based noodles (gluten free, for those who require this!); these noodles are often served in stir-fries, soups, spring rolls, and salads, and it is of utmost importance that these noodles are not boiled, but soaked in hot water until tender, then drained, and patted dry (Rice Vermicelli Noodles).  One of my favorite Chinese noodle dishes, lo mein, is comprised of Chinese egg noodles—wheat noodles with egg.  Common variations of lo mein at several of my local Chinese restaurants include chicken, beef, shrimp, or vegetable lo mein.

            Another special characteristic of the different noodle types in Chinese culture is the fact in that certain types of noodles are designated for certain special occasions, whether it is a sickness, birthday, or family gathering, for example.  To expand on this principle, the following provides examples in support of the previous statement:

“In the aspect of noodles, Chinese people have lots of customs, which essentially mean ‘human nature’ and ‘worldly common sense’ materialized in the noodles.  At birthdays, people eat longevity noodles; at the time of marriage and moving into a new house people eat noodles with gravy, which means flavored life; on the day of lunar February 2 ‘dragon head,’ people eat dragon whiskers noodles to look forward to good weather.  We eat different noodles in different seasons and different festivals” (Noodles, traditionally and today, 210).

These are only some of the many special noodles that are designated for specific life events or occasions.  All in all, in the Chinese community values the different types of noodles for reasons that are very different from that of the Italian community—the two most unique ones being the actual composition of the noodles, and then the special occasion with which each type of noodle fits.  While Italian noodles may taste the same when ‘unseasoned,’ aside from its differing shape, size, and texture, overall, they are often made with the same ingredients when served plain; whereas, Chinese noodles do not taste the same by any means, as they are comprised of entirely separate ingredients.  While Italian noodles vary mostly by how they are served or what they are served with, Chinese noodles not only vary along these same lines, but also by their link to a significant moment or life event. It is this latter connection which matter most to the Chinese.

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