Tracing the Origins of the Noodle

Sehr Mehra

Professor Li & Ristaino


26 June 2018

Tracing the Origins of the Noodle

Mix water and flour and knead into a dough, you now have a plethora of prospects in the palm of your hands. Noodles are the epitome of versatility and flexibility, and it’s this adaptable nature that has contributed to its rise as a world renowned food. Noodles are eaten as pho in Vietnam, chow-chow in Nepal, seviyan in India and many other permutations and combinations throughout the globe. While the popularity of noodles is a widely accepted consensus, its origin is still a prominently debated subject. There are numerous contenders who have claimed to be the creators of the Noodle. Italians profess that they are the pioneers of this plant based food, whereas the Chinese argue that they invented this culinary sensation. In this paper I will endeavor to trace the geneses of this cereal food and subsequently attempt to end the age old dispute surrounding it.

We begin our historical research in the East Asian country, China. Noodles are believed to have originated here, as ‘Bing’, during the early rule of the Han Dynasty. They were then diversified by experimentation and the evolution of additional shapes and cooking methods. Noodles further gained cultural prominence via folklore related to ‘health, religion, economy’ and with the emergence of Chinese superstitions. (Zhang and Ma, 2016)However, due to recent archeological discoveries it’s likely that noodles were around much prior to the rise of the Han Rule. Excavation sites have revealed that wheat grains and early production apparatuses existed from the early to late Neolithic period – an astounding ten thousand years before now. More tangible evidence, which testifies to the existence of Noodles well into the past, was unearthed in 1999. ‘Noodles discovered among relics at the Lajia archeological site in Minhe County, Qinghai Province’. After radio-dating ‘the noodles and bowl of noodles’ found at the site, it was disclosed that they were crafted and cooked four thousand years ago during the early Xia Dynasty. These archaeological findings thus provide us with physical evidence which date back to periods long before the present day. They reveal that the noodle has been closely interwoven into the Chinese society and their culinary practices for eons. (Wei et al., 2017)

 Noodles and noodle bowl discovered at Lajia archaeological site in 1999.

We now move on to our next destination in this culinary dissertation, Italy. Pasta is an integral part of the Italian diet and culture. With shapes ranging from small pinwheels to large sheets, its diversity can be witnessed across the regions of this unified country. Each Italian province has its own rich history with pasta, shaped by its geographical limits and foreign influences, and as a result unique dishes native to these expanses have become a beacon for their identities. The emergence of Pasta in Italy was formerly attributed to Marco Polo, a venetian explorer. He voyaged to China, and upon his return in 1295, he brought back copious amounts of spices and other discoveries which included noodles. (Jackson, P. 1998) However, there is a lot of opposition to this assertion as evident in the following remarks made by Justin Demetri in his article ‘The History of Pasta – Pasta through the ages’. ‘Well, Marco Polo might have done amazing things on his journeys, but bringing pasta to Italy was not one of them: noodles were already there in Polo’s time.’(Demeteri, 2018)

 Map outlining Marco polo’s travels from Venice to China. 

One of the leading counter arguments was thapasta already existed during the Roman-Etruscan era as ‘Lagane’. This view is supported by the words of the famous Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, commonly known as Horace, who wrote ‘I come back home to my pot of leek, peas and laganum’. He wrote the above mentioned to defend himself against allegations that he was trying to fit in with members of the ‘higher society’. This modest meal of pasta and vegetables were meant to portray his own humble nature. While it’s not known if these verses were successful in gaining Horace’s innocence, it’s certain that they are one of the oldest mentions of the Italian Pasta amongst literary works. (Ullman, n.d.) Horace wrote his first book around thirty-four BC, which makes it about two thousand years old. Something interesting to note here, is that the pasta, made by mixing various cereals and water, available during the Etrusco-Roman era was oven baked and not boiled. To advance the point pertaining to the prevalence of pasta in ancient times we can take Apicius’s example. He too was a Roman author, who discussed a recipe of ‘laganon’ in his discourse published in the first century AD. (, 2018) These written accounts date back thousands of years. Pasta has thus been a component of the Italian diet for centuries.

   Quintus Horatius Flaccus (8 December 65 BC – 27 November 8 BC) – Roman Lyric Poet.        

 Apicius – collection of Roman recipes, published in the 1st century AD.

Another theory set forward maintained that the Arabs played a role in the development and spread of boiled noodles or ‘itriyah’. They significantly influenced Italian food and culinary practices when they invaded the country in the 8thCentury AD. Their cuisine and culture was adopted in regions such as Sicily, where the spread of sweet and savory foods such as pasta con la sarde was observed after the Arabic conquest. Macaroni too, gained widespread admiration amongst the Sicilians at this time. (Italy’s Culinary Heritage, n.d.) Charles Perry an American Historian who specializes in mapping the origin of the pasta said the following words ‘…the first clear western reference to boiled noodles is in the Jerusalem Talmud of the fifth century AD written in Aramaic for which the term ‘itriyah’ was used.’ He later goes on to say that during the 10thCentury ‘itriyah’ referred to dry noodles exclusively and didn’t include the fresh ones. (Giacco, 2016)The Talmud additionally discussed the term ‘rihata’ which referred to boiled flour and honey which later gave rise to the word ‘rishta’ which translates to noodles. The term ‘rihata’ has been talked about and mentioned in scholarly works since ages. The Arabs thus have a considerable assertion that they played an important role, which resulted in the dominance of pasta in the diets and hearts of the Italian people. (Cooper, 1935)

 Itriyah – pasta as mentioned in the Talmud.

 Rishta (Pasta) cooked with lentils and caramelized onions.

Moving further east from China, we now travel to Japan. Ramen is not only a culinary phenomenon here; it is a cultural marvel as well. Japan has museums dedicated to this fast-food, ramen stalls throughout the country, and television cooking shows fashioned around this spicy broth with noodles. The widespread consumption of Ramen by the residents of Japan is unparalleled by any other people. These facts beg the question ‘who are the ancestors of these instant noodles’ ‘was there a Japanese predecessor to this curried noodle dish’. On further research it becomes clear that ramen was introduced to Japan in the form of noodles, from China. Chinese chefs, who migrated to Japan, began working and cooking meals featuring noodles at local restaurants. These foods then gained extensive fame and were regarded in high esteem by the citizens of Japan. They had built an appetite for the food, which could only be satiated by mechanizing the industry. Ramen, in present day, has become a national staple food in post-war Japan. Even though noodles weren’t devised here, they have become a vital part of the country’s national identity and the favorite grub of its people. (Solt, 2014)

 The Untold History of Ramen – Book by George Solt, which aims to answer the following question ‘How did ramen become the national food of Japan?’

Now we’ll analyze the influences of the Greeks on Italian foods, and more importantly pasta. These Mediterranean individuals and their practices induced changes in the regional cuisines of Italy, such as in Puglie where Greek food flourished. There was little meat in this region which was compensated by the use of fine sausage products and cheeses. (Italy’s Culinary Heritage, n.d.) When it comes to pasta there is a legend that speaks of its production and history. A Greek woman Talia, became the muse of a man named Macareo. She is alleged to have inspired him to create an iron machine, that could produce long strands of pasta, to feed starving poets. This discovery then remained a secret for several years, until shared with the founder of Naples in the sixth century BC. Utensils used for making pasta were also uncovered around about the fourth century BC. These were found in a tomb in Rome, and the carvings later proved that they belonged to the pre-Etruscan era. These utensils, thus signify that pasta making has been taking place in the history of Italy for an extended period of time. (Shelke, 2016)

 The legend of Talia and Macareo outlined in the restaurant, Da Vinci’s, menu. 

After tracing the origins of pastas from countries all over the world, I think the most plausible birthplace of the noodle is China. This Asian country has the most promising data to support its claim of being the ‘inventors’ of this simple wheat and water based dough. The discovery of the noodle remains and bowl occurred two thousand years prior to Horace’s mentions of the ‘lagane’. With its physical, archeological evidence predating even the written records of Italian, Arabic and Mediterranean pasta, it truly does make China victorious in the contention. However, even though China maybe the site of the first instances of noodles and they may have introduced some countries like Japan and India to them, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they were the ones who introduced the rest of the world to it. Italians were enjoying pasta long before Marco Polo brought back the secrets of the Chinese noodle trade. As there is very little documented data and only a few preserved artifacts related to Italian pasta, it’s not right to make any broad claims about its beginning. It is also plausible that pasta developed spontaneously in China and Italy at different time periods. New evidence is bound to be unearthed at some point in the future, which will give more concrete and reliable sources with information about who introduced the Italians to the noodle.

I personally think noodles are united in their use of flour and water, however, every country takes this dough and molds it according to its own history, culture and terrain. Every noodle is thus separate from the other and there is no single category that these noodles lie in. In conclusion I would like to propose the following theory – there is no one ‘true’ inventor of the noodle, it is a world food which is continuously modified and customized via interactions amongst nations, ingredients and people.


  1. Zhang, N. and Ma, G. (2016). Journal of Ethnic Foods.
  2. Wei, Y., Yingquan, Z., Liu, R., Zhang, B., Li, M. and Jin, S. (2018). AACCI Grain Science Library. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Jun. 2018].
  3. Jackson, P. (1998). Marco Polo and His ‘Travels’. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies,61(1), 82-101. doi:10.1017/S0041977X00015779
  4. Demetri, J. (2018).History of pasta. [online] Life In Italy. Available at: [Accessed 26 Jun. 2018].
  5. Ullman, B. (n.d.).Horace and the History of the Word Laganum. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Jun. 2018].
  6. (2018)> History of Italian-type pasta.. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Jun. 2018].
  7. Italys Culinary Heritage. (n.d.). .
  8. Giacco, R. (2016).Pasta: Role in a Diet. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Jun. 2018].
  9. Cooper, J. (1935).Eat and be Satisfied. [online] Google Books. Available at: [Accessed 28 Jun. 2018].
  10. Solt, G. (2014).The Untold History of Ramen. [online] Google Books. Available at: [Accessed 28 Jun. 2018].
  11. Shelke, K. (2016).Pasta and Noodles. [online] Google Books. Available at: [Accessed 29 Jun. 2018].

Blog Post 2-The Historical significance of Noodles

United by and born out of a dough made by mixing flour and water. Diversified in its shape, size, thickness and use of ingredients. Propagated by industrialization and globalization. Molded by years of history, cultural influences and people’s imaginations – The noodle is truly a culinary phenomenon. I enjoyed the succinct nature of the first two dictionary definitions introduced to us during class compared to the wordiness of the pasta definition, but felt that all three failed to encapsulate the essence of the Noodle and that they lacked some much needed context. I thus propose the above mentioned description of the Noodle, which is precise and accounts for its background.

Noodles are relished as feijoada in Brazil, spätzle in Germany, ramen, soba and udon in Japan, mixed with spices in Ethiopia and prepared in many other forms throughout the world (I.P.O 19-20). However, the two paramount nations that are almost synonymous with the term noodles are China and Italy. It is a staple food in both these countries and as a result Italy and China are currently some of the leading consumers of this cereal food. What is now enjoyed in every household, due to its healthy and inexpensive nature, was formerly considered a privileged food source. This is evident in Shu Xi’s “Rhapsody on Pasta” which outlines that during the early Han dynasty ‘Bing’ was exclusively eaten as a snack food by emperors in China (Knechtges 448). Similarly, in Italy, as noted in the “Encyclopedia of Pasta”, pasta was previously reserved for the richer members of society who could afford better ingredients (De Vita 2). The journey of Noodles and pasta, transitioning from a limited consumer base to becoming a household item, parallels each other. It was only after the invention of new drying techniques in Italy and rotary mills in China that this food became a principal food source for these societies. Noodles evolved from a homemade luxury item to an affordable machine made entity. These industrial-economic changes are just one of the many parameters by which noodles have developed over the years. Noodles thus have an ever evolving nature embodied by its various shapes, methods of preparation, complimentary sauces, economic status etc.

Noodles originated in the early Han dynasty in China and since then they have become deeply intertwined with the health, culture, traditions, superstitions and folklore of Chinese natives. Some noodles have stories associated with them which elevate them from being merely a part of one’s diet to dishes that represent profound customary meanings. As a consequence, legends linked to them have translated into everlasting Chinese traditions. Seafood noodles are made to ease the pain of ailing individuals, Qishan minced noodles are prepared by parents to seek success and fame for their children and Guangxi noodles are enjoyed when uniting with old friends. In China food is also used as a means of celebration and festivity. Unique plates of food are prepared to celebrate significant occasions and festivals. The occasions of marriage and moving into a new house are commemorated by eating noodles with gravy (Na Zhang 210).  Birthdays are celebrated by eating lengthy strands of longevity noodles, all party goers place the longest noodle from their plates into the bowl of the person being celebrated, which symbolize a long and wholesome life (The Story of Staple Food). Chinese food is further linked to its medicinal properties and noodles are a healthy energy providing food. Moreover, noodles are consumed with nutritious vegetables, gravies and proteins which make them a favored meal choice and contribute to its widespread intake (Na Zhang 212). It is due to these traditional practices and celebratory associations along with its nutritional values that noodles have acquired such a distinctive place in Chinas history and in the hearts of the Chinese people.

The origin of Pasta in Italy is a highly debated topic. While some believe that Marco Polo brought noodles back from China, which were then adapted into the Italian pasta, others think that pasta already existed during the Roman-Etruscan era. Although Italians may be split in their opinions relating to the origin of the pasta they are unified in their view of pasta being a fundamental pillar in their regional and culinary history. ‘Nothing says Italy like its food, and nothing says Italian food like pasta.’ (Justin Demetri) Pasta in a way contributes to Italy’s identity as a country, moreover it also contributes to Italy’s regional identities. Italy is a country made up of many unified provinces, each section was shaped and transformed by different factors such as its topography, its administrative occupations and varying climate conditions. The culmination of all these influences resulted in distinctive pasta dishes coming up in different parts of the country (Latini 158-159). These dishes thus represent the history of their regions and have become a symbol of their individualities much like the lighthouses we discussed in class. After the mechanization of the industry pasta became easily affordable and individuals of all classes had access to it. Furthermore, the health benefits of pasta such as prevention of chronic diseases, its satiating nature, low glycemic content, etc. caused more and more individuals to adopt this plant based product into their diets (I.P.O). The economic cost, nutritional profits and symbolic significance of pasta is what makes pasta such an integral part of Italy’s food culture.

I believe that pasta is only truly recognized or defined if seen in the context of factors such as its varying shapes, regional differences, underlying climatic conditions and varying landscapes, diversity in preparation and accompanying ingredients, foreign and cultural influences, primary ingredients, industrialization, economic value and health benefits. The pasta we get on a plate is merely an end product of this journey and in order to rightfully understand the significance of pasta we have to understand its history.

Blog Post 3- ‘Holi-the festival of colors and exquisite dishes’

Holi- the festival of colors

When good reigns triumphant over evil,

And the cold winters die down,

The cheerful and rejuvenating air of spring is finally upon us.

The sky is painted in pastel shades of pink, green and blue,

And the mellifluous rhythm of the dholak and traditional ballads can be heard by all.

While malicious spirits are set ablaze in a bonfire,

People gather to eat scrumptious meals.

Saccharine deep fried dumplings stuffed with curd and dried fruits;1

Fragrant diamonds decorated with nuts2, doughy pancakes with a cardamom cream;3

Crispy circular wafers, served with chickpeas and potatoes;4

Oblong savory treats, enjoyed with spicy pickles;5

Peppery noodles in an onion and tomato gravy, flavored with an Indian spice mix:

Red chilies, coriander seeds, cinnamon sticks, cloves, cumin and black cardamom;6

Drinks made with milk, yoghurt and seasonings, at times laced with

cannabis leaves and flowers.7

The flames have burnt out and turned into ash,

And the once deafening music has died down to a faint hymn.

The colors have settled into heaps on the pavement,

Plates formerly brimming with food have been polished.

With well-fed belly’s and a full heart,

The festivities come to a sweet end.

What piece did you choose to imitate?

I chose to imitate two pieces ‘Dong Huang Taiyi (Grand Unity, Spirit of the Eastern Sky)’ and ‘The Summons of the Soul’ both from Chu Ci, by Qu Yuan.

Why did you choose this piece?

I felt nostalgic while reading Grand Unity as it talks about an ‘auspicious day’ with ‘singing’, food offerings and ‘priestesses’. This scene is reminiscent of many festivals celebrated in India which are renowned for their feasts, devotional activities and celebrations. I used the verse as inspiration to set the scene for the spring harvest carnival my poem is based on. I further enjoyed the detailed descriptions of the dishes in ‘The Summons of the souls’. I based the outlines of the foods eaten during the festival of Holi, on the style of this prose.

What did you learn about the culture of the original author through imitating his or her style?

The poem ‘Dong Huang Taiyi’ displays how Chinese food acts as a link to the spiritual world. ‘Take up the fragrant flower offerings, the meats cooked in melilotus, served on orchid mats, And libations of cinnamon wine and pepper sauces!’, ‘The five notes mingle in rich harmony, And the god is merry and takes his pleasure.’ Food offerings and songs are instruments used to please the holy spirits. The following lines from ‘The Summons of the Soul’ further bolster this idea ‘Oh Soul, come back! Why should you go far away? All your household has come to do you honor, all kinds of good foods are ready’. Food thus ventures beyond its conventional purpose of nutrition, and transcends into a symbol of reverence in Chinese culture.

What did you learn about your own culture while writing?

While writing and researching the food items eaten during Holi, I learnt that there are certain dishes which are associated with this Indian festival. I was curious to learn if other festivals celebrated here were accompanied by the same dishes or were characterized by a different assortment of foods. On further research I discovered that during Diwali deep fried vegetables and meats, samosas, potato patties, curdled milk dough balls and other dishes are served. On the auspicious day of Ram Navami rice puddings, spiced buttermilk, coconut dough balls, milk cakes and other food items are traditionally eaten. Sweet flatbread, coconut rice and sweet strained yoghurt with nuts are consumed during Ganesh Chaturthi. Many other festivals have distinct sweet and savory dishes linked to them. Therefore, in the Indian culture, certain food items have become synonymous with various festivals and auspicious occasions. Another thing I learnt is that Indian people love deep frying everything, even desserts!

Is there cultural DNA embedded in the piece you read and in your piece? How does this DNA manifest in the texts?

Methods of celebration – ‘Flourish the drumsticks, beat the drum!’, ‘The singing begins softly to a slow solemn measure’, ‘malicious spirits are set ablaze in a bonfire’, ‘…traditional ballads can be heard’, and food items eaten – ‘Stewed turtle and roast kid’, ‘Braised chicken, seethed tortoise…’, ‘Crispy circular wafers’, ‘Oblong savory treats’ are thoroughly documented in the pieces I read and in my poem. These actions and food items portray the culture and traditions deeply embedded  into Chinese and Indian festivals.

 1. Gujiya

 2. Barfi

 3. Ras Malai

 4. Papri Chaat

 5. Namak Paare

 6. Pav-Bhaji Noodles







Blog Post 1: I am what I eat.

‘A woman’s place is in the kitchen’ this saying holds true in my household, but what’s also true is that all the men are right there cooking alongside them. Every three months we have a family tradition where my grandparents come over to our house and bring copious amounts of food along with them, we call it ‘The Potluck Sunday Brunch’. My paternal grandmother brings her famous butter gravy, a dish she learnt to make from her father in the culinary capital of India- Amritsar. My maternal grandfather cooks his famous fish curry, macher jhol, a dish he cooked for his family when his job took him to the seafood hub that is the city of Kolkata. My father and sister prepare their innovative take on the Indo-Chinese dish chili chicken. Finally, my maternal grandmother and uncle, who have a mutual love for anything and everything sweet, put together an exquisite dessert which is more often than not bread pudding. I on the other hand always create a new dish, which reflects my label ‘the adventurous eater’ in the family. These dishes are more than just food to my relatives and me, they reflect our history and culture.

 बटर ग्रेवी (Butter Gravy with Chicken)

I remember before coming to college I pestered my grandmother to teach me how to make butter gravy, so she told me to observe her while she prepared the meal. First she browned off garlic, onions, green chilies and tomatoes in a pan. She then thickened the curry by adding cream, and finally finished the dish by throwing in a plethora of Indian spices into the sizzling pot. The aromas in the kitchen transported me to the streets of Punjab and the smile on my grandmothers’ face made me suspicious that she was right there with me. I inquired “Why do you look so happy?” she laughed and told me that every time she made this dish it took her back to her childhood, she felt like a little girl running through the cornfields of her fathers’ estate. Further this was a way for her to fondly remember my great-grandfather, who passed away a few years ago. By the time the dish was ready both my grandmother and I were wiping tears from our eyes, but we blamed it on the spices.

 मछेर झोल (Macher Jhol)

The next dish on my culinary journey was the turmeric yellow, mustard fish curry my grandfather would make. While collecting the recipe from him, my curious nature got the best of me, and I asked him what made the dish so special for him. He hesitated at first, but succumbed to my questions and told me that during his primitive days of working in a new state he wasn’t the most prosperous man. He couldn’t afford the simple luxury of nourishing his family, and was consequently forced to feed them macher jhol and rice for weeks at a time because of its inexpensive nature. He recalled how much he detested the dish at the time, however when his business began flourishing he craved that very plate of food. It was a way for him to connect to his roots and be reminded of his simple background. I left his house that day not just with a recipe for fish curry, but with a great appreciation for my grandfather and his struggles and a deeper connection with my humble ancestry.

 ब्रेड पुडिंग (Bread Pudding)

Later in the year, my uncle and his mother asked me to serve everyone the bread pudding they had baked earlier in the day. As I cut into to the dish I was surprised to find a note attached to a frayed piece of paper, on further discovery I realized that it was the recipe for the bread pudding. The accompanying letter explained how this recipe had been in the family for generations and that it had started of simply with bread, eggs, milk and sugar. It further read that every time the recipe was passed down to someone they had the opportunity to add a new ingredient to it. This was evident through the different inks and handwritings of the names of the ingredients; my sister had added the most recent element, her favorite, toasted almond shavings. After numerous hours of pondering I took the bold decision of adding peppers to the dessert much to the dismay of my sweet toothed grandmother. By the simple action of jotting down the words ‘Red Chili Powder’ on a tattered piece of paper I felt united with a lineage of people, relatives like my great-grandmother who I hadn’t even met in the course of my life.

 चिली चिकन (Chilli Chicken)

These may unassumingly be dishes for some people, but for me they define who I am as a person. I’m an amalgamation of North and West India represented by the Punjabi butter gravy from my father’s side and Bengali fish curry from my maternal pedigree. I feel a connection to my grandmother every time I taste the robust crimson tomato gravy and to my grandfather when I gather the produce to cook his notoriously spicy yellow rohu curry. It also helps me internalize all the knowledge they passed on to me throughout the formative years of my life. They provide a means for me to connect to my roots and my culture even when I am a thousand miles away from my homeland. Dishes like the Indo-Chinese chicken my father makes impart some more implicit knowledge, by helping me embrace two different cultures at once; My inherited Indianity and my adopted Americanness. When I feel lost, I read the recipe of the bread pudding and am reminded that I’m a part of a bigger whole. The sweet dessert with a dash of spices is also a reflection of who I am as a person and just as the pudding is altered by the individuals they are passed down to, I am shaped by the people I meet throughout my life. There’s also the fact that they are delicious and full of spices which make them easy and enjoyable to eat.

When it comes to ethnic communities in Atlanta I don’t have an abundance of experience, but I have been to Patel Plaza a Gujrati dominated market in Church Street, Decatur. While the people in this community are generous and play a vital role in alleviating the feeling of homesickness, I can’t say the same about the food. The food is inherently sweet and, in their defense, I’m a picky eater who loves spicy food. The combination of the two puts me in a disposition to dislike the food. However, I am open to new experiences and discovering more communities and foods to fall in love with in the metropolitan city of Atlanta. If that fails, I can always fall back on the option of carrying hot sauce to these restaurants.

 Patel Plaza

 Chai Patti (Indian restaurant)

I’m attaching a video of a step by step guide on making butter chicken. You can remove the chicken if you want to eat butter gravy (it’s way better in my opinion). Also add some more red peppers if you like spicy food!