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Pasta: An Ancient Legacy, A New World of Choices

March 9, 2022
Noodles are noodles, right? Hardly
We know pasta by many different shapes – Penne, Fettuccini, Ravioli, Linguini, Macaroni, Shells, and of course, Spaghetti. According to the International Pasta Organization, there are around 600 different types of pasta today, and over 1300 different names have been documented.

With that in mind, who knew that something as simple as wheat and water would become so pervasive worldwide!
Pasta is Everywhere
Today, pasta is one of the world’s most accessible foods. Nearly every country has its own unique version of this popular, inexpensive staple. From German and Hungarian spaetzle to Greek orzo, Polish pierogi to Jewish kreplach to Japanese soba and udon, dry or fresh, pasta holds a special place in the hearts and on the palates of noodle lovers the world over.

Fundamentally, pasta is a comfort food. One of its most comforting characteristics is how little it has changed since antiquity. It is still made with the same essential ingredients and prepared as it has been since ancient times. When we eat pasta, we can be assured of the likelihood that our ancestors, and their ancestors as well, ate something similar. Pasta, with its long, multicultural history, is truly a culinary connection to our past.
How it all Began
The history of pasta is a rich one, and can be traced through many cultures and continents, from Asia to Africa to the Middle East, reaching back at least 3500 years.

Although popular legend asserts that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy, following his travels to the Far East in the late 13th century, others claim that it can be found as far back as the 4th century BC, where an Etruscan tomb showed a group of natives making what appears to be pasta. And although Marco Polo might have done amazing things on his journeys, few believe that bringing pasta to Italy was not one of them. Most are aware that “noodles” were already there in Polo’s time and existed in Asia long before Polo’s trip to China.

While historians have differing views on its origin, it’s said that pasta’s earliest roots began in China, during the Shang Dynasty (1700-1100 BC), where some form of pasta was made with either wheat or rice flour.

In fact, evidence exists of an Etrusco-Roman noodle made from the same durum wheat used to produce modern pasta, called “lagane” (said to be the origin of the modern word for lasagna).

Despite all these theories, it seems that all roads lead to Asia. Archaeologists believe that noodles were most likely first produced in central Asia thousands of years ago, then made their way westward, perhaps arriving in Europe and the Mediterranean by nomadic Arabs, where the process was refined and durum wheat began being used.

Early pasta making was often an arduous, day-long process. In fact, before machinery, pasta was kneaded by foot. By the 1300’s, dried pasta became very popular for its nutritional value and long shelf life, making it ideal for extended ship voyages.

Originally reserved for the elite, it was around the 17th century that pasta started to become a staple of the common man. This had to do with the deterioration in people’s standard of living, that limited both access and affordability to meat, and how inexpensively the Kingdoms of Sicily and Naples were selling wheat.
Pasta Comes to America
Early Spanish settlers were among the first to bring pasta to America. Further, it’s said that it was Thomas Jefferson who helped initially promote pasta into popularity. During his stay in Paris in the late 18th century, Jefferson ate what he called macaroni. He enjoyed the dish so much that he brought two cases back with him when he returned to America.

The first American pasta factory was opened in Brooklyn, New York, in 1848, by a Frenchman, Antoine Zerega.
The Italian Connection
The word pasta translates to “paste” in Italian. This is a reference to the dough, made from a combination of flour and water or eggs, all simple components that have been around for centuries. Over time, because of pasta’s affordability, shelf life, and versatility, it became firmly rooted in Italian culture.

As you'd expect, Italy is the country that eats the greatest amount of pasta worldwide. As you might not expect, however, the #2 and #3 countries that eat the most pasta are Venezuela and Tunisia. Food Fact: it is estimated that Italians eat over sixty pounds of pasta per person, per year.
Pasta Benefits
Pasta lovers, rejoice! Pasta has many health benefits, due to its low calorific value and various nutrients and minerals. One cup of cooked spaghetti provides about 200 calories, 40 grams of carbohydrates, less than one gram of total fat, no cholesterol and only one gram of sodium when cooked without salt.

Furthermore, when pasta is cooked right, it's actually a low glycemic index food and a great source of slow digestible starch. That means that pasta provides a slow and sustained release of carbs so that it takes longer to digest, keeping you fuller, longer.

And you’ll love this one! Pasta has been proven to make you happier. According to scientists, the carbohydrates in pasta increase the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter believed to heighten feelings of happiness.
Vegan Pasta
Beside the traditional grain-based pasta choices, today’s plant/vegetable pastas offer a delicious luxurious texture and amazing flavor. From the verdant, subtle minerality of spinach to the deep earthiness of beetroots, the sweetness and tang of tomatoes and red peppers to the delicate grassiness of broccoli, these healthy, vegan-forward pastas offer a wide range of health options, packed with plenty of nutrition, protein, and fiber.

Now that you’re a “Pasta Savant,” you have a deep knowledge of its history and versatility. Perhaps you can combine the old with the new and create your own signature pasta dish!
A Few Quick Pasta Cooking Tips
- A lot of people tend to add oil to the cooking water, thinking it will stop the pasta from sticking together. What it actually does is make the pasta too slick for any sauce to stay on it. If you have used enough water and remember to stir your pasta regularly as it is cooking, it will not stick together.

- We are constantly reminded that too much salt isn’t good and therefore choose to leave it out where we could, including pasta water. Bad idea! Pasta needs plenty of salt because salt toughens the surface and keeps it from becoming slimy. So…add about a teaspoon of salt for each gallon of water. Although this seems like a lot, every good chef cooks it this way and it really does make a difference. Importantly, pasta does not absorb salt in the same way that vegetables or potatoes do, so you won’t be eating all the salt that you use in the cooking water.

- When pasta doesn’t stick together, it all cooks consistently. Stir the pot to avoid pasta that clumps together.

- Soft, fall apart pasta is a big no no. To achieve perfect pasta, keep testing it as you cook. Once it is slightly firm to the bite, it’s ready. At this “al dente” stage, turn off the heat and drain the pasta. Shake the pasta to get rid of all excess water, coat in sauce if you’ve prepared on, and serve immediately. The pasta will continue to cook while draining and coating, so when testing, remember that what you eat will be cooked for a minute or two longer than what you tested in the pot.

- If you rinse your pasta immediately after cooking, you’re ruining it. Al dente pasta has just the right amount of starches on the surface to absorb the sauce, which is where pasta gets its entire flavor. If you rinse, you take away these important starches.

- Specific types of pasta like fettuccine and linguine are meant to be mixed with creamy sauces. Short or spiral pasta is best paired with thick, chunky tomato and meat sauces. Given the copious pasta choices available and almost endless variations of sauces and broths that can be made, combine and experiment in ways that make you happy.
Fabulous Pasta Quotes
“Life is a combination of magic and pasta.” - Federico Fellini
“In heaven, after antipasti, the first course will be pasta.” - Steve Albini
“Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.” - Sophia Loren
Fun Pastanista Facts
- The three most popular shapes of pasta are spaghetti, macaroni, and penne.

- To cook one billion pounds of pasta, you would need 2,021,452,000 gallons of water – enough to fill nearly 75,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.

- Cooked al dente (al-DEN-tay) literally means “to the tooth,” a method in which to test pasta to see if it is properly cooked. The pasta should be a bit firm, offering some resistance to the tooth, but tender.

Inspired to make a beautiful, comforting pasta dish? Perhaps our recipe for Pork with Beetroot Pasta will capture your attention. Or try Easy Agneau a l’Olive – as simple and flavorful as it gets! Aegean Olive Salad may be what you are craving. We’ve created the recipe so you can have a cold salad or a hot side or main. It all depends upon your mood. Explore the pastabilities! Too much?... We think not!
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