Did Marco Polo Really Bring Noodles back to Italy from China?
So the story goes. Marco Polo, the great Venetian explorer/merchant is said to have brought back with him from his fabled visits to China, noodles, which became the pasta that Italy is famed for today. To be more specific, the legend is that he brought back macaroni, which is today a generic term for all dried alimentary pastas made from hard wheat (which the Chinese did not cultivate or consume). Basically, the idea is that he brought back dried “filamentous” pasta or noodles.
If this is legend instead of fact, why would such a legend have been created? The answer is actually very simple. There are only two areas in the world where noodles, in the time after Polo, were a staple food. China and her Far East neighbors, and Italy. Everything in between the huge land of Eurasia…no noodles. It stands to reason, therefore, that there must be some connection between the noodles of Asia and the noodles of Italy. And the only obvious connection is Marco Polo. In case you didn’t already know, Italy absolutely does not embrace the legend of Marco Polo and his pasta.
Marco Polo traveled to China around 1271 and returned around 1292. He was a big deal in China, or so he claimed. He even served as an adviser to the Yuan Emperor Kubla Khan and visited other parts of the country as an official of the emperor, had his own penthouse apartment in the palace, complete with big screen TV and an indoor swimming pool. 1
After his travels he became a prisoner of war in Genoa, where he wrote a book called “Description of the World” (Divasament dou Monde), which we know today at The Travels of Marco Polo. In the book he mentions noodles and some have used this as evidence that he brought them back with him from China, having discovered this new kind of food there. But, in fact, the actual passages seem to suggest that he was already well familiar with this kind of food, and was describing the Chinese noodles based on the pasta he already knew from home.
He wrote of the grains that were in use in China at the time, saying that rice, panicum, and millet were a much more efficient source of food, wheat not having the yield of the other grains. Bread, he said, was not in use, and wheat “is only eaten in the form of vermicelli or of pastry. Other translations are possible, such as vermicelli and pastes of that description, macaroni and other viands made of dough, or noodles and other pasty foods.
Whatever the precise translation, it seems that Polo was describing something for which he already had ready names for, and something that was nothing new at all to him. But this was translated from an Italian edition of the work by Ramusio, and the reference to ‘vermicelli’ may have been a liberty. Pasta and noodles are not the same thing, as most people assume. So the question is, was Polo supposed to have brought back noodles, or pasta? It seems from his writings, in truth, that he made no special case about noodles, but mentioned eating several pasta dishes. He seems to have been more fascinated by what he called a ‘bread tree’ which bore a fruit from which the Chinese made a meal that was similar to Barley, from which a pasta was made. He reported it as excellent, and brought samples back to Venice, but it did not take off there.
Whether Polo new of noodles is unclear, but he does not seem to have made any special mention of filamentous noodles, nor did he find the idea of doughs of this type to be anything new.
There are also written reports of “a food made from flour in the form of strings” in Sicily, described by an Arab traveler named Idrisi in 1154, well before Marco Polo’s travels. There were even noodles called Rishta in the Middle East in those times, a food of Persian origin.
Also, at the Spaghetti Museum in Pontedassio, Imperia, there are several documents from 1440, 1279, and 1284, which refer to pasta, maccheroni, and vermicelli as known foods well before Marco Polo’s return in 1292. There is simply no truth at all to the legend that Marco Polo brought noodles back from China.
We don’t know whether “filamentous noodles” were an indigenous invention in Italy, or whether they came from the Middle East. We also do not know why only in Italy, and not in any other country in Europe or the Mediterranean, did they become a staple in the diet. The idea of these noodles may have traveled along the Silk Road from Central Asia to Bukhara in the Middle East, where the risthta were known. It is also likely that these noodles were introduced to Italy by Arabs when they dominated Sicily.
Although I certainly do not mean this post to be a treatise on the history of pasta, it is not such a big stretch to imagine lasagna, baked in the oven with a little liquid, becoming lasagna cut into strips and boiled in water or milk, to then become more refined doughs for this purpose, which then became dried pastas. Noodles did not become such a huge hit in Italy until around when the New World was “discovered” and with it, that fruit we now associate with Italian pasta dishes: the tomato. It was a match made in heaven and even though mass production had been available, through the 15th century Tagliatele press, it did not keep well. It was not until the 18th century that the process perfected to dry the noodles to a state that could be stored for long periods, even up to two years, so that dried macaroni and vermicelli products became a commercial success.
That is not to say that dried pasta had not existed before, in fact, according to some, pasta secca had existed in Italy up to a century before Polo’s birth. However, pasta was not always considered fine dining, but instead a peasant dish that haughty city dwellers may have turned their nose up to. The pasta press and the drying process, therefore, made pasta important during lean economic times, and during the 17th century when there was overcrowding and problems with food distribution and availability, pasta became an important staple to feed poorer city dwellers. That and tomato sauce that really brought spaghetti into its own, as grated cheese had already been used as a principle topping and flavoring for cheap pasta dishes, but once combined with tomato sauce, which was first introduced at the end of the 1700’s and was firmly established by the 1820’s, things really took off. Tomatoes where a much more accessible ingredient than meat sauce (ragù).
Marco Polo really had nothing to do with all of this. In his book, he simply seems to have been comparing a dish he experienced in China to macaroni. He may have brought back samples, but he certainly did not bring back a hard wheat dried pasta, as so many people have envisioned. Too bad, for it was a great story.
A Couple Notes on the ‘Travels of Marco Polo’
Many scholars do not take the book seriously at all. And although Marco Polo became famous in his own lifetime through the grand tales he told, he himself wasn’t necessarily taken seriously, either. There is a story about children following him around saying, “Messer Polo, tell us another lie.”
There is not a trace of Polo’s original manuscript, whether in his own hand or as recounted to his fellow prisoner in Genoa. All the 150 or so manuscripts we know are third hand, and they often differ between one another greatly. It is highly doubtful that he was the great influential adviser and emissary of the Khan that he claimed to be, although he may have been a minor civil servant. It seems that he became very immersed in Mongol culture, but they did not even eat noodles. When it comes to the book, many people have asked, if Polo traveled so extensively throughout China, why did he never mention the Great Wall? Seems hard to leave out of a tale of the great land. Did he ever even go there?
There is room for doubt. Along with leaving out the Great Wall, there was no mention of chopsticks. The Chinese ate with two little sticks. How could you not mention that? Foot binding? That’s kind of memorable. No mention. There is also no mention of Marco Polo in any surviving Mongol or Chinese records. Many of the inaccuracies in his book could be attributed to third-hand translations, but there are so many problems, some historians think that he may never have actually made it to China, but instead, according to this article, “picked up second-hand stories of China, Japan and the Mongol Empire from Persian merchants he met on the shores of the Black Sea, thousands of miles short of the Orient…then cobbled them together with other scraps of information for what became a best-selling account, A Description of the World, one of the first travel books.” 2 3 4 5
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- According to Marco Polo’s writing, the first part of this statement is true, he was an “official” of the Emperor, traveled throughout the country in that official capacity, and had his own quarter in the palace. There is not historical evidence to confirm this account, however.
- Needham, Joseph, and Hsing-Tsung Huang. Science and Civilisation in China. Cambridge (GB): Cambridge UP, 2000. 493-497.
- Wright, Clifford A. A Mediterranean Feast: The Story of the Birth of the Celebrated Cuisines of the Mediterranean, from the Merchants of Venice to the Barbary Corsairs : With More than 500 Recipes. New York: Morrow, 1999.
- Capatti, Alberto, Massimo Montanari, and Áine O’Healy. Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History. New York: Columbia UP, 2003.
- Dickie, John. Delizia!: The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food. New York: Free, 2008.