Who Invented Noodles?
This week, we're revisiting one of our favorite older episodes from the past. We’re going to learn a little bit about the history of noodles--and how to make them!
We’re joined by Jen Lin-Liu, author of the book On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Pasta and Love.
And we also get an exciting hand-pulled noodle demonstration from Tony Wu, who was the executive chef at M.Y. China, a restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown, when we originally recorded this audio in 2019. Wu can hand-pull 16,000 strands of noodles from one lump of dough in just two minutes...while blindfolded! Narrating this noodle-pulling exhibition is celebrity chef Martin Yan, who owned the restaurant. (M.Y. China closed during the pandemic.)
The first written references to noodles or pasta can be found in Chinese texts dating back about 3200 years. Author Jen Lin-Liu says it's likely that pasta developed in China and in the Middle East within a couple hundred years ago. But what likely didn't happen was the often repeated idea that Italian explorer and trader Marco Polo "discovered" noodles during his two decades traveling in east Asia and then introduced them to Italians upon his return.
"Probably what happened," Lin-Liu told But Why, "was they were invented in China and they were also invented somewhere in the Middle East a little bit later, probably a few hundred years later. And there were two parallel cultures of noodles that developed separately.
"And then," Lin-Liu continues, "because of the interactions between cultures later on, they started merging. So they were probably eating noodles in Italy and China at separate times and they didn't have much to do with each other at the beginning."
As for how noodles are made, the ingredients are pretty basic: just flour and water. Sometimes eggs are used in place of water in Italian pasta. They can then be turned into noodles or pressed into different shapes. Sometimes they're filled with meat and cheese or other ingredients and turned into dumplings or tortellini or other filled-pasta shapes.
Making pasta takes skill, both to get the consistency right and to make the perfect shapes. At Martin Yan's San Francisco restaurant M.Y. China, executive chef Tony Wu puts on a weekly show for diners, displaying his ability to hand-pull 16,000 strands of noodles from one lump of dough in under two minutes. Yan calles him a "human pasta machine," and we get to experience the excitement in this episode.