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pasta and noodles

4 may 2017

Kantha Shelke divides the world of alimentary paste neatly into Italian and Chinese, in her global history of Pasta and Noodles. However, she discounts the great-man theory that has Marco Polo bringing spaghetti back on the Silk Road. (And did Marco Polo ever even get to China in the first place?) Shelke even discounts more prosaic methods of cross-cultural pasta proliferation between Italy and China. Far more parsimonious to imagine that pasta, like so many other foodstuffs, has been independently invented in several places, at several epochs. Rather like writing and the wheel – though if I had to choose among those three, I might just name pasta as the greatest of human inventions.

Italy and China stand for larger traditions of noodle cookery in the Mediterranean and East Asia. Their penumbrae extend into Germany and Eastern Europe, Iberia, Greece and North Africa on the one hand; Vietnam, Korea, and Japan on the other. Independent pasta traditions may have developed in the Middle East, Central Asia, and India. Subsaharan Africa goes untreated here (wheat being a very late import there), and naturally the Americas are latecomers to both spaghetti and ramen – though they've adopted and hybridized both European and Chinese noodle traditions, and in turn have exported the tomato.

Durum semolina – coarse flour made from a hard variety of wheat – is the heart of Italian pasta. It can be formed into dough using nothing but water, though eggs and salt are sometimes included. Chinese wheat noodles are made from softer grain and need more processing to retain their shape; they also tend to be cooked fresh. While the Italian tradition never strayed far from semolina, using other flours only faute de mieux and with additives to approximate them to the good stuff, Chinese cooks ingeniously set about making noodles out of all kinds of starchy staples: mung beans, sweet potatoes, rice, buckwheat, tapioca, acorn.

And of course the Japanese, or rather one Japanese guy, Momofuku Ando, invented instant ramen, frying Chinese noodles so that they would wilt into perfect numminess at the touch of boiling water. Shelke is fascinated with ramen in both its cutrate and newly upscale incarnations. I suspect that she, like many an academic, must have lived for some time on ramen noodles. I know I did.

Shelke does not mention the kind of pasta I first encountered, though: Franco-American canned spaghetti. This just-about-completely textureless substance, eked out by dusty Parmesan "cheese" from a green-cardboard shaker can, formed many a lunch of my childhood. As I grew we branched out in some pretty daring directions: Chef Boy-Ar-Dee canned ravioli, Spaghetti-Os, and ultimately homemade spaghetti with meat sauce. My father located some sort of dismal-looking grey spaghetti which for him held the cardinal virtue of not sticking together quite as much as the yellow kind. Green-cardboard parmesan remained an essential garnish.

In college, I discovered ramen, and also some sort of gunk in cans that purported to be "chow mein," and came with a separate can of crunchy noodles. Together, the stew and the noodles must have contained enough MSG to make up for their virtual lack of taste. But not long thereafter, I met some Europeans and somehow got interested in Chinese cookery, developments that led me to cook a much wider range of noodles (though I have not lost my appreciation for canned ravioli).

In the decades since, I have cooked a couple of the dozen kinds of pasta that Shelke lists in a taxonomy of Italian and Asian noodles (137-151). I can't say which is my favorite. Not that it's a secret – I mean, I can't decide. Mung-bean threads that shimmeringly absorb stock, bucatini that forms the backbone of lavish pastitsios, no-boil lasagne, shells that cradle primavera sauce, fresh golden noodles simmered dan dan style, delicate rice vermicelli that subsides into Singapore-style recipes, storebought fresh tortellini mixed with avocado, lime, and black beans for a Tex-Mex fusion effect: it's all heaven. As my friend the marvelous Canadian poet David McGimpsey observes, "I love noodles."

Noodles play a deeper role in my family foodways, though, and one that I only experienced at second hand. My grandmother used to describe to me how her mother – who died the year before I was born – would make noodles from scratch and by hand, using nothing more than a board, a rolling-pin, and a knife. My great-grandmother was Slovak; the central European noodle tradition seems derivative from that of Italy, but has its own long independent history. Great-Grandma would mix and knead flour with eggs, roll the dough thin, and then slice thin noodles off the mass. The knife, my grandmother said, was huge, and sharper than hell, and my great-grandmother was nearly blind, making for a terrifying spectacle. Nobody else in the family could replicate those noodles. I don't think my great-grandmother was jealous of her techniques; I just don't think anyone else had the knife skills to match hers.

In her recipe section, Shelke includes her own mother's recipe for semiya uppma. "Everyone who ever tasted this recipe immediately adopted it as their favorite comfort food" (134), says Shelke, and I would endorse that sentiment. I made the uppma with Mexican fideos in the form of short bits of vermicelli. This pasta, common in Texan supermarkets, is advertised as 100% durum and is very cheap. Shelke's (mother's) technique involves dry-roasting the vermicelli to a golden brown and setting it aside. You then sauté onions, peas, and carrots in oil, add the vermicelli and lots of water (I used part vegetable stock), and after the liquid is absorbed, cover, finish with lemon juice, and top with cashews. The recipe calls for serrano peppers, but I live with someone who cannot abide hot spices, so I left them out. It's supposed to be a breakfast dish (even with the serranos!) We ate it for supper, and lunch the next day, and supper the next; and we were duly comforted.

Shelke, Kantha. Pasta and Noodles: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2016.