Popular lore has it that the Italian merchant Marco Polo was responsible for introducing the noodle to China. This legend appeals to Italians, but if you ask the Chinese, they may beg to differ.
In her latest book, On the Noodle Road, author Jen Lin-Liu chronicles a six-month journey along the historic Silk Road from eastern China, through central Asia, Turkey, Iran and eventually arriving in Italy, in search of the true origin of the noodle.
As Lin-Liu tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer, the myth of pasta traveling from West to East was first popularized by Macaroni Journal, the official trade journal of the pasta manufacturers of the U.S. In 1929, the journal had a story "about how Marco Polo arrived at a destination that seemed more South Pacific than Chinese and came across natives drying strands of dough."
But this couldn't possibly be correct. "As it turns out, the Chinese don't dry their pasta the way that Italians do," she says.
So what are the historical origins of noodles in China?
"China has had a longer tradition of bread than noodles, and the ripping of dough — either boiled or cooked — into a wok of boiling water was how noodles first originated in China," says Lin-Liu.
In the Tibetan province of Qinghai, Lin-Liu finds women in a restaurant kitchen ripping long, flat strands of noodles by hand to make the square-shaped noodles that are typical to the region. Boiled in water, they are served up in a light mutton broth.
"They're the right texture, chewy; just the right size, like a large postage stamp; and they're stir-fried in a spicy broth with bits of green peppers and onions and either lamb or beef. And they're delicious," Lin-Liu says.
Heading further west, she comes across all manner of small dough parcels containing spiced meats, vegetables and cheeses. The wontons and dumplings of China give way to the manta of Central Asia, the similarly named manti of Turkey, and finally, the tortellini of Italy.
"Some people theorized that Ghengis Khan was responsible for carrying these filled pasta dishes all the way from China through Eastern Europe, where of course you have pierogies and other similar dishes," says Lin-Liu.
But who does pasta best?
"I think that there's a real toss-up between Italy and China," Lin-Liu says. "At both ends of the Silk Road, you really get a refinement of pasta and noodles that you don't really see in the central part of the route."
But this diversity along the way is what Lin-Liu believes make noodles so pleasurable. Not only can they be prepared in such different ways, but they can be topped with almost anything.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer sitting in for Scott Simon.
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WERTHEIMER: The Silk Road, the centuries-old trade route that the West traditionally associates with Marco Polo, is believed to have brought silk and pasta from China all the way to Italy. Of course, it didn't happen quite like that. History always depends upon the teller of the story. And we have a new version from Jen Lin-Liu. She's an American food writer who lives and works in China.
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WERTHEIMER: She's written a book called "On the Noodle Road," and she joins us now from our bureau in Beijing. Welcome to the program.
JEN LIN-LIU: Thank you, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: Now, first of all, your road, the Noodle Road, is it the same general route as what we think of as the Silk Road?
LIN-LIU: Yes. I traveled from Beijing all the way across northwestern China, Central Asia, Iran, Turkey, through the Mediterranean coast all the way to Italy.
WERTHEIMER: And along the way you looked into the popular idea that Marco Polo is the one who brought pasta to the West. Is there anything to that?
LIN-LIU: I did. I looked into that myth. And it's so amazing how widespread that has become, that myth. It turns out that the Marco Polo story of him bringing noodles from China to Italy actually originated in a trade publication in the United States by the pasta manufacturers of the U.S. It was called The Macaroni Journal. And in it was a story about how Marco Polo arrived at a destination that seemed more South Pacific than Chinese really and comes across natives drying strands of dough. As it turns out, Chinese don't dry their pasta the same way Italians do.
WERTHEIMER: This book is, of course, a travel book, but it's part history, it's part anthropology and about food. But one of the things that was so striking to me was that there were lots of descriptions about the way that women work, the way women are treated, a lot of cooking lessons from women. Did you begin this project thinking that you'd spend so much time listening to women tell their stories while they taught you to cook their recipes?
LIN-LIU: No. That was actually one of the most unexpected and happy surprises of the book, was that I was able to bond and learn from so many different kinds of women along the road. I was invited into cooking schools in Uzbekistan, a cooking school that prepared women for marriage. I was invited into a women's-only cooking school in Iran where, you know, everyone took off their head scarves and revealed, you know, very racy clothing beneath their dark hijabs. It didn't start out that way. I mean, I think it really fit in with what was also going on in my life. I had just gotten married and I was trying to figure out what it meant to be a wife and how I felt a little uncomfortable with that word. And, you know, I just met all kinds of women all along the route who were struggling with that balance between family and selves, tradition and breaking free of those traditions, that it kept them in the kitchens.
WERTHEIMER: What was your favorite noodle recipe from this trip?
LIN-LIU: Can I just say my favorite three, perhaps?
LIN-LIU: Would be the dumplings that I see all along the path, the manta of central Asia, which are these large steamed dumplings filled with pumpkin or lamb and served with a clotted cream. And that dish becomes manti in Turkey and the dumplings become much smaller, like tortellini. And they're filled with beef and onions there, and then they're served with a yogurt sauce drizzled with mint and paprika. And then in Italy is tortellini, and those were often sold with ricotta cheese, parsley and served in this amazing sage butter sauce.
WERTHEIMER: Now that you've been all the way along this Silk Road or the Noodle Road, did you reach any conclusions about who does it best?
LIN-LIU: It's a real toss-up between Italy and China. I mean, both ends of the Silk Road you get a refinement of pasta noodles that you don't really see in the central part of the route. And that is really one of the pleasures of noodles, is that they come in so many different forms. They can be steamed or, you know, stir-fried or boiled and, you know, covered in everything from bread crumbs in Italy and anchovies and turnip tops in, you know, Southern Italy to China, where noodles are stretched magically thin by hand. So, it's amazing what you see on both ends.
WERTHEIMER: Did you gain 20 pounds while you did this?
LIN-LIU: I definitely gained some weight.
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WERTHEIMER: Jen Lin-Liu's book is called "On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta."
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WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much.
LIN-LIU: Thank you, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.