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Noodle politics

“The message I received along with my journey in my quest to discover the identity of the noodle was that no one culture ‘owns’ a particular food, just because its peoples are eating it,” Jen Lin-Liu (author On the Noodle Road)


This is technically a first recipe post - the book being Pasta and Noodles by a lady called Merry White published way back in 1976. However, I am sort of ignoring the first recipe Mussel noodle soup, because frankly what is there to say about that? Well probably something, but I'm not all that interested. However, I am committed to working my way through the bookshelves. If nothing else it sometimes leads to discoveries, sometimes to a bit of weeding.

Back then when Merry White was writing this book, even though she had graduated from Harvard with a degree in sociology, she was freelancing as a caterer and writing cookbooks. This is her today - Professor of Anthropology with a specialisation in all things Japanese, at Boston University. Which includes the anthropology of food. A long way from a catering business. One wonders at what point her career trajectory changed. And why.


This book contains lots of recipes for spaghetti and for noodles, most of them well-known and covered elsewhere in my large cookbook library, which is another reason for discarding the book. One minor thing I did find interesting, and which is a sign of the times, is that in her list of different types of noodles she mentions udon noodles, but not ramen.


Having decided that I wouldn't do the recipe, and that the book may well end up in the street library or an op shop somewhere I first reread her introduction, which is where my meandering through the world of noodle controversies began.


She begins her introduction with these words:


"There is no staple food of human invention as varied and as widespread as the noodle. Noodles appear in virtually every culture, in a dazzling profusion of shapes, and in a surprising variety of cooking styles."

Really? I wondered. Or is she making the same mistake that we Westerners virtually all make by speaking of the world but really only meaning Europe, Asia and the USA (not pre conquest America). The vast continents of South America and Africa are rarely included in a definition of 'the world', or any of the islands scattered here and there - including Australia. Even Indonesia - one of the most populous countries of the world often gets forgotten. There is a brief mention of Argentina, by Merry White, but that's it.


So I started looking elsewhere to see if I could find 'native' noodles in those continents - and basically found none. Yes indeed noodles of one kind or another do exist in those places but they seem to be derived from immigration and colonisations throughout history. And, of course, over time, these change and adapt to the native cuisine and various fusion forms appear, and in the case of the noodle this is completely understandable because:


"The principal reason, of course, for the universality of the noodle is its economy ... I often buy the day's nicest, cheapest, most seasonal produce, a bit of meat or fish, and a pound of noodles whose shape has caught my eye. Armed with no recipe but with a knowledge of the properties of the ingredients, I can produce an interesting meal quickly." Merry White


So very true.


Then she moved on to origins:


"however practical a food the noodle may be, its history is embroidered with romance and mythology."

I'm sure you all know by now that Marco Polo did not bring the noodle to Europe. Noodles were being made in Italy long before he returned to China. Indeed it seems that Italian pasta as distinct from Asian noodles

comes, rather, from Ancient Greece and Syria.


"the origins of European pasta date back to an early mention of the word ‘itri’ or ‘itria’ (meaning a flour and water dough that’s rolled into thin sheet and cut into strips) in Greek literature. Noting that Syria was once a Greek colony, she explains that these mentions later transformed into Arabic." Yasmin Noone/SBS


(I would recommend this article on the SBS website - Who Invented the Noodle - Italy or China? - It's where I found most of the following information.)


For the other story is that the Arabs, via Turkey, brought the noodle to Italy when they conquered Sicily. And remember that Italy, until the 19th century did not actually exist. The Italian peninsular might have been a geographic entity but not a national one. The inhabitants didn't even share the same language. Which explains the fierce battles between different parts of Italy over the origins of particular pasta dishes.


However it is possible that there is no connection between China and Italy at all, even though there is a very long history of trade between Asia and Europe along the Silk Road.


“Foods can arise in different places at different times with no connection to each other”. Barbara Santich - University of Adelaide


Bread, cheese, pastry these are all things that developed all over the place, with no connection at all.


"There could have been two different food traditions that developed side-by-side in opposite parts of the world.: Yasmin Noone/SBS


So why not noodles?

Well this is where we get into nationalism. In 2005 this bowl of what looks like noodles was discovered in the upper reaches of the Yellow River in China. It was dated to 4000 years ago. Nobody else has found anything as old. Triumph for the Chinese who published their find in Nature. But of course it wasn't going to end there. When the noodles were analysed they were found to be made of two different kinds of millet, which is gluten free. Which according to many 'experts' means that they couldn't be noodles, for you need gluten to get the noodles to be stretchy and malleable. One scientist/historian in particular got very hot under the collar - Françoise Sabban. She wrote a letter which SBS referenced and which you can find on the Hypotheses website. She was outraged and accused the Chinese of - well I'm not sure what really.


"Seven years after the publication of an article that was questionable, to say the least, serious researchers have refused to join a stupid chauvinist game that attempts to gratify their country with a « discovery » that would force the world to look on with admiration, to the detriment of scientific truth, and even plain evidence." Françoise Sabban (Historian)/Hypotheses


I gather that people are still arguing about it although when SBS contacted Youhuan Lu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Beijing which was involved in the excavations he (or she) stated that:


“The question as to which people invented noodles is unimportant. Regardless of whether noodles originated in China or elsewhere, their emergence was most probably even earlier than previously thought”.

To which the SBS writer adds: "So the short answer is…not sure."


I confess that I am a bit confused anyway about all of this. After all noodles are made from soy and rice, as well as wheat, both of which are gluten free, so why can't you make them from millet? But then I am not a cereal scientist, so what do I know?


When it comes to written documentation on how to make noodles:


"the earliest documentation of noodles was in China and it probably came around the third century [300-200] BC ... we also know the Chinese were probably the first peoples to eat noodles, given that on the western side of the world, the earliest documentation of noodles is dated at around 500 and 600 AD" Jen Lin-Liu/SBS


Mind you others say 5th century BC.


We watch a lot of programs about archaeology on the television and other scientific pursuits besides, and always the scientists, archaeologists, historians - the experts - you can tell, are very keen to promote their findings and establish their authority. And sometimes this gets pushed up the chain to the very top so that national pride - one of the world's biggest evils in my eyes - becomes involved. Why does one nation have to prove it's superior to others? It only ultimately leads to war and misery.


So I will conclude with another noodle controversy - spaghetti carbonara - the much loved classic Italian pasta that I have never been able to make successfully. Back around 2019 the French published a video on a site called Demotivateur (you can see it on YouTube) of a dish they called One pot carbonara - well something similar. The name is not important really. Well it is important that 'carbonara' was in the title.

What is important is that all they did was chuck together into a saucepan, some farfalle, some bacon, and onions, boiled them until the pasta was done, drained and topped with an egg yolk and a tiny amount of cheese. Absolute uproar and outrage. Farfalle! - It should be spaghetti. Bacon! It should be guanciale. Onions! There are no onions in carbonara. All in one pot! Well you get the picture. Demotivateur was forced to take the video down, so it's a bit strange that you can still find it on YouTube. Then it came out that Barilla whose farfalle were shown in the video actually were investors/part owners? in Demotivateur who were promoting their product. Barilla, of course, denied all knowledge. We can laugh about this from distant Australia but to the Italians it was an affront to the Italian nation and the outrage went on for quite a while.


So sad. Food is what brings us together. We share our food with our family and friends. It's a gesture of love. Dishes travel the world and evolve in the process. Learning to love the food of other countries, provides at least a small amount of appreciation and knowledge of the culture of other peoples. And it expands our food experiences. Today I'm going to try and appreciate Mexican food with those tacos. The Mexicans too get outraged about 'bastardisation' of their tacos. I'm sure they wouldn't approve of my attempt tonight. For a start I'm using chapatis rather than tortillas - even if they do seem to be exactly the same.




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