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Origins of Chinese Pasta

by Rachel Laudan

Rice, Noodles, and Other Grain Foods

Summer Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(2) page(s): 5 and 20

We have a pretty good idea when Chinese pasta was invented. It was around 300 BCE. We have it on authority of Shu Hsi, an official editor of ancient texts and one of the most learned men of China. A pasta enthusiast, in about 300 CE, he composed a poem titled: A Rhapsody on Pasta. Although today we don’t think of poems as culinary reference works, they were back then. Shu Hsi's rhapsody was effectively a pasta encyclopedia.

Historians, such as David Knechtges and Francois Sabban, have done much to clarify the early history of Chinese pasta. Their work though, is buried in academic journals so what follows includes some of the main points they make. In 300 BCE, the Chinese population was still concentrated in what is now the north of China. Their meals (or at least the meals of those who could afford them) consisted of stews of meat and vegetables accompanied by fluffy grains of millet (or occasionally rice).

They also grew wheat--the foreign grain--which many centuries earlier had been brought to China by travelers from the west. They did not find it good eating though. For them, it was food for the miserably poor or as a last resort when stores were running low. For us, who relish wheat bread and pasta and relegate tiny, round millet seeds to the birds, this seems strange. We have to remember, though, that the Chinese steamed or boiled their millet and rice, and that they used the same technique with wheat berries. Whereas steaming makes millet light and flavorful (it was the forerunner of polenta in Italy, after all, and is still worth trying), wheat berries stay chewy and slightly bitter.

What changed this, it seems, was another import from the west, the rotary grindstone. Around the 3rd century BCE, when the Roman Empire began trading with the Chinese Han Empire in China, merchants and nomads carried the grindstone from oasis to oasis along the Silk Roads. The Chinese adopted this new tool and, for the first time, instead of cooking wheat whole began grinding it into a flour that they mixed with water to make a dough.

There the borrowing stopped. The Chinese did not follow the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean customs. In those areas, the dough was cooked by dry heat, in some cases slapped on a hot surface (such as a griddle or tannur oven also known as a tandoor oven), in others placed in a beehive oven. The results were the flat and leavened breads that are still familiar today. Instead, the Chinese continued to use their own favorite techniques of steaming and boiling. They made noodles, dumplings, thin pancakes, stuffed buns, and steamed breads, calling them all ping. Ping, of course, was equivalent to our pasta. It was as delicious as boiled wheat had been dull. Wheat hopscotched over millet in the social scale and became the grain of the Emperor and his court. Demanding great skill in the making, ping was a food for the elite.

The Chinese had a pasta for every season. Spring was the time for stuffed buns (mantou). In summer a thin pancake, known as po-chuang according to Knechtges was called for, and in fall a leavened product known as chi sou was used; it is an item about which we know very little. The bitter cold winter was the time for a bowl of steaming noodles:

In dark winter's savage cold,
At early morning gatherings
Snot freezes in the nose,
Frost forms around the mouth.
For filling empty stomachs and relieving chills,

One pasta, though, could be used in every season. It was the kneaded dough ball (lao wan), a kind of stuffed dumpling. Shu describes the making of the dough:

Twice sieved flour,
Flying like dust, white as snow,
Sticky as glue, stringy as tendons,
Is steeped in juice, soaked in liquid.

The stuffing was made of finely chopped meat seasoned with ginger, onions, spices and black beans.

For meat
There are mutton shoulders and pork ribs,
Half fat, half skin
Chopped fine as fly heads,
And strung like pearls, strewn like pebbles.
Ginger stalks and onion bulbs,
Into azure threads are sliced and split.
Pungent cinnamon is ground into powder:
Pepper and thoroughwort are sprinkled on.
Blending in salt, steeping black beans,
They stir and mix into a gluey mash.

These preparations completed, the kitchen swung into action.

And then
With the fire blazing the broth bubbles;
Strong fumes rise as steam.
Straightening his jacket, straightening his skirt,
The cook grasp and presses, beats and pounds.
With flour webbed to his finger tips.
His hands whirl and twirl, crossing back and forth.
Flurrying and fluttering, fast and furious,
The balls scatter like stars, pelt like hail.
There is no meat stuck to the steamer,
There is no loose flour on the dumplings.
Lovely and pleasing, mouthwatering,
The wrapping is thin but it does not break.

With evident delight, Shu describes the perfect dumpling and the envy of all the onlookers and serving boys.

Rich flavors are blended within;
A plump aspect appears without.
They are as tender as spring floss,
As white as autumn silk.
Steam, swelling and surging, is wafted upward;
The aroma, flying and scattering, spreads everywhere in the distance.
Downwind, strollers drool;
Servant boys, chewing the air, cast sidelong glances;
Vessel carriers lick their lips;
Attendants swallow dryly.

Not for these common folk, though, the plump, rich and tender delicacies. They were reserved for the waiting nobility. The banqueters:

Snap them up with ivory chopsticks,
Bending their waists, they sit poised like tigers;
With tight pressed knees, jammed and leaning upon one another.
The plates and trays are no sooner presented than everything is gone;
The cooks, one after another, hurry and scurry about.
Before their hands can turn out more,
Additional orders arrive.

Almost two thousand years after this poem was written, it still has the power to make the mouth water.
Rachel Lauden, author of The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage (University of Hawaii Press, 1997) and winner of the Julia Child/Jane Grigson Award, lives in Mexico. She is currently writing a book about world food history for the University of Chicago Press.

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