Several countries claim credit for the invention of pasta, including China, Japan, France and Italy. According to some sources, Marco Polo introduced pasta into Italy upon his return from China at the end of the 13th century. While the exact origins of pasta remain obscure, industrial fabrication is known to have begun in Naples at the beginning of the 15th century. It did not become popular, however, until the 19th century, when the process of drying pasta, which greatly improved its keeping qualities, was discovered.
In the Western hemisphere, good-quality pasta is made from durum wheat, a variety of hard wheat that is rich in protein, with a high gluten content and a relatively low starch content. The wheat grains are ground into fine particles (semolina) or into flour. In several countries, including Canada, pasta is enriched with B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin and niacin) and sometimes with iron. Also available on the market are high-protein pastas in which eggs and whey powder are added to the water and semolina mixture. Ground pea pods provide the fiber supplement in fiber-enriched pasta.
Pasta has the reputation of being an energy-giving but calorie-rich food. In fact, it is not the pasta itself that is the major source of calories, but rather what is added to it: butter, cream and cheese. In order to reduce the calorie content of pasta dishes, choose vegetable and herb sauces instead of rich, high-fat sauces made with cream. You can also reduce the quantity of meat in sauces and use poultry whenever possible. To cut down on saturated fats, replace butter with olive oil.
The use of noodles in Asia is believed to date back over 2,000 years. Noodles are known to have been consumed by the Chinese as early as 200 B.C. In the northern regions of China, where the cultivation of wheat is widespread, most noodles are made from this cereal grain, whereas rice noodles are more commonly consumed in southern China.
Chinese wheat noodles are yellow or white in color and are usually made from a mixture of wheat, water and salt. Eggs are sometimes added. In Japan, wheat noodles (and sometimes corn noodles) are classified according to size; thin noodles are called somen while thick noodles are called udon.
Rice noodles are made from rice flour and water and are often fried or added to soups. They should be soaked in cold or lukewarm water for about 20 minutes before being cooked.
Buckwheat noodles are very popular among the Japanese, who call them soba. They should be cooked in rapidly boiling water until they reach the desired tenderness. In the summertime, they are often served cold with soy sauce.
Wonton are very fine sheets of dough made from wheat, water, eggs, and salt that can be stuffed with meat, fish, vegetables or seafood. They are an Asian version of Italian ravioli.