What is Spaghetti All About and Where Did it Come From?--Find Out Here


Definition

Italian Spaghetti - Spaghetti is an Italian word that literally means “little twines.” Spaghetti is a very popular form (dare I say the most popular form) of Italian pasta. “Pasta” is simply the Italian word for “paste”….and refers to shaped dough made from semolina flour and water, that is then cooked in a pot of boiling water. Spaghetti, then, is pasta that is shaped into long, thin, round strands---that look kind of like little twines. That sounds simple enough. But there is far more to spaghetti than meets the eye (or tummy)…..

Spaghetti Noodles – In some ways the word “spaghetti” has come to transcend its Italian roots, and be used today to refer to any kind of noodle that is long, thin and round. A noodle is simply shaped dough made from any kind of flour and water, that is then cooked in a pot of boiling water. If that sounds a lot like the definition given above for pasta, that’s because it is. But the difference is that pasta is made with semolina flour. Noodles, on the other hand, are made from any kind of flour at all---including soft wheat, rice, millet, barley, buckwheat, soy, corn, potato, and even bean starch.

Some people think that for noodles to be noodles they must also have egg in them. It is true that some noodles do contain egg (as do many fresh pastas). But that is not what makes them noodles (it’s what makes them egg noodles). So don’t let that confuse you. Pasta, including spaghetti pasta, is just one specific kind of noodle.

What else can we say about noodles? Just like pasta, they can come in many different shapes and sizes. So spaghetti noodles are simply one particular shape and size of noodle---the same one that is used for Italian spaghetti. But the difference is that spaghetti noodles can be made out of any kind of flour at all—not just semolina. And that’s a good thing. Because it allows people with wheat allergies or other health concerns to become spaghetti lovers along with the rest of us [see link for more on this].

Spaghetti Paradox – Oddly enough, the word “spaghetti” has also come to be a synonym for its Italian roots, and is thus sometimes used to refer to anything “Italian.” An obvious example is the Spaghetti Western, which refers to a movie produced by Italian moviemakers. But that is a story for another web page [see Spaghetti Westerns].



Dry versus Fresh Spaghetti

Spaghetti may be purchased in either fresh or dried form. Store bought fresh spaghetti is moist and flexible, and cooks up in just a very few minutes. It’s taste has been described by some as “simply divine.” But it is not cheap. It also has a relatively short shelf life, and must be kept refrigerated. Nonetheless, some people find they can never go back to eating dry spaghetti once they have tasted fresh spaghetti. (I personally like it both ways.) Fortunately for those who acquire the expensive habit, fresh spaghetti can also be made at home very economically (once you have made the necessary initial investment in pasta making equipment). And some people, including both kids and kids-at-heart, consider it a big part of the fun to make from scratch themselves. See {how to make home made spaghetti pasta) for more on this.

Dry spaghetti is the kind most people are familiar with. It is less expensive, has an extremely long shelf life, and is still very tasty when cooked properly. So it is still a great “every day” choice. The main drawback of dry spaghetti (and not a very big one really), is that it does take a little longer (perhaps five to ten minutes depending on size) to cook up.



Ingredients

Dry spaghetti - Authentic dry Italian spaghetti is always made with semolina flour and water (in fact, it’s required by law in Italy). The semolina flour is an important distinction. Semolina is a special flour, made only from durum wheat--a very hard kind of wheat that has a relatively high protein (including gluten) content, and a low moisture content. The gluten is what gives the spaghetti and other pasta dough its high elasticity—something that is important when it comes to forming the dough into shapes. It also helps it hold its shape when cooked (and flavor when stored for a long time).

Fresh spaghetti - In addition to the obligatory semolina flour and water, authentic Italian fresh spaghetti is typically made with eggs and a little oil. Certain fresh varieties also include spinach or tomato juice (giving them a festive green or red color), and various spices, just to liven things up a little.

Home-made fresh spaghetti - Semolina flour can be used when making spaghetti at home, but often other softer kinds of flour are used, because the dough is so much easier to knead and work with. Whole wheat flour is particularly popular, both for nutritional reasons and because its additional coarseness helps make the sauce stick to the strands better.

Spaghetti noodles - The good news for people with issues like wheat allergies, gluten intolerances, or low-carb diets, is that you can still be an avid spaghetti lover in today’s world. There are a number of commercially available dry pastas today that are made for just such people. See our [nutrition] and [buyer’s guide] pages for more information on these topics.



Origin and History

Marco Polo - OK, lets get the Marco Polo myth out of the way right up front, so we can delve a little deeper and learn some interesting history. The question is: “Did Marco Polo discover spaghetti (or pasta) in China in the late 1200’s, and bring it back to Italy when he returned from his explorations? “ (That is the story that has been floating around.) The short answer is no. What he discovered was a different flour (derived from a fruit tree), that the Chinese used to make flat noodles similar to those already being made in Italy in his day. In fact his comment in his notes was, that the Chinese noodles tasted every bit as good as the ones he had had many times before in Italy.

So. Where did spaghetti come from, and who invented it? Well, in 2005, actual preserved remains of spaghetti-like noodles were found in Qinghai, China. Those noodles are estimated by archeologists to be some 4,000 years old. If that dating is anywhere near accurate, that is clearly the oldest known historical evidence of the existence of noodles in any culture. And they were long, thin, round noodle strands at that [see picture]. So China appears to be the first culture with spaghetti-shaped noodles. But….we do not have any information on instant (i.e. dry) noodles in China until much later--well into the Qing Dynasty which ruled from 1644-1912. In addition, those ancient Chinese noodles were made from millet—not semolina. Are these important distinctions? Yes if we want to know where Italian spaghetti came from. Because the two key things that have made Italian pasta so unique in the culinary world, are that it is made with durum wheat, and that it is most often made into a dried form that gives it a very long and stable shelf life.

Durum Wheat - So let’s talk about durum wheat (the wheat that semolina flour is made from). We know that it was developed and derived generally in the Near Eastern region, from a domesticated form of the more ancient emmer wheat, which was also native to that region. What we don’t have as much information on, is exactly when and how durum wheat was first introduced to Europe in general, and to Italy in particular. Two theories have developed. We know that Rome ruled over the Near East at the time of Christ. And we know that Augustus Caesar imported nearly 300,000 tons of wheat per year from Egypt to help feed the masses in Rome during his reign. So one theory is, that it was durum wheat that Caesar imported from the Egyptians.

Another theory has to do with the Arabs of the Middle East, who extended their religion and their conquests into portions of Europe, conquering Spain in 711. We know, for example, that a 12th century Chinese traveler (Chau Ju-kua) noted with amazement that Muslim Spain had wheat stored in their silos that “lasts for 10 years.” This would be a strong indication, not only that there was durum wheat in those silos (softer wheat does not have that kind of shelf life), but that hard wheat like that was not common in China at that time (thus they must not have had pasta noodles in China in Marco Polo’s time). Where that hard wheat in Spain came from we do not know. But some have suggested, that it was the Arabs who brought it to Europe from the Near East.

Spaghetti Pasta - What about the development of pasta like foods (and especially spaghetti) in Europe? Clearly the lagana that Marco Polo spoke of was the first noodle-type food to be found mentioned in Italian writings. And the only one for quite some time. But around the 1100’s we also start seeing the word vermicelli being used to describe a kind of “pasta with strings.” In particular, there are records of it being made and sold to mainland Italians by the Sicilians. And interestingly enough, not long before that time (in the year 965), Sicily had come under Arabic rule. In addition, this same sort of food consisting of “pasta-like threads” can be found described in Arabic writings from that same general time period. So by all indications, spaghetti pasta was “invented” in Sicily roughly between say 1000 and 1100. And it was apparently invented by either the Arabs, the Sicilians, or both of them together. But whoever it was that first came up with spaghetti pasta, it is most definitely the Italians who have made “spaghetti” such a popular dish and household word all around the globe today.

I should mention that pasta—especially dry pasta (including spaghetti)—did not become an overnight success in Italy. Rather it came to be accepted and embraced very gradually, over hundreds and hundreds of years. At first it was a very simple and bland dish for the poor masses (served with little more than olive oil or simple cheese sauces), that helped people survive in years of scarcity and famine. It was not until much later, around the early 1800’s, by which time many tasty sauces and pasta dishes had been developed and refines, that it came to be considered a national dish, embraced by rich and poor alike.

Italian migration - The larger world was first introduced to spaghetti when large numbers of Italians began emigrating to the US, Canada, South America and Australia to escape the low wages, high taxes, extreme overcrowding, and political turmoil associated with the unification of Italy that was taking place between 1860 and WWI (1914). During that period over seven million Italians migrated to other countries—more than half of them to the US. “Little Italy’s” sprang up in most large cities, and the Italians began to make their mark on American culture. After WWI, the US started placing drastic restrictions on the number of Italians granted entry each year, in an effort to stem the tide. Even so, another million or so came between 1920 and 1978. Italians brought their pasta with them, and at first America had little interest in the food. But gradually over time (particularly in the years following WWI), it became increasingly popular with “the natives”, both in the US and other countries throughout the world where Italians had settled Over the last 50-60 years, spaghetti’s fame has spread to the ends of the earth. And there are now traditional spaghetti dishes in many, many cultures around the world.



Spaghetti Sizes

Confused by the various terms for spaghetti style pastas? No problem. Just refer to the following list of the various sizes of spaghetti by name, given in order of size.

Pici - Refers to long thin rods of pasta made from scratch without use of a pasta maker (i.e. “hand-rolled”). It typically turns out thicker than any of the store bought sizes.
Spaghettoni – Meaning is: “thick little twine.” This is slightly thicker than the regular stuff.
Spaghetti – Meaning is “little twines.”
Spaghettini – Meaning is “thin little twine.” This is slightly thinner than the regular stuff.
Fedelini – Meaning is “little faithful ones.” This is a lesser known product. It is slightly thinner than spaghettini.
Vermicelloni – Meaning is “thick little worms.” It is slightly thinner than fedelini.
Vermicelli – Meaning is “little worms.” Yep, you guessed it---slightly thinner than vermicelloni.
Capellini – Meaning is “fine hair.” We’re almost through. This one is slightly thinner than vermicelli.
Capelli d’ngelo – Meaning is “angel hair.” This is the thinnest of all spaghetti, and my personal favorite as well.


OK, the following are not actually round, but they are long and thin. And they use many of the same sauces as spaghetti. I call them “close relatives” of the spaghetti family (maybe first cousins or something):


Linguine – Meaning is “little tongues.” It is artfully described as “flattened” spaghetti. It is the narrowest on this short list.
Fettuccine – Meaning is “little ribbons.” It is slightly thicker and wider than linguine. (They say 6.5 mm wide, but I have never actually measured any.). Occasionally it has egg in the recipe.
Tagliatelle – Meaning is from the root word meaning “to cut.” It is flatter & wider than fettuccine & always made w/eggs (even the dry version).




Want more information related to "What is spaghetti?" See our pages on “How to make home made spaghetti”, “How to cook spaghetti”, How to serve spaghetti” and “How to eat spaghetti”.

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