Noodles' global pull

Noodles' global pull

An author travelled the world to find origin of pasta

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Two Turkish women show Jen Lin-Liu (right) how to make their version of dumplings.
Two Turkish women show Jen Lin-Liu (right) how to make their version of dumplings.
Photo: Jen Lin-Liu
Legend has it that Italian merchant Marco Polo introduced the noodle to China. But the Chinese might argue about how much truth is in the claim.

In her latest book On the Noodle Road, Jen Lin-Liu, director of a Beijing cooking school, chronicles a six-month journey along the historic Silk Road, from China to Italy, in search of the origin of the noodle (and its lumpy cousin, the dumpling).

From her research and travels, Lin-Liu believes that the Chinese were probably the first to make noodles. "The [earliest] mention of noodles appeared in a Chinese encyclopedia in the third century," she says. "They were called tang bing, or soup bread, and were thrown into a wok [of boiling water]."

They can also be traced back to the Jerusalem Talmud - a collection of fifth-century Jewish texts. It was called itrium, a string-like pasta made of semolina. But Lin-Liu acknowledges that noodles evolved in separate places.

After tasting and learning to prepare a wide variety of noodles served up in an endless combination of sauces and soups while on her journey, she is impressed by how noodles have become part of so many different cultures, from China to Turkey to Italy.

She says it was interesting to discover that, no matter where you are, the proportion of flour to liquid used to make Italian fettuccine or Chinese noodles is always the same. "Italians use eggs rather than water, but essentially it's the same recipe," she says. "They use the same proportions of ingredient; they knead, roll, fold and cut the dough."

North-western China is famous for its hand-pulled noodles eaten in beef broth and flavoured with coriander, garlic and chilli oil.

"It takes months, if not years, to master [the skill of making hand-pulled noodles]," says Lin-Liu. "The noodles are thinner than angel hair noodles and chefs have to make the dough as pliable as possible. It's like a full-body workout."

She discovered that noodles grew coarser along the Silk Road, and then virtually disappeared in western Uzbekistan, in central Asia, where rice culture took over. She also found dumplings survived better than noodles in the process.

In central Asia, dumplings are called samsa. They are filled with minced lamb or pumpkin, baked on oven walls and served with clotted cream. The Turkish make tiny tortellini-like dumplings stuffed with minced beef and served with yogurt, paprika, butter and crushed walnuts.

Going from home to home to learn about local dishes from housewives and well-established schools was a special experience for Lin-Liu. During a week at a women-only cooking school in Iran, she learned to prepare many Persian dishes. She also gained an insight into the lives of the women as they cooked.

"They were very strong, independent and career-focused - some hope to start their own culinary school - yet must conform to day-to-day religious restrictions, such as wearing a hijab [head covering]," Lin-Liu says.

So, while their origins are uncertain, one thing is clear - everyone loves a bowl of noodles.

Lin-Liu will be speaking at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival on November 9. Tickets, at HK$300, are available at festival.org.hk


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