Silk Route: Pasta comes to Italy

Although most people in the West imagine that the Silk Route was opened up because the West wanted to trade with China, it was really more of a meeting of West and East somewhere around India. The Chinese would trade their silk with the Indians for precious stones and metals such as jade, gold, and silver, and the Indians would trade the silk with the Roman Empire. The Romans were comparatively late comers onto the Silk Route scene. China had been trading with the on the Steppes, with the Vedic-Aryan cultures, with the Assyrians and even with the Egyptians from as early as 1600 BC. But a blossoming, bustling commercial route between the West and the East began to take shape in 329 BC, during the reign of Alexander the Great.

aquileia4Depending on when you traveled and how you traveled, if you left from Rome, some of your first stops along the Silk Route might have been Aquileia (in Northeastern Italy near Trieste) or Venice on your way to Constantinople. At the end of the 4th century, Ausonius enumerated Aquileia as the ninth among the great cities of the world, placing Rome, Mediolanum, Constantinople, Carthage, Antioch, Alexandria, Trier, and Capua before it.

Much like Venice, Aquileia is situated on a lagoon and natural harbor. In both Venice and Aquileia a person would find a good meal of grilled sardines, goat meat, artichokes, bread and cheese. Door mice were still a staple street food in the Roman Empire at this time and if you were looking for that most ubiquitous of Italian meals, pasta, you would have to wait until after the 9th century.  Contrary to popular lore, Marco Polo was not the first to bring pasta from China to Italy.

Most food historians believe that Arabs (specifically from Libya) are to be credited for bringing pasta, along with spinach, eggplant and sugar cane, to the Mediterranean basin. In the Talmud, written in Aramaic in the 5th century AD, there is a reference to pasta being cooked by boiling. It is thought, then, that pasta was introduced to Italy during the Arab conquests of Sicily in the 9th century AD, which had the interesting side effect of drastically influencing the region’s cuisine. It also known that by the 12th century, the Italians had learned from the Arabs methods for drying pasta to preserve it while traveling. Further support for this theory can be found by the fact that, in many old Sicilian pasta recipes, there are Arab gastronomic introductions –

In fact, food stuffs became such an important part of the trade that it was alternatively known as the Spice Route and India was, as it still is, the spiciest of them all. The problem of the Silk Route was that it was difficult to get into India as you either had to cross over the Hindu-Kush or the Himalayas. Luckily for Europe, this made windows of opportunity for those scurvy sailing dogs, the Venetians and, ultimately, the damn British. Which is where my mom’s tea set enters this story. But we will seen soon enough, as this story unfolds, how afternoon tea with my mother, the black plague, JJ’s worship of James Joyce, and the mass extinction of 2/3rds of the population of the America’s are all about what’s in your kitchen. Have patience.

World Spice Production in tons, 2003–2004, data from FAOSTAT
India 1 600 000 86%
China 66 000 4%
Bangladesh 48 000 3%
Pakistan 45 300 2%
Turkey 33 000 2%
Nepal 15 500 1%
Other countries 60 900 3%
Total 1 868 700 101%

The silk road distributed food resources and traditions far and wide, fundamentally shaping our ideas of what our modern cultures are. It brought many foods and spices which we would now consider “Italian” fare into Italy. My favorite of all favorites – the spinach and raisin calzone from Trinicria – would not have been possible without Persian traders who brought Spinach from Central and Southwest Asia.  And what about that satisfying cup of Cappuccino after your meal? You can thank the Ethiopians.

Venetian-Style Spaghetti allArrabbiata

  • salt
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1 pinch saffron threads
  • 1/4 cup EVOO*
  • 2 fresno or other medium- hot red chile peppers, very thinly sliced (I leave in the seedsthe hotter the better!but remove them if you want to dial back the heat level a bit)
  • 4 cloves garlic, very thinly sliced
  • 2 pints cherry tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • freshly grated parigiano-reggiano

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt it, add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain, reserving 12 cup of the pasta cooking water.
  2. While the pasta is working, in a small saucepan, bring the chicken stock and saffron to a boil. Lower the heat to a low simmer to keep warm.
  3. In a deep skillet with a tight-fitting lid,heat the EVOO*, 4 turns of the pan, over medium heat. Stir in the chiles and garlic for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes and saffron stock, cover and cook over medium-high heat, shaking the pan occasionally, until the tomatoes burst, about 10 minutes. Remove the lid and mash the tomatoes a bit with a potato masher. Stir in the parsley.
  4. Toss the pasta with the sauce and a handful of cheese. Add a splash of the reserved pasta cooking water to combine. Serve the pasta in shallow bowls; top with more cheese, if desired.

*Extra Virgin Olive Oil


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