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Pasta, an ancient Italian dish, or an ancient North African Export?

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Pasta and rice.

Pasta and rice.

Pasta is as old as Italy, right? The Etruscans, who predate the Romans, had reliefs which suggests those ancients were preparing pasta millennia before Giuseppe Garibaldi united Italia, right?

No. sometimes reliefs are translated as an enabler to a preconceived notion, as it would seem the case here, especially given that in the entire history of the (Western) Roman Empire (27BC-476AD), there doesn’t seem to be any irrefutable evidence of pasta.

Some dismiss that and pass the apocryphal tale about Marco Polo (1254-1324 AD), in his travels across Asia, bringing pasta after learning about Chinese noodles. But Marco Polo makes reference about something that looks “like lagana”, and by virtue of his comparison, we ascertain that by his time pasta was already present in Italy.

Here’s a quote to explain it all away.

“It was the occupation of Sicily in 827 by an Arab army that brought hard durum wheat to Italy…Durum wheat pasta then spread northwards throughout Italy.”

The Fatimid Caliphate at its greatest extent in the 11th Century. Sicily is the 'boot' at the end of Italy's 'foot' in the Mediterranean.

The Fatimid Caliphate at its greatest extent in the 11th Century. Sicily is the ‘boot’ at the end of Italy’s ‘foot’ in the Mediterranean.

The story of pasta begins with the proselytizing mission that Muslims began following the death of Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century, for within a decade after his death, the Muslims had established themselves in North Africa; by the 650s AD, they were making forays into Mediterranean islands, Sicily included. In Sicily, they would rule for more than two centuries.

The autochthonous Amazighs (aka Berbers) have been making couscous from at least 238 B.C. and that was traditionally prepared from durum.

The Amazighs were quickly coopted into Islam, and would provide crucial numbers for the conquests awaiting them in the Mediterranean; while under the suzerainty of the Ummayad Dynasty, the Muslims in Iberia in the 700s AD were predominantly Berber, and led by one, Tariq bin Zayid.

This cohort of Arabs/Amazighs had a long lasting influence on Iberia and Sicily, bringing with them advanced agricultural knowledge (remember, as the Western Roman Empire fell and Europe was plunging into the Dark Ages, Empires were thriving in Asia and Europe) and exotic plants as they dabbled in agriculture all over their new colonies.

Besides introducing durum wheat, the Sicilian Arab-Berbers are also credited with teaching Sicilians how to dry pasta, in addition to mass-producing it.

Speaking of agriculture only, sugarcane, pistachio, oranges, lemons, spinach, aubergine, saffron, and jasmine, are some of the products introduced by the Arab-Berbers over the course of their two hundred year stay. These products were not necessarily African; oranges for instance were taken from India. Here’s another fact to shatter that well-crafted Mediterranean heritage; see anything with Zibib/Zibibo or variants, know it traces its origins to grape vines introduced by Arab-Berbers, or is riding on that rich tradition. And the consumption of fish was accelerated by preservation techniques taught to Sicilians and Iberians. Before them, fish was thought of as malodorous and unhealthy, especially in Iberia.

The culinary assimilation is more evident in Spain, which the Arab-Berber rulers of North Africa colonized from 711 to 1492 AD.