Noodles: I love ‘em, you love ‘em, we eat ‘em all the time. Though they seem like one of those things have just kind of always been around, they of course had to come from somewhere. So who do we have to thank for our spaghetti, our ramen, our spätzle, our elbows and our bowties? Whence did the humble yet noble noodle originate?
Oodles of Ancient Noodles
Because they were “invented” so long ago, it’s hard to nail down the region and time period of noodles’ origins exactly. For the most part, evidence suggests that the ancient Chinese were the first to develop noodles, with the oldest existing evidence pointing to the Qijia culture of some 4,000 years ago. Millet noodles discovered at the Laija archaeological site in 2002 were found in an upturned earthenware bowl. For millennia, the bowl had somehow maintained a seemingly-accidental airtight space that keep the noodles, if not exactly edible, at least well-preserved enough to be recognized as millet noodles.
By the time the Han Dynasty rolled around in about 200 BCE, noodles were a well-known staple food. The earliest written records of delicious noodles yet discovered date to the Eastern Han period of 25-220 CE. It was not until the Tang Dynasty that big fat fatty noodles were cut into smaller strips, and dried cook-them-later noodles were not created until the Yuan Dynasty.
Ninth century CE Buddhist monks in Japan began were known to have developed a wheat noodle recipe derived from a Chinese recipe. Buckwheat noodles were first cooked up in Korea during the Joseon Dynasty (which began during the 14th century CE).
Ramen noodles, the stuff on which so many college degrees (and indie rock careers) have been built, first became popular in Japan in the late 1800s. Instant noodles arrived on Japanese shelves in 1958.
Whose Noodles Are Whose?
In other parts of the world, the noodle took a little longer to take shape. The Ancient roman poet Horace wrote about similar but not-quite-noodle foods as early as the first century BCE. References to other noodlesque, dough-based delicacies can be found throughout Greek and Roman writing of the period and the following centuries.
The first written record of actual pasta in Europe does not appear until the 5th century CE, when Arabian travelers developed dry pasta varieties to eat during long treks. The first mention of pasta products from Italy is dated to the 13th century CE. By that time, however, pasta had already taken on a variety of shapes, so it’s possible that “pasta” wasn’t yet 100% codified as the as the “correct” term.
German historians have discovered written records of spätzle dating as far back as 1725 CE. Medieval illustrations from the same part of the world suggest that these noodles may have existed for far longer than that, however.