Whenever I mention that I write on the history of food, someone is bound to ask "When was pasta invented?" For Europe, that's a tricky question to answer. For China, though, we have a pretty good idea: about 300 BC. We have it on the authority of Shu Hsi, an official editor of ancient texts and one of the most learned men of China. A pasta enthusiast, in about 300 AD he composed a poem "A Rhapsody on Pasta." Although today we don't think of poems as culinary reference works, they were back then. Shu Hsi's rhapsody was effectively a pasta encyclopedia.
The Chinese cuisine of 300 BC was not one of rice and fish and stir fries. That did not emerge until well over a millennium later. Instead the Chinese dined on rich stews of meat and vegetables accompanied by fluffy grains of millet that they had steamed over the stew. They had little use for the foreign cereal, wheat, which many centuries earlier had been brought to China by travelers from the west. For them, it was food for the miserably poor or as a last resort when stores were running low. For us, who relish wheat bread and pasta, and relegate tiny, round millet seeds to the birds, this seems strange. We have to remember, though, that the Chinese steamed or boiled wheat berries just like they steamed or boiled millet. Whereas this makes millet light and flavorful (it was the forerunner of polenta in Italy, after all, and is still worth trying), wheat berries stay chewy and slightly bitter.
What changed this was the grindstone. Around the 3rd century BC, when the RomanEmpire began trading with the Chinese Han Empire in China, merchants and nomads carried the grindstone from oasis to oasis along the Silk Roads. For the first time, the Chinese began grinding wheat into flour instead of cooking it whole. They mixed the flour with water to make a dough. Instead of slapping the dough on a hot surface or into a beehive oven to make flat bread sand leavened breads, as had been done in the Middle East and Mediterranean for millennia, they continued steaming and boiling. They made noodles, dumplings, thin pancakes, stuffed buns, and steamed breads, calling them all `ping.' Ping, of course, was equivalent to our pasta, and it was as delicious as boiled wheat had been dull. Wheat hop scotched over millet in the social scale and became the grain of the Emperor and his court.
Their favorite all-purpose pasta was the stuffed dumpling. Judging by Shu's rhapsody, they were very like those served today for dim sum, or like Italian ravioli or tortellini. Shu describes how the cooks sieved the flour twice, mixed it with water, and then, dough sticking to the tips of their fingers, pressed it out to make the thin wrappings. These they stuffed with finely chopped pork and mutton, flavored with ginger, onions, cinnamon, Szechwan pepper and black beans, before placing them in a steamer. Well made, no filling burst out to stick to the steamer, no extra flour was left to make a gluey deposit. Instead the filling swelled to fill out the thin but strong wrapper.
For those of us, though, who want to get some taste of what these early pastas were like, there are simpler alternatives. One is a simple sauced noodle dish. Noodles, often served in broth, were for the bitter cold months in northern China.
In dark winter's savage cold, At early morning gatherings Frost forms around the mouth. For filling empty stomachs and relieving chills, Boiled noodles are best.
Sometimes, though, noodles may have been served with this sauce that, according to Bruce Costin his well-researched Ginger East to West: A Cook'sTour (Berkeley: Aris, 1984), dates from about 100 AD. It is reliably good. Fresh Chinese noodles are best but spaghetti will do if you live, as I do, hundreds of miles from the nearest Chinatown. The sauce is saltier and oilier than is currently fashionable but to my mind worth it for the romance of eating such a venerable dish. In any case, a little goes a long way and if you serve the sauce and pasta separately, everyone can adjust the proportions to their own tastes.
1/4 cup of cooking oil 1 pound ground pork 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh ginger root 6 tablespoons Chinese bean sauce 1 teaspoon of ground Szechwan pepper 1-1/2 teaspoons of sugar 1 pound spaghetti 1 teaspoon sesame oil ½ cup spring onions, sliced on the diagonal into half inchlengths.
Put about four quarts of water to boil in a large pot. Heat the oil in a wok or large skillet and add the pork. Cook until it has turned color, mashing it to break up any lumps. Add the ginger and stir for another minute. Add the bean sauce, Szechwan pepper and sugar and adjust tastes, bearing in mind that there will be lots of pasta in relation to the sauce.
Cook the spaghetti until al dente. Drain and toss in a serving bowl with the sesame oil. Stir the scallions into the sauce and serve in a separate bowl. Throwing authenticity to the winds in favor of flavor and health, you can add a platter of finely cut vegetable garnishes, such as red or green peppers, carrots, cucumbers, celery, and bean sprouts. A little fresh coriander, for those who like it, adds a nice contrast of color and flavor. Serves 6.