Long and stringy, chewy or delicate, stuffed or hollow: In all its configurations, the humble noodle is a primary food source for billions of people, but its origins have been buried by the mists of time.
The Italians claim they created the noodle as the perfect complement for tomato sauces; the Chinese say the Italians got it from them, via Marco Polo; Arabs claim its creation as an easily stored foodstuff suitable for long treks on the desert. The Japanese, Koreans, French and even the Germans also have claimed the noodle as their own.
Chinese researchers may have finally settled the contentious question by unearthing a 4,000-year-old container of noodles in northwestern China.
The easily recognizable noodles are far older than any that have previously been discovered and predate the first written mention of noodles by at least 2,000 years, said archeologist Houyuan Lu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, who led the team.
“I can’t imagine a more conclusive piece of evidence than this,” said Ming Tsai, a celebrated Chinese fusion chef who owns the Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass.
“This find definitely proves that the Chinese were making noodles way before the Italian Marco Polo came,” said television chef Martin Yan. “I take pride in that. Even though I have a lot of Italian friends.”
Archeologists have found other foods from the deep past – the dregs of 9,000-year-old wine in China and hearths for bread-making in the Middle East 23,000 years ago.
The noodles are the oldest prepared food found intact.
While the ancient noodles were similar in shape to their modern counterparts, their composition was quite different. Most noodles today are made from wheat or rice, but the Chinese noodles were made from millet, a type of grass that has been cultivated in the country for more than 7,000 years and that is still a mainstay of the diet in certain arid regions of the north.
That confirms work by archeologist Gary Crawford of the University of Toronto, Mississauga, whose work at other Chinese sites dating from the same period also show a high reliance on millet.
The noodles were discovered in the excavation of the site known as Lajia on the upper reaches of the Yellow River in Qinghai province. Lu’s team has been digging there for several years and have found the remains of a primitive, Neolithic village.
Earlier this year, Lu said, the team found a very well-preserved bowl buried upside down in a fine, brownish-yellow clay. When they removed the bowl, the lid remained behind, buried in a cone of silt. Lying on top of the cone was a fist-sized mass of noodles.
“Apparently, an empty space existed between the bottom of the bowl and the top of the in-filled sediment cone, preventing the noodles from being crushed by the weight of the sediment,” Lu said. “The empty space must have become tightly sealed and (oxygen-free), allowing excellent preservation for 4,000 years.”
The noodles were delicate, about 20 inches long, and yellow in color. They resemble noodles called “la mian,” which are made by repeatedly pulling and stretching the dough by hand.