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Munchies

Why Italy Didn't Steal Its Noodles From China

You've heard that tired old trope about how Italy stole pasta from the Chinese. But that the greatest culinary theft in history didn't actually happen: The world's great pasta dishes sprang up independently.

by BRADY NG
Feb 18 2015, 4:30pm

Storms don't just come in teacups. They also come in big bowls. With broth and scallions and maybe a squeeze of lime.

At least, that was the case with my father. It started when I was eight or ten years old. On Sundays we always went out for lunch, but my dad led us to the same dim sum place every week. On the rare instance we could persuade him to venture beyond the same char siu bao and siu mai that we ordered every week, we'd go for Vietnamese or Thai, maybe hit up a steakhouse. If there were noodles involved, he'd grumble in a jaded, familiar manner: "The Chinese invented noodles, you know? Everybody else just stole them."

I don't know how or why it started. Maybe his outrage was inspired by one of the nationalistic history shows on TV, the ones that liked to beat a dead horse by stressing that the Chinese invented paper, gunpowder, silk, the magnetic compass, everything.

It got worse if we were having pasta for dinner. Every few days, this dialogue would take place as spaghetti spilled out of our large serving bowl:

Father: It's Marco Polo's fault. Mother, sighing: We've heard this already. Father: The Mongols weren't even Chinese, but they gave away our noodles— Mother: Can we just eat in peace? Father: Now everyone thinks the Italians are geniuses because they made pasta, and because Marco Polo was an explorer. But it's all from China! They're all just thieves!

I thought that was how dinner unfolded in every Asian household—or, in my case, half-Asian. Was I betraying my Chinese roots by enjoying tagliatelle? Did the Chinese want reparations from Italy? We took family trips to Thailand, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, and witnessed the global noodle conspiracy firsthand.

Later on, I discovered that the greatest culinary theft in history didn't actually happen. The same concepts can spring up in different places independent of each other, but that truth hasn't stopped over a billion Chinese from resenting Kublai Khan's favorite Venetian wanderer.

And yet my father's words got me thinking about how every country around us had its own take on noodles.

Talking about noodles in East Asia isn't exactly like talking about hummus in the Middle East, but it can still be a loaded topic. Asian cultures pack nationalism into their food, too. Pad thai was promoted in the 1940s so Thai rice noodles could displace Chinese wheat noodles domestically, and has since become one of Thailand's most recognized dishes. Japanese culture spread with ramen, and the instant version is a perfect showcase of Japanese industry and the revival of Japanese national identity. Say the word laksa and try not to think of Singapore or Malaysia. And any half-decent Chinese restaurant has at least a couple killer noodle dishes on its menu.

Whether you decide to call them mee, mian, or men; whether you think slurping sounds are compliments or a sign of bad manners; whether you like them made from rice or wheat: Noodles are everywhere.

I like khao soi. Travelers who have spent time in Chiang Mai, or any part of northern Thailand, will surely have sampled it over and over again. But order it outside of northern Thailand and you might end up with a platter of plain white grains. Khao suay means white rice in Thai, and khao soi, for some unforgivable reason, just hasn't caught on in the rest of the kingdom.

I get my khao soi in Wanchai, Hong Kong, where I grew up. The district might have a seedy reputation, but at least it's home to a of couple wonderful Thai restaurants. The one I like is operated by a bubbly Thai woman named Kik. She came to Hong Kong years ago, started a restaurant, earned enough to open a second branch, and has established herself as a neighborhood fixture. Aside from making her food a little less spicy than it normally would be at home, she didn't change any of the recipes to match Hong Kong's flavors. Everything tastes and looks genuinely Thai.

Khao soi features the classic trinity of garlic, ginger, and chili. Its stock is complex. Burma lends its sour curry; India offers turmeric, cumin, cardamon, coriander; Thailand splashes in some palm sugar, fish sauce, coconut milk, maybe a spike of lemongrass. Its name might derive from Burmese, but certainty is lost to the passage of time.

The best cooks lean on more than personal experience. Their trust lies in centuries of evolution of food, on flavor profiles developed through generations of migration, war, climate change, and trade patterns. Kik and other Isaan cooks pack culture, language, customs, and history into a bowl of egg noodles and slow-cooked broth.

Over the past two years, whenever my father stops in Hong Kong, we'll go to lunch together.

Father: So, let's go to the Vietnamese place around the corner? Me: If it's not packed, sure.

He has developed a taste for pho and bun thit nuong, both of which, admittedly, look Chinese enough. Sometimes, the same idea can exist in multiple places without creating any bruises.

But what of the global noodle theft conspiracy?

Dad would say, "Just eat."