Chinese noodle making is so resourceful, the operating principle seems to be, "If you can turn it into flour, it can be a noodle." Chinese cooks recognize the noodle's value as a cheap, portable, non-perishable foodstuff, and large-scale commercial production was underway as early as 100 AD. Because of its long shape, it gained cultural status as the icon for longevity. To this day, noodles are requisite at birthday parties.
Chinese rice noodles are the precursor of the rice sticks or noodles (included in the recipe for Kway'teo on page 10) of Thai cuisine, and Chinese mung bean noodles gave birth to the cellophane noodles of Vietnam.
Japanese noodles also trace their origins to China. Udon, a thick Japanese noodle typically made from wheat, is served hot in soups or cold with a dipping sauce. Other notable Japanese noodles include the buckwheat noodle, Soba, and the thin wheat noodle called Somen. Oh, and a newsflash for college students who live on them: In a millennial survey of what Japanese people considered their most influential contribution to 20th-century life, Instant Ramen topped the list-ahead of karaoke, headphones, video games and compact discs.
Charming as it may be, the story that Marco Polo introduced noodles to Italy on his return from China is fiction. Numerous sources point to early noodle-like foods eaten outside of China, including a discussion in the 5th-century Jerusalem Talmud about whether boiled dough could be considered unleavened bread under Jewish dietary laws.
—By Jo Marshall