How pasta became the world's favourite food
- 15 June 2011
- From the section Magazine
Pasta has topped a global survey of the world's favourite foods. So how did the dish so closely associated with Italy become a staple of so many tables around the globe?
While not everyone knows the difference between farfalle, fettuccine and fusilli, many people have slurped over a bowl of spaghetti bolognese or tucked into a plate of lasagne.
Certainly in British households, spaghetti bolognese has been a regular feature of mealtimes since the 1960s. It's become a staple of children's diets, while a tuna-pasta-sweetcorn concoction can probably be credited with sustaining many students through their years at university.
But now a global survey by the charity Oxfam has named pasta as the world's most popular dish, ahead of meat, rice and pizza. As well as being popular in unsurprising European countries, pasta was one of the favourites in the Philippines, Guatemala, Brazil and South Africa.
And figures from the International Pasta Organisation show Venezuela is the largest consumer of pasta, after Italy. Tunisia, Chile and Peru also feature in the top 10, while Mexicans, Argentineans and Bolivians all eat more pasta than the British.
Global sales figures reflect the world's love affair with pasta - they have risen from US$13bn (£8bn) in 2003 to US$16bn (£10bn) in 2010. The analysts at Datamonitor predict it will hit US$19bn (£12bn) by 2015, despite rising wheat costs.
Just in the UK, retail sales of dry and fresh pasta amounted to £53m in 1987. In 2009, the figure was £282m - include pasta-based ready meals and the value rises to £800m, says consumer research experts Mintel.
So how did pasta become so popular? It's because it is cheap, versatile and convenient, says Jim Winship, from the UK-based Pizza, Pasta and Italian Food Association. A sauce to go with it can be made from simple ingredients.
"You can create lots of different dishes with it. It tastes good and it's filling. It also has a long shelf life, so you can keep it in the larder until you need to put a meal together."
But that's only part of its success. Pasta is also relatively easy to mass produce and transport around the world, making it a popular product with food companies as well.
"It's always been an industrial product," says John Dickie, professor in Italian Studies at University College London and author of Delizia! A History of the Italians and their Food.
"It is definitely one of the things that has contributed to its success - it's easy to transport and has a long shelf life. It has commercial genes."
Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University London, says technological advances in the 19th Century allowed pasta to be produced on a big scale. But the Industrial Revolution did that for everything else, he adds, and the reason pasta had been particularly successful was because people liked it and the Italian way of life.
"It's a cultural phenomenon, not an industrial phenomenon," he says. "People like the Italian way of life and their simple, staple foods."
Pasta has always had a global aspect as its origins are not purely Italian, which is unsurprising considering it can be made with just wheat and water.
The Greeks and Romans had pasta-like foods but they tended to be baked, not boiled. Ancient China had dumplings, but it's a myth that the Venetian explorer Marco Polo returned from China with pasta in 1295.
The most accepted theory is that the Arab invasions of the 8th Century brought a dried noodle-like product to Sicily. This early pasta was made using flour from durum wheat, which Sicily specialised in. Under Italian law, dry pasta - or pasta secca - can only be made from this type of wheat, and the vast bulk of pasta is still made in Italy.
And despite being considered a cheap meal now it was the preserve of the rich in the very beginning, says Prof Dickie.
"We tend to think of pasta like potatoes but it has never been viewed as a bland staple. It's been associated with prestige - people used to buy votes with pasta."
'Overrated gloppy stuff'
The first reference to pasta in Italy was noted in 1154 and it was about an export factory in Sicily, he says.
He says its breakthrough as a common food came in Naples in the 1700s, when it was recognised as "a good way to feed a large part of the populace".
But pasta popularity outside of Italy really took off at the turn of the 20th Century with large-scale Italian immigration to the New World. This is when it started to become known as Italy's national dish, he says.
Italian restaurateur Antonio Carluccio said pasta may have a long history, but the Italians made it their own by eating it with tomatoes.
He says most pasta is spaghetti outside of Italy but there are actually 600 different types and shapes and each region cooks it differently. He says its appeal is in the taste and its nutritional value.
"It is pleasurable with a good sauce, but it should just be coated, otherwise you lose the taste of the pasta. It is a complex carbohydrate which releases all the goodness slowly and you feel satisfied for a long time.
"I don't know one person who doesn't like pasta. It is very similar to bread - both are made with flour and water and they both need an accompaniment."
He's clearly not met food critic and broadcaster Giles Coren, who described pasta as "overrated gloppy stuff" that appeals only to children.
"Ask a footballer what they can cook and they always say spaghetti. It is what you reach for when there is nothing else left in the larder. It's poor people's food and it's unsophisticated. It's the same as bread - you just boil it instead of putting it in the oven."
So as popular as it is, pasta hasn't conquered everyone in the world.