World Pasta Day

I have always been mislead into believing that the Italians have had a great influence on Libyan cuisine, but the more I read, the more this conviction fades.  When we do think of Italian cuisine, pasta is one of the first dishes that pop to mind.  This leads many to the assumption that macaroni (generic term for dried pasta) was invented by the Italians, and the other “more educated” half of us would say Marco Polo brought noodles back from China, but scholars have recently disproved this theory. Although the Italians may not have invented macaroni they can be given credit for industrializing and popularizing it in the modern Western world.

The act of kneading together a flour and a liquid (usually water) to create a dough which can then be formed into a thin pastry which is either boiled (fresh pasta) baked (bread or baked pasta such as lasagna) cooked over a flame (flat breads) or fried (poppadoms) has its roots in a variety of ancient civilizations (be it Chinese, Etruscan, Greek or Arab) and cannot be attributed to any specific culture, although obviously different varieties and recipes can. This practice most certainly came about once man decided to grind grains between stones, circa 6000 BC.

When we talk about the invention of macaroni we are usually refering to the dried variety (pasta secca) made of hard (durum) wheat rather than fresh pasta (pasta fresca) made from soft wheat. This distinction is important because the invention of dried pasta created a revolution whereby nomadic and mobile peoples (such as militias and crusaders) were provided with a portable source of energy with a long shelf life. This also helped in overcoming food shortages and famine resulting from poor crop seasons, as grains could be stored more efficiently in the form of macaroni. The invention of dried pasta is the point in argument here.

So who did create the world-renowned pasta of today? The latest theory is the most appealing to me so far and I would love to believe that it’s true! Apparently pasta was created by the Arabs and was then spread throughout the region and into Sicily via Libya and Tunisia. Take that! So it was us who introduced pasta to them not vice versa. No wonder we love our makaruna so much! OK, your probably still in shock the way I was when I first read this so here is what evidence I have found (referencing sources at the end):

  1. The etymology of the word “macaroni” is unclear, even the Italians don’t claim the word as their own.  The most straight-forward way of determining the origins of an invention is to look at the root meaning of its name. In this case macaroni could possibly be a derivative of makaria in Greek meaning “food of the blessed”, or from maccare “meaning to knead”. The other more complex theory is that it derives from the Arabic verb qarana meaning “to attach”. Apparently a form of pasta produced in medieval Tunisia was made by attaching two strands of vermicelli-like pasta, and are referred to in the past participle as maq’runa.
  2. Rishta or erishte in Turkish, is a form of dried noodle popular in the Arab world including Libya long before the Italians knew of it. Erishte is a derivative of the Persian word for “threads”, possibly indicating that the creation of pasta came from the region.
  3. The first written record of dried pasta made by a vendor (rather than fresh home-made pasta) and cooked by boiling in water is in the Jerusalem Talmud, written in Aramaic in the 5th century AD. This was sold under the name itriya or tharid (mathruda in the Libyan dialect).
  4. Assuming now that the origins of pasta lies in the Middle East, it is believed that pasta was introduced to Italy through the Arab conquest of Sicily (831 AD) via the shores of Libya and Tunisia, centuries before the return of Marco Polo’s expedition in 1295 AD. Italian cookery works of the time reference dried pasta as tria derived from the Arabic itriya. The Arab influence on Sicilian cuisine is very strong and can be seen through the use of spices, dried fruits and nuts. Couscous is very popular in southern Italy and a dish made of macaroni, and a sauce of caramelized onions, cinnamon and raisins (similar to the Libyan makaruna m’sagya) is enjoyed there too.

Having said all that the impact of the Italians on mechanising and mass-producing pasta making it much more accessible is unquantifiable.  The first macaroni factory opened in Tripoli in 1915 by Baretti e Scaletta, soon followed by Dando & Gherardi in 1934. Two smaller workshops, La Pugliese Salpieto and Castellano were both active at the time. In Benghazi, macaroni factories debuted in the early 30’s by Scarpari (1930) and Vaudetto (1933) to support local artisan workshops Pastificio Coloniale and Pastificio Moderno.

Be it m’gata’a, rishta, mbakabka or makaruna m’sagya, today is the day to celebrate the discovery of pasta regardless of who created it. Why not make your favorite pasta dish today and post a picture of it on our facebook page!

For further reading about the origins of pasta visit:

The history of macaroni

The history of pasta


The history and development of Sicilian Cooking


18 Comments Add yours

  1. Sally says:

    I thoroughly appreciate the amount of background reading and research that you must do to make this well-informed and most interesting posts. This is a fabulous article. Happy pasta day – or should I say makaria! 🙂

    1. Thanks Sally… to be honest it came out of a result of a series of coincidences, which I then decided to look further into. I’m just as fascinated about learning these things as everyone else reading them here is! Happy pasta day 🙂

  2. Nasser says:

    many years ago while I was watching a TV program called Master Mind, one of the contestants was asked where Pasta comes from, he understandably answered Italy.
    It was the wrong answer and the presenter said that pasta was invented in Libya or came to Italy from Libya, it was a surprise to me and still to this day I have not seen any proof of it.
    Thank you for a great article

    1. Thank You Nasser for reading it! I also heard that the same question came up on the Arabic version of Who want’s to be a Millionaire, with obviously the same outcome!

    2. Morad says:

      What a depressing legacy for Libyans 😉

      1. I actually find it uplifting! We are always in the middle of the action 🙂

  3. Sundus says:

    Great topic, I am amazed at the breadth of your research. It is a bit strange that the Libyan love of pasta is attributed to the Italian colonization by just about every source, when both the the cooking methods (steaming pasta or boiling it for 15 mins in its own sauce) and ingredients (pumpkin, caramelized onion, chickpeas and raisins, or broad beans, fenugreek and lentils) of our makarona dishes are so un-Italian. The only exception I can think of is makaruna fil kusha.

    We still make the fresh home-made pasta versions of each dish as well, mbakbaka is just a fast version imgat’a, and steaming cappellini instead of rishda cuts hours of prep time. I’d love to blame Italy for our overuse of tomatoes and tomato paste, but since the Tunisians are the same I’m not sure how convincing that would be.

    1. Hi Sundus,Thanks for your great reply, you have just added so much to what I was trying to convey. Oddly enough I am looking into the origins of the use of tomatoes in Libya and it seems as though this may not be attributed to the Italians as well! Obviously tomatoes originate in the Americas and were brought back to the Old World by theSpaniards, which then spread into North Africa through Gibraltar and Morocco. The sources I’ve read so far say that whilst the Europeans only planted tomatoes for ornamental purposes (as they feared they were poisonous) the North African’s were eager to add them to their dishes! I’ll be posting an article about that soon. Stay tuned!

  4. Desert Rose says:

    very informative….thanks Sarah.

    keep up the good work !


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