Compare and contrast the Chinese and Italian variations of food

[1] Spaghetti Pesto – a very traditional Italian recipe, but to what similarities can we trace this to?

Hello there, welcome back to another edition of Speaking Seb. In this article, I return with a fresh idea of comparing and contrasting the Chinese and Italian versions of food – with a few principal dishes that is predominantly part of these two great cuisines’ staples: ravioli/tortellini, spaghetti, pizza and lasagna. I will dwell into elements of history and certainly gastronomy itself. As per usual, any constructive criticisms are more than welcome below!


Marco Polo’s Role

A lot of people know the effect that Marco Polo had in discovering different eateries in China, and brought many culinary ideas back to his Venetian homeland.


There are some interesting controversies about Marco Polo that I have previously written, so if you would like to find out more about him and Italian cuisine in general, you could check out my post here:. Moreover, there is an interesting read about his travels discussing what Polo discovered and where he travelled in the world. His writings has to be questioned as historians as whether they were imaginative or actual travel scriptures. According to historian Ritter, however, Polo has:

 

“been frequently called Herodotus of the Middle Ages, and he has a just claim to that title. If the name of a discoverer were to be assigned to any person, nobody would better deserve it. Doubt, it is well known, were at first raised respecting the accuracy of his statements have arisen solely from the fact that his discoveries far transcended the knowledge of his age…A map of Central Asia has constructed on a scale suited to the Work, with a view of illustrate the routes both of the early embassies and of Marco Polo; and great care has been taken to render it as accurate as the somewhat uncertain materials would admit.” [2] 


Chinese vs. Italian cuisine, East meets West 

I have picked many Italian staples that goes into the daily diet in a typical Italian family – namely ravioli/tortellini, spaghetti, pizza and lasagna, to draw comparisons amongst them with their Chinese versions. I will use Cantonese explanations to break this down bit by bit.


1) 雞蛋麵 vs. the spaghetti/tagliatelle/papardelle 

Gai dan meen or literally egg noodles. These types of noodles originated in ancient China since the Han dynasty, circa 206 B.C to 220 A.D. [3] Normally, we like our egg noodles in a stir-fried dish with plenty of onions, garlic, mixed vegetables consisting of carrots, cabbage and green beans, with some meat. Or typically again in a soup based broth usually fish or pork bones. Or again, deep fried with some gravy sauce. As a matter of fact, the spaghetti we credit the Chinese for since Polo’s appellation of pasta is argued to have originated from the Arab tribes in Sicily during circa 1150, who already started boiling noodles. [4] Yes, I honestly did not come to realise it would turn out to be an Arabic influence as such. 

In Italy, you have your variations of the thickness of your noodles, whether you like it fine like vermicelli, spaghetti, all the way to thicker sizes or width, including those of: tagliatelle, fettucine and papardelle. The sauce really depends on which region you come from, influencing the type of ingredients you would have incorporated. For example, if you came from Sicily, then you would cook Pasta alla Norma. This includes fresh and key ingredients, like eggplant, tomatoes, grated ricotta cheese and basil. Of course, you can vary in what meat you like to implement into the basic recipe – tuna slices, ham, anchovies, capers, chicken slices…

 

2) 餃子 vs. the ravioli/tortelliniGao ji or to dumplings to you and I. This stuffed pastry originated since the Song dynasty, a late-comer compared to the noodles, circa 960 to 1200 A.D. [5] Like many extravagant dishes, this was believed to be created by a chef to appease the Emperor. In Chinese culture, there are many variants of this dish – it can be in boiled or fried, for a soup noodle or own its own. It usually has some meat, leeks, shrimps or many different types of green vegetables. You can find these in many traditional yum cha, juk meen poh or tsa tsan teng restaurants, or to what I would like to call a Cantonese take on consommet, an orthodox noodle and congee shop, and cafés. The ravioli or the Italian verb ravvolgere meaning to wrap, have all its varieties across the Italian nation, each having its own shapes and sizes. For example in Emilia, you have tortellinis or your agnelottis from Piedmont. [6] 



3) 洋蔥薄餅 vs. the pizza
Yeung chung bok beng or the spring onion flat-bread. Unfortunately, I could not find any historical records of this Cantonese dish that is served in many yum tsa restaurants. This resembles more of a flat-bread filled with spring onion cuttings in it. Simply put, this Oriental pizza is a simple delicacy to be relished, whereas the pizza is different, originating from the city-state of Naples was credited to Queen Maghuerita, using the Italian tricolours and represented through the basil leaves, mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce. Thus you have your traditional Pizza Maghuerita, but again, it ranges from region to region. Do check out my blog article, Food Profile: the tomato, for further reference. 

 

4) 腸粉 vs. the lasagna 

The tseung fun. Alright, for those who are Chinese would be strict and tell me that a tseung fun is typically made from rice flour and water and has a translucent appearance, cooked with some barbecued pork, dried shrimp, fish mince or spring onion with a blanket of dark soy sauce on top.

You got that savoury version, or the sweet version with sesame sauce, sweet sauce and light soy sauce or spicy sauce – sprinkled with some sesame seeds.


Apart from the pizza, I thought this would be appealing enough for weighing them up on the balance. It is a very different type of recipe, except you do not add the yeast to make the dough inflate. The Italian version is typically with a pasta base, with your traditional egg, flour, salt and olive oil combination, Thin it out with your rolling pin or pasta machine, square them up and you got a home-made sheet of lasagna layer! Top it all off with your favourite Bolognaise sauce with your cream sauce and cheese if you are really feeling it.


All in all, many comparable dishes that you can find amongst the Chinese and Italian cuisines. There are many debatable origins of where each type of staple – whether it were noodles, spaghetti, dumplings or raviolis – there are always colliding evidence that go vis-à-vis. It must be noted that the art of noodle and dumpling making are both ancient in China, where as a very traditional rumour, Marco Polo was the accredited explorer to have discovered the Chinese versions of the pasta. This inspired him to bring back the many experiences to the Venetian and Italian regions. However, the Arabs did introduce some boiling of noodles in Sicily in the early 12th century as well. So who to believe? And then, you have newer creations you find readily in countless yum tsa restaurants, that seem not to have a particular origin – in the Chinese spring onion pizza and lasagna. It is an open door that needs to be entered so that we can discover more, and hopefully many scholars and food historians can collaborate to analyse the jigsaw puzzles together. Right, that is it from me on this article. Until next time! 🙂


References 

[1] http://www.elllo.org/Assets/images/P0551/589-marion-food.jpg

[2] Polo, M. and Murray, H., The Travels of Marco Polo, (Harvard College Library and Oliver & Boyd., Harvard and Edinburgh, 1845), pages 5-8

[3] http://chinesefood.about.com/od/chinesecookingbasics/a/chinesenoodles.htm

[4] http://italianfood.about.com/od/pastarecipesandsauces/a/aa092398.htm

[5] http://chinesefood.about.com/od/potstickers/p/potstickers.htm

[6] http://italianfood.about.com/od/regionalcuisines1/ss/aa040406_7.htm

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