How Are Noodles Made?

Sep 13, 2019

This week, we answer a question from 4-year-old Hugo in Burlington, Vt. Hugo wants to know how noodles are made.

We visit M.Y. China, a restaurant in San Francisco, CA to watch executive chef Tony Wu hand-pull 16,000 noodles and hear from the restaurant's owner, chef Martin Yan, host of the PBS show Yan Can Cook. And to give us some historical context, Jen Lin-Liu, author of On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta, shares her insight.

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The first written references to noodles or pasta can be found in Chinese texts dating back about 3200 years. Author Jen Lin-Liu says it's likely that pasta developed in China and in the Middle East within a couple hundred years ago. But what likely didn't happen was the often repeated idea that Italian explorer and trader Marco Polo "discovered" noodles during his two decades traveling in east Asia and then introduced them to Italians upon his return.

"Probably what happened," Lin-Liu told But Why, "was they were invented in China and they were also invented somewhere in the Middle East a little bit later, probably a few hundred years later. And there were two parallel cultures of noodles that developed separately.

"And then," Lin-Liu continues, "because of the interactions between cultures later on, they started merging. So they were probably eating noodles in Italy and China at separate times and they didn't have much to do with each other at the beginning."

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As for how noodles are made, the ingredients are pretty basic: just flour and water. Sometimes eggs are used in place of water in Italian pasta. They can then be turned into noodles or pressed into different shapes. Sometimes they're filled with meat and cheese or other ingredients and turned into dumplings or tortellini or other filled-pasta shapes.

Making pasta takes skill, both to get the consistency right and to make the perfect shapes. At Martin Yan's San Francisco restaurant M.Y. China, executive chef Tony Wu puts on a weekly show for diners, displaying his ability to hand-pull 16,000 strands of noodles from one lump of dough in under two minutes. Yan calles him a "human pasta machine," and we get to experience the excitement in this episode.

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