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The Greek Origins of the Word “Macaroni”

The universally-beloved food macaroni can have every ingredient under the sun added to it. But in the end, its name has Greek origins, so the food is tied forever to the culinary world of Ancient Greece. Here, a delectable macaroni and cheese dish served at Pizza Republic in Hoboken, New Jersey. Credit: Luigi Novi/CC BY 3.0

Macaroni, the ancestor of pasta, like so many other things in our world today, had its symbolic birth in Greece. This is the eighth in a series of stories by a Greek-Italian chef tracing the origins of Greek foods and the impact they have had as they spread throughout the world.

By Giorgio Pintzas Monzani

Analyzing the origins of a product such as pasta and looking for the point of origin of its birth would be almost impossible.

It is a traditional recipe in practically every culture and people on the planet. Just like bread, it starts from a dough with the most ancient ingredients ever produced and consumed in human history.

What we can do, instead, is to look for meeting points or differences among the various realities.

Everybody at least once will have heard the story of the origins of pasta in China, which goes that the food arrived in Europe by means of the Silk Road, which brought that commodity and so many others to the West.

Certainly, this is a theory full of historical and archaeological evidence, especially considering that the great pasta tradition of the ancient Chinese dates back to more than 4,000 years ago.

Base of legume vs. cereal flours is main difference between Asian, Mediterranean makaroni

The main difference, however, is represented by the choice of the main ingredients in the dough: in fact, pastas, and especially spaghetti, of Asian origin were produced with legume flours — whereas in the Mediterranean lands, the presence of cereals led to their use as the base of pasta.

Just the difference in raw materials alone leads us to divide the two realities in the studies of the origin of pasta.

It is here that the little known history of “maccheroni,” an ancient term used to refer to this dough, takes place in the Mediterranean.

Although today in Italy the term in question is used to refer to a specific kind of recipe, etymological science explains how it actually indicates every kind of pasta produced and consumed.

How did the term “maccheroni” originate, then, and where do we find it for the very first time?

Blessed makaroni

The root of the word itself derives from the Greek words “μακαρ”(macar) and “μακαριτης”(macaritis) which translate as “blessed,” which was used to indicate the deceased. Historical records related to funeral rites in ancient Greece bring us evidence of a particular food, usually barley, served during the funeral of the deceased, to pay homage to his or her journey to the Underworld.

This consisted of a mixture of cereal flours mixed with water and cut into thin pieces, which was cooked and often served with honey (as a symbol of life and sweetness in the afterlife).

The hypothesis that the passage of this traditional element, pasta, into the Roman culture led to the birth of a prominent gastronomic identity for this ingredient is quite concrete.

Moreover, to reinforce this last theory, another example of ancestral carbohydrates already present in Greece, is that of “Λαγανα”(Lagana): strips of fresh pasta used mainly in layers, with various fillings, baked in casseroles.

Does that term ring a bell at all?

That’s right, it’s lasagna — and this is also an etymological similarity, as lasagna derives precisely from the Greek word “Lagana.”

Roman culture in time elevated the tradition of pasta to a higher level, subsequently bringing it to all its many conquered territories, up to the borders of today’s central Europe.

In order to explain the importance acquired by the dish, among the imperial lands, it is enough to just think about the birth of myths connected to it.

Perhaps most striking of all is the legend that sees the god Vulcan (the Greek Hephaestus), building a device that cut pasta dough in long strips, forming what we call spaghetti today, for the Greek gods’ divine banquets.

Once again, as we have seen so many times, we recognize how much every daily element present on our tables today contains within itself a wonderful journey through time and space.

Giorgio Pintzas Monzani is a Greek-Italian chef, writer and consultant who lives in Milan. His Instagram page can be found here. 

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