When folks mention pizza, you probably think of Italian restaurants and pepperoni. But what if pizza doesn’t come from Italy at all…?
A popular theory has people asking, ‘did pizza come from China?‘
Some stories claim that an early version of pizza was made in China and brought back to Italy by explorer Marco Polo. Though there are some issues with this theory, it is still popular.
This theory is so popular, in fact, that over 1500 people search “Is pizza from China” every month.
But, is there any truth to it?
Here’s what you need to know about the story of Marco Polo, pizza, and China.
Marco Polo and Pizza
The idea that pizza has initially been a Chinese invention comes from a legend surrounding the 13th-century explorer Marco Polo, and it does carry some merit.
Marco Polo’s adventures made him famous. He spent more than 20 years exploring Asia, bringing previously unknown cultural experiences and knowledge of distant people back to Europe.
Polo documented his adventures in his writings – primarily in The Travels of Marco Polo – explaining the cultures he explored, from the clothing and social norms to the food.
Apparently, in one such story, Polo described a dish that resembled a pancake that the Chinese called scallion pie. It used a soft dough rather than a batter filled with scallions and other savory ingredients folded into various layers.
We can verify that this was a popular Chinese dish as its recipes – where it is frequently called Cong You Bing – dates back centuries.
Apparently, this flat-baked dough was delicious, and so when he returned to Italy, he grew to miss it. Though dough-based dishes were popular in the country at this time, they weren’t the same.
It isn’t clear whether Polo asked a local chef to recreate the dish or simply brought some back with him and allowed chefs to adapt the recipe.
Polo described the dish to a local baker in one version of the story, who made several attempts. He couldn’t get it to cook correctly and, in frustration, asked Polo for advice on how to recreate the dish he desired.
Polo then suggested putting the filling on the top of the dough rather than in it. This seemed to work perfectly.
Thus, modern pizza was invented! Or was it!
The Problem with the Chinese Pizza Theory
While it makes for a fantastic story, there isn’t much evidence that Marco Polo’s experience was directly linked to modern pizza or that this experience ever happened.
There were examples of pizza-like dishes in Europe and the Mediterranean for centuries before Marco Polo ever set out on his journeys; there are mentions of flatbread dishes topped with savory ingredients in Virgil’s Aeneid.
Another problem with the story is the better-documented origins of the modern pizza, the Neapolitan Pizza, from 1889.
According to this account, Raffaele Esposito, a chef in Naples, was contracted by Queen Margherita to create a simple lunch when she was displeased with the complicated French menu she had been presented with.
Esposito took the local flat dough dish and added a tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and basil.
The queen loved it and continued to eat it. It became a national treasure and was later dubbed pizza Margherita.
The final nail in the coffin for the Chinese pizza theory for many is that we no longer have any solid proof of the inciting incident.
If Polo did write about his experiences with scallion pancakes in China. Those accounts have now been lost to time. The dish doesn’t appear in the text of The Travels of Marco Polo currently available to us.
Is Pizza from China?
So, did Marco Polo actually bring scallion pie back to Italy, or was it all a lie?
Is pizza from China or Italy? Unfortunately, there’s no cut-and-dry answer to where pizza originated. It depends on how you define “pizza” and whether or not that definition can be traced to a particular region.
On the one hand, if we define “pizza” as a savory flatbread dish, there definitely have been pizza-like dishes in China for roughly as long as they have existed in other parts of the world.
Though the traditional foods of China tend to focus more on noodles and batters, savory bread – and, yes, flatbreads – with various toppings are also a part of the culture.
That being said, the modern pizza does have definitive ties to Italy as its origin. If we define “pizza” as a dough-based dish with tomato sauce and savory toppings, then its predecessor in Neapolitan street food is what we have to look at as the source of its creation.
Under this definition, China didn’t see authentic pizzas practically until the introduction of chain restaurants to the country.
If we can’t be sure about who the first pizza-making country was, we can be pretty confident of the origin of the word “pizza” itself.
“Pizza” is simply the Italian word for “pie” and comes from Latin pix or the Greek pitta.
It’s been adopted into many other languages worldwide as more pizzerias emerged in different countries, making pizza a nearly universally recognized dish.
Whether it’s Chinese or Italian in origin, pizza is a dish known worldwide for its convenience and deliciousness.
It comes in so many forms – deep dish, thin crust, stuffed crust, even dessert – that it’s hard to match the modern slice with any classical flatbread dishes before them.
Pizza’s origins are just as much of a cultural mix as its current wave of recipes; everyone swears there’s only one right way to make it, but they’ll probably still give any pie you put in front of them a try. If Italy and China both want a slice of pizza’s history, there’s no harm in exploring it through both cultures’ lenses.