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Did Pizza Originate In China? Uncovering The Old Tale

One of the most beloved foods across the globe is Pizza. Be it a simple Margherita, all-you-can-eat meat feasts, or vegetarian, the traditional Italian dish is a staple in both restaurants and takeaway food.

About two-thirds (64%) of Americans say pepperoni is their favorite topping, with other popular toppings being sausage, onions, mushroom, or just extra cheese.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t experiment with countless different combinations of toppings.

One of the most highly debated controversies is over the “Hawaiian” pizza whether pineapple is a suitable topping for pizza.

A poll by YouGov in 2017 found that, although 82% of people liked pineapple, only 53% like it on pizza.

Even professional chef Gordon Ramsey has spoken out on the debate, saying pineapple has no place on a pizza.

But pineapple aside, one of the most widely debated topics about the dough-based dish, is whether it truly came from Italy in the first place.

Historians have widely discussed the idea that the true origins of one of Italy’s most famous foods actually might have started in China. That’s why we’re going to break down the debate and try to find out where it all really started.

What Classifies As A Pizza?

So, what makes a pizza a pizza? If we’re going to find out the true nature of its roots, it first seems important to understand what defines a pizza.

Is it the cheese? Is it the tomato base? Or is it the way chefs throw the dough up in the air and spin it on their fingers? 

The Oxford English dictionary defines a pizza as “consisting of a flat round base of dough baked with a topping of tomatoes and cheese, typically with added meat, fish, or vegetables.”

It’s interesting to note that they don’t include fruit in their description, so I guess we know how they feel about pineapple as well.

All toppings aside though, one of the more common variations of pizza making is the dough itself.

While a more classical pizza will have a thinner base, which is then baked at a high temperature, there have been dozens of variations on the classic since its inception. 

Some of the more common variants on the pizza would be the Chicago-style, which are classified by their high edge, and thick layers of toppings.

There’s also the Calzone, another Italian dish, that are pizzas folded over in half.

There’s even pizzetta, which is a smaller pizza typically served as snacks or hors d’oeuvres, in contrast to the jumbo-sized slices that are most notably sold as street food.

It seems that however the presentation, the core idea of a pizza comes down to the traditional dough base, with tomato sauce and cheese.

What Is A Cong You Bing?

What Is A Cong You Bing

When it comes to the possible Chinese origin of the modern pizza, the first point of call is the cong you bing dish, also known as the scallion pancake.

Unlike the pancakes we know today in western culture, the cong you bing is made from a dough, rather than a batter, and are pan-fried to give them a chewy texture but crispy edge.

Similar to modern pizza, they can be served both in a restaurant or as a street food dish and can be purchased commercially either fresh or frozen.

With a flatbread base, cheese filling, and toppings such as minced scallions (green onions), it can be easy to see why this could be considered to be the root of what we consider to be the pizza we know and love.

They have even made it to the palettes of North America, often being served with either soy sauce or hot chili sauce.

Ironically, tujia shaobing is another traditional Chinese dish that is commonly referred to as “Chinese pizza”.

Unlike normal shaobing, which is a baked, layered flatbread served with ingredients stuffed inside, tujia shaobing takes those ingredients and uses them as toppings in a way comparable to western pizza.

Marco Polo And The Chinese Legend Of Pizza

The term “pizza” was first recorded in 997 AD, around 250 years before Marco Polo was born.

However, a common legend suggests that it was in fact the Italian explorer that first introduced the concept in Italy after a trip to China.

The legend tells us that, after returning to Italy, Marco Polo had developed a distinct interest in the cong you bing dish.

He searched far and wide for a chef from his home country who might recreate the eastern dish for him, but to no success. 

One day, while at a dinner party with friends, he made mention of his new, favorite dish and discussed it with the chef, who had come from Naples for the event.

He insisted that the chef try to recreate the dish, but again, to no success.

Marco Polo offered the idea that the chef placed the cheese on top of the dough base, alongside the other toppings, and people were amazed by the dish.

The chef returned to Naples and continued to make the dish, experimenting with meat and vegetable and other toppings.

And so, the pizza was born.

Or so the legend states.

Pizza From Around The World

Although the Chinese legend offers a fairly convincing argument for how the modern interpretation of the pizza may have come to be, there are in fact several other stories that claim to be the original.

There are records to state that Persian soldiers, all the way back in the 6th Century BC, would bake flatbreads with cheese and date toppings on their battle shields.

In Ancient Greece, the plakous dish, or “placenta cake”, was a flatbread-based food, with toppings like cheese, herbs, onions, and garlic.

It would be made with several different layers of dough, with toppings spread throughout it, before being covered in honey.

Although considered to be a precursor, and potential inspiration, for the pizza it was served as a dessert. 

In 19 BC, queen Celaeno of Greek mythology foretold that the Trojans would not know peace until they “ate their tables”.

The Trojans were then served a meal of round, bread cakes with cooked vegetable toppings. They realized that the “tables” they were foretold about were in fact the dish they had been presented with.

It is also possible that the pizza got its name from the Pizzarelli, a type of Passover cooked eaten by roman jews after synagogue.

The Zapiekanka is a Polish food, that consists of an open-faced baguette, topped with mushrooms, cheese, and a variety of other ingredients.

It is also typically served with ketchup and has been offered as a street food since the 1970s.

What Are Some Less Common Pizza Variations?

One of the oldest forms of Neapolitan pizza is the pizza marinara. Quite simply, this is like the typical Margherita, only made without the cheese topping.

Although this may seem less than conventional, as the cheese is often one of the things that define the pizza, marinara pizza has dated back to 1700’s Italy.

On the other end of the spectrum, the pizza Quattro formaggi is served with four types of cheese: these being mozzarella, gorgonzola, and others that depend on the region it is from.

The sushi pizza is a Canadian dish, originating in Toronto, and combines sushi and pizza together.

Invented by Nami Japanese Seafood Restaurant chef Kaoru Ohsada around 1993, it uses a crispy but chewy fried rice patty base.

It sports a layer of sliced avocado, sliced salmon, crab, or tuna meat, with a blend of wasabi powder and mayonnaise. Due to its popularity, it has become one of Toronto’s signature dishes.

The deep-fried pizza is a staple of takeaway shops in Scotland.

The basis is a, typically frozen and in-expensive, pizza that has been deep-fried in a batter usually reserved for things like fish or sausages.

It can then be served with salt, vinegar, a variety of sauces, or fries. Deep-fried pizza can also be found in Italy, but is often considered a portion of street food and not typically found elsewhere.

There is also a wide range of dessert-based pizzas, such as the chocolate pizza, which uses chocolate sauce rather than the traditional tomato sauce.

It can sport a variety of toppings, such as strawberries, bananas, marshmallows, icing sugar, and sprinkles.

The True Origins Of Pizza

So, did pizza originate in China? Despite the legend of Marco Polo, and his love of cong you bing, it seems the true roots of pizza really do lie in Italy. 

Although the Chinese legend offers an interesting idea for the origin of the traditional pizza dish, it forgets to acknowledge that pizza had been around for centuries prior, and pizza-like dishes were present in a variety of cultures throughout history.

What we consider to be the ‘pizza’ we know today did in fact originate in the 1700s.

Historians agree that what we consider to be the pizza was developed in the 18th century, once tomato sauce was added to the focaccia dish in Naples.

This food began to show up in the streets of Naples, as the working class needed a quick, and typically cheap, food to get them, through their working day.

Regardless of its true origin, it is a dish that has stood the test of time. The pizza we know today, and variations thereof, are widely popular across the globe, and it seems they will continue to be for centuries to come.