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Nin hao or Ciao: Say Hello to Similarities between Chinese and Italian Cuisines

By September 3, 2015March 29th, 2019Featured, MSG
noodles variation

Nin hao or Ciao—Say Hello to Similarities between Chinese and Italian Cuisines

Both Italian and Chinese cuisines are favorites among U.S. restaurant-goers and home cooks, too. Both are highly flavorful, incorporating a range of tastes, textures and aromas, and both boast a wide range of dishes that appeal to people of all ages. There are a number of other things shared by Chinese and Italian cuisines that are less obvious and therefore perhaps lesser known. Here are a couple of culinary commonalities to consider:

Noodles are a staple food in both Chinese and Italian cuisines

While most people associate pasta with Italian food (and understandably so), food historians believe that the earliest noodles were actually cooked in China. Of course, it’s hard to know exactly when noodles as we know them appeared on the food scene in ancient cultures, but it was first noted historically in the third century A.D., according to Jen Lin-Liu, author of On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome, with Love and Pasta. No matter where they started, noodles are firmly entrenched in the cuisines of both countries. Luckily for the rest of us, variety—in shape and ingredients—is the name of the game with noodles, and today pasta is a favorite food in many countries.

Both cuisines utilize a lot of glutamate-rich ingredients for maximum umami

Umami, the savory, rounded taste delivered by foods high in the amino acid called glutamic acid (or more simply glutamate), is abundant in both Chinese and Italian meals. Granted, the source of all this umami varies. In Chinese food umami tends to come dashi, a fermented base made from boiled seaweed and dried fish, monosodium glutamate (MSG), soy sauce and a variety of fish. In Italian food, it most often comes from ripe tomatoes, anchovies, fish sauce, prosciutto and Parmesan cheese. (For a nice graphic on this, check out this map of common sources of umami in cuisines around the world.)

Many Italian dishes and meals contain significantly more glutamate than typical Chinese dishes—even those with added monosodium glutamate. This point is one that lots of people find surprising since in the United States, MSG is so frequently associated with Chinese restaurant food. The so-called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (CRS)” can be attributed to an age-old letter to the editor that surmised a connection between MSG and negative symptoms that the author experienced after eating restaurant Chinese food. This proved to be a rather unfortunate speculation for MSG – what was originally posed as a hypothetical question to the medical community later became an assumed association for years to come. Have you ever heard someone complain of a headache or “tingling” feeling after eating a plate of lasagna and garlic bread? Neither have I. I would think that “Italian Restaurant Syndrome” would be just as common as CRS if glutamate were the cause of any negative symptoms.

Both cuisines emphasize fresh foods

Anyone who has traveled to Italy and eaten authentic Italian food, or to China for authentic Chinese food, will tell you that even though many of the dishes are very simple, they taste amazingly good. Why is that? One reason is their emphasis on fresh, local and seasonal ingredients, cooked simply and seasoned well. In this post I’ve lumped all Italian food into one group and done the same with Chinese cuisine, but that doesn’t do service to the many regional cuisines that are part of both the Chinese and Italian cultures. This “regionality” makes it easy to understand why fresh, local foods are the choice of cooks in both Italy and China.

The MSGdish Team's goal is to provide timely and important information about glutamate, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and the many culinary creations inspired by “umami" while connecting these topics to facts about food, taste, and health. The MSGdish Team is comprised of TGA staff professionals who are recognized as experts in science-based nutrition communications. Read more on the About page.

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