Pasta is a generic term for foods made from an unleavened dough of wheat or buckwheat flour and water, sometimes with other ingredients such as eggs and vegetable extracts. Pastas include varieties that are filled with other ingredients like ravioli and tortellini. The word pasta is also used to refer to dishes in which pasta products are a primary ingredient. It is usually served with sauce.
Pasta is typical of different cultures and countries, but the most famous varieties and recipes come from Italy. There are hundreds of different shapes of pasta with at least locally recognised names. Examples include spaghetti (thin strings), maccheroni (tubes or cylinders), fusilli (swirls), and lasagne (sheets). Gnocchi and spätzle are sometimes considered pasta; they are both traditional in parts of Italy.
Pasta is categorised in two basic styles: dried and fresh. Dried pasta made without eggs can be stored for up to two years under ideal conditions, while fresh pasta will keep for a few days under refrigeration. Pasta is generally cooked by boiling.
First attested in English in 1874, the word pasta comes from Italian pasta, in turn from Latin pasta "dough, pastry cake", itself the latinisation of the Greek παστά (pasta) "barley porridge", in turn from παστός (pastos), "sprinkled with salt, salted".
Under Italian law, dry pasta (pasta secca) can only be made from durum wheat flour or durum wheat semolina. Durum flour and durum semolina have a yellow tinge in color. Italian pasta is traditionally cooked al dente (Italian: "firm to the bite", meaning not too soft). Outside Italy, dry pasta is frequently made from other types of flour (such as wheat flour), but this yields a softer product that cannot be cooked al dente the same way. There are many types of wheat flour with varying gluten and protein depending on variety of grain used.
Particular varieties of pasta may also use other grains and milling methods to make the flour, as specified by Italian law. Some pasta varieties, such as pizzoccheri, are made from buckwheat flour. Fresh pasta may include eggs (pasta all'uovo 'egg pasta'). Whole wheat pasta, which generally contains more fibre and more nutrients than refined pasta, has become increasingly popular. Whole wheat pasta designed to appeal to people familiar with refined grain pastas may have a mixture of whole grain and refined grain ingredients.
The oldest known pasta or noodle-like food were found in China at the Qijia culture Lajia site in Qinghai province. The 4,000-year-old noodles appear to have been made from foxtail millet and broomcorn millet.
Pasta's origin continues to evoke speculation. While many different cultures ate some sort of noodle-like food, composed mostly of grain, the key characteristics of pasta are durum wheat semolina, with a high gluten content. Furthermore, it is made with a technique that allows the resultant dough to be highly malleable, thus resulting in the many different shapes (i.e., ziti, spaghetti, ravioli) that characterize "pasta." In North Africa, a food similar to pasta, known as couscous, has been eaten for centuries. However, it lacks the distinguishing malleable nature of what is now referred to as pasta, couscous being more akin to droplets of dough. In China, noodles of wheat, millet or rice have been eaten for many thousand years.
Historians have noted several lexical milestones relevant to pasta, none which change these basic characteristics.