Until the 19th century, when factory-produced spaghetti and macaroni started blanketing the world, most pasta was made by rolling out thin sheets of dough and cutting them into noodles of various sizes and shapes. You had narrow noodles and wide noodles and really wide noodles and angel hair, little soup noodles of all sorts, even handmade macaroni shaped around lengths of wire.
But even back then, not all pasta was made by rolling and cutting. There have always been pastas made piece by piece. Some were soup noodles created by rolling bits of dough into grain-shaped pellets.
The oldest version of that sort of noodle might be itrion, which also happens to be the first recorded pasta. In Greek, the word itrion originally meant a kind of tortilla or flatbread. We know it had become a sort of pasta by the fifth century because it was being boiled in water, rather than baked or fried. Still, it’s not clear what shape it took. The dough may have been cut into slices in the familiar way or even torn into irregular bits.
The problem is that we don’t have any ancient Greek recipes for itrion. However, we know a little more about itriya, the version of itrion that the medieval Arabs made. Their cookbooks never actually gave any recipes for making it, they only said, “Throw in a handful,” just as they did when calling for rice, so it was probably something you bought in the market, rather than making yourself. And it was probably one of those grain-shaped noodles made by rolling between the fingers, just as certain homemade noodles are still made in North Africa.
Finally, there was one more kind of pasta not made by rolling dough out. It was shaped by squeezing the dough with the fingers.
The squeezed pasta best known in this country is orecchiette (‘little ears’), a southern Italian specialty made by flattening little balls of dough on a work surface and giving them a twist at the same time, so that they end up with a concave, shell-like shape. Orecchiette are admired for their ability to hold sauce.
Hungarian cooks make a pasta called csipetke (‘pinch’) by pinching off little pieces of dough. This might actually be a legacy from the Hungarians’ days as nomadic herdsmen in the Ukraine, when they lived closely with various Turkish tribes. In the Middle Ages, the Tatars of the Kipchak Horde made a pasta called salma, which seems to mean “dropped” in Turkish, as our word “dumpling” more or less does.
But the pasta wasn’t dropped-in effect, something was dropped on it: the cook’s forefinger. A salma recipe recorded in a 15th century Damascus cookbook describes the process as follows: “Pinch off pieces of dough and strike them like coins with the finger.”
To understand this instruction, you have to remember that until about 450 years ago, coins were not the uniform machine-made disks we know today. Ancient coins were made by hand-stamping blanks of gold or silver with an official seal that supposedly guaranteed the quantity of precious metal in the coin.
To do this, the worker pounded a die into the blank with a heavy mallet. As a result, the edges of the coin tended to be a little thicker than the stamped face. In some cases, when the blank was badly shaped or coin stamper was particularly sloppy, some metal might bulge up noticeably around the stamped part.
That’s what happens when you make the Tatar salma. The disk that results when you press down with your thumb (or pinch the dough between your thumb and forefinger) is likely to be thinner in the middle. To put it another way, it may have something of a raised edge, like a tiny pizza, on one or two sides. But maybe not. It all depends on the pasta stamper.
The resulting little dough disks are intriguingly chewy, a bit like Chinese or Korean glutinous rice cakes. They look like a cute little pile of tiny flying saucers.
The 15th century recipe says to mix them with yogurt and top them with meat and onions fried very brown. The proper meat is lamb, diced very small with a knife (having the meat semi-frozen helps), but you can use ground lamb or even lean ground beef (just be sure to drain off as much of the fat as you can before assembling the dish).
Lamb is really best, though. Think of this dish as flying saucer pasta with lamb stroganoff.