Pasta and noodles are universal staples; available in thousands of shapes and varieties, they're eaten throughout the world. What is it? Pasta is the term generally used in the west while Asian varieties are usually called noodles, but they're essentially the same thing. Basic pasta/noodles are made from flour and water. In western cuisines, the flour most often used is made from ground wheat; in Asia, the flour is made from rice, mung beans, sweet potatoes, buckwheat and other grains and starches. Pasta/noodles can be flavoured with ingredients such as egg, spinach, beets, crab or shrimp roe, and fish. How is it available? Fresh or dried. Dried pasta/noodles are considered by some to be inferior to fresh but the two should be considered different entities. Certain dried pasta shapes are extremely difficult to prepare at home: you can't make top-quality extruded pasta, for instance, because the optimal dough is too stiff and would burn out the motor of a countertop pasta maker (recipes for homemade extruded pasta make a much softer dough than commercial varieties). Other types of noodle (such as fun see, or mung bean vermicelli) are virtually impossible to find fresh. Like everything else, the quality of dried pasta/noodles varies greatly from brand to brand; the quality of a homemade pasta depends on the skill of the person making it. What else? It has been claimed that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy after seeing noodles being made and eaten in Asia, but ancient relics near Rome suggest the Etruscans made pasta as early as 400BC. Anthropologists have found evidence that noodles were being consumed in northwest China 4,000 years ago. How to use? When cooking all varieties of pasta/noodles it's essential not to overcook them. Al dente is considered undercooked when compared to the way noodles are prepared in Asia, but that doesn't mean they should be boiled for so long they fall apart at the touch of a chopstick. Pasta/noodles are rarely consumed plain. After being cooked (most often boiled), they're usually combined with something that adds flavour and moisture. Probably the simplest Italian pasta dish is made by tossing al dente spaghetti with olive oil, sauteed garlic and grated parmesan cheese. Similarly, an easy Chinese dish coats the noodles with oyster sauce, sesame oil and minced spring onions. Pasta and noodles are also delicious served in broth. Pasta/noodles can be served with elaborate sauces. Although most people think of the sauce as the most important part of the pairing, if the pasta/noodles aren't up to scratch, the dish will suffer. Pasta/noodle dough can be used as a wrapper to produce food such as ravioli and won ton.