Foods of good fortune traditionally mark the Chinese New Year, so usher in the Year of the Rat this Thursday with a lucky bowl of Asian noodles, edible symbols of long life.

Noodles are an easy-to-use staple food available in a mind-boggling array of shapes, sizes and textures. Noodles lend themselves to a variety of treatments, making it easy to include them in a New Year's feast. Slip silky strands of cellophane noodles into steaming bowls of soup; brown hand-cut ribbons of rice noodles to serve as a pillowy bed for all sorts of stir-fries; deep-fry squiggly wheat noodles until golden and crisp."You always have noodles on birthdays or any festivities because they symbolize longevity," said chef Jackie Shen of Red Light restaurant.

Noodles often figure at New Year's too: The seventh day of the 15-day observance is called "everyone's birthday" because everyone was considered a year older on that day no matter when they were actually born.

But noodles aren't just for special occasions; the Hong Kong-born Shen said that noodles are equally at home in simpler settings, from breakfast to a quick, late-night snack.

"For me, as an Asian, it's comfort food," said Shen, who likes

to start her Sundays by traveling to Argyle Street for a bowl of noodles in broth. Hot soup on a cold day is deeply satisfying to her.

Noodles appear to have been woven into Chinese culture for ages. Archaeologists discovered in 2005 a buried container of noodles 4,000 years old. Yellow, and made of millet, the noodles looked similar to the hand-pulled Chinese wheat noodles still made today.

The discovery of these noodles, which predate the earliest written mention of noodles by 2,000 years, added fuel to the long debate over who invented pasta first: the Chinese or the Italians or someone else.

Bennet Bronson, curator of Asian archaeology and ethnology at Chicago's Field Museum, won't be drawn into the fray. Instead, he noted that various cultures played a part in popularizing noodles around the world.

"Everyone gets a hand in it," he said. "The history of noodles is the history of the old world."

Don't tell that to Bruce Cost, the Chicago-based Chinese-food author and restaurateur.

His attitude is summed up in this passage from his 1988 book, "Asian Ingredients": "Perhaps as kind of a belated thanks, in 1972 at a trade fair in Beijing, the Italians tried to interest the Chinese in a machine that, starting with flour and other basics, produced a spaghetti dish complete with tomato sauce and cheese in about five minutes. It never caught on. What had caught on in Italy about seven centuries earlier was the Asian art of pasta-making."

Cost's position remains unchanged today.

"The Chinese really did invent noodles," he insisted.

While cultures around the world all have carbohydrates as a daily staple, Cost said the Chinese were able to take various starches and make them "into this playful food that's always appealed to eaters."

On the New Year's menu at Cost's Big Bowl restaurants, available through Sunday, is a dish he claims is the world's oldest meat-and-noodle combo. It's called zha jiang mian (Big Bowl's menu uses an alternative spelling, za jiang mein), noodles with pork sauce.

"It's always been one of my favorite dishes and it's a staff favorite," Cost said. "The Chinese know zha jiang mian, so will my American customers when they try it. And my Chinese customers will get a kick out of it being on the menu."

Indeed. The dish has been described by one food blogger, Ohio-based chef Barbara Fisher at Tigers and Strawberries (tigersandstrawberries.com), as "being to Beijing what spaghetti with meatballs is to middle America."