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Why do people all over the world love carbonara?

If I asked you to name two great pasta dishes, chances are that you would name spaghetti bolognese or some kind of pasta carbonara. (Perhaps, spaghetti again.)

I have written extensively about the origins of both dishes. Spaghetti bolognese was popularised in England, not Italy.

 

And its real connection to Italy is that it claims to be based on a ragu (a kind of meat sauce) eaten in Bologna, though even that claim has been questioned.

 

   I love a good ragu but I am a little bored of pastas with ragu, even when Massimo Bottura (who has famously reinvented the dish by taking it back to its roots) is doing the cooking.

 

   Spaghetti carbonara, on the other hand, strikes me as being the coolest pasta dish on the planet. Not only is it among the best known pastas in the world, it is a dish that nearly everybody outside of Italy cooks wrong. Or, at the very least, it gets cooked very differently.

 

   Of course, the Italians are masters of their own cuisine. But pasta carbonara keeps being successfully reinvented by non-Italians. The two most influential modern versions have been created by German and Spanish chefs.

 

   If you go to Rome, they will tell you that the dish was created there. (It was.) But while the Romans are eager to disown fettuccine Alfredo, a pasta beloved of Americans (it was invented in a Rome restaurant but these days, only tourists order it), they will tell you long, wrong, romantic stories about spaghetti carbonara.

 

   More nonsense surrounds the origins of carbonara than any other Italian dish. The tourists are told that the name comes from the word ‘Carbonaro’ (a charcoal burner) and that each evening after men had toiled at these burners, they made spaghetti carbonara for supper. This is complete rubbish.

 

   Another version suggests that a secret society called the Carbonari popularised the dish. Coal miners are also said to have invented it. And so on.

 

   In fact, carbonara is among the most recent of all the great dishes of Italian cuisine. (Only tiramisu is of more recent origin.) There is a similar dish called pasta cacio e uova, made with butter, cheese and pork fat, but it is not quite carbonara.

 

   The earliest mentions of carbonara in recipe books come from as late as the 1950s. And the most plausible story of its origin is that it grew out of Italy’s defeat in the Second World War.

 

   In 1945, American GIs were stationed in Rome. At the time, the city was shell shocked and its inhabitants were poor and hungry. They looked for ways to make money and the GIs provided one opportunity.

 

   The US army gave its soldiers eggs and bacon as part of their rations. As there are only so many times that you can eat fried eggs and bacon and the GIs did not really know how to cook, they took their rations to local restaurants and asked the chefs, who were starved of fresh ingredients, to create dishes for them. The restaurants needed the business and grabbed the opportunity.

 

   Dried spaghetti was available, but the chefs had nothing fresh to cook it with. So they seized on the American bacon and the fresh eggs and adapted the traditional cacio e uova to create a new dish, spaghetti carbonara.

 

 "I love a good carbonara and Rome, a city where you can eat well provided you stick to pasta and salumi, has many great versions of the real thing."

   It seemed simple to make. The chef cooked the spaghetti. He fried the bacon in olive oil. Then he added the spaghetti to the pan along with a few drops of the water it had been cooked in. Using a technique that Italians call Mantecatura (a kind of sophisticated stirring and whisking), he emulsified the pasta water with the fat. Then, he added raw egg. Timing was crucial. If the pasta was too hot, the egg would scramble. Too cold, and the egg would remain a slimy, raw mess. Once the dish was ready, the chef grated cheese and black pepper on it.

 

   It was probably the most creative use anyone has ever made of basic military rations.

 

   As the Americans withdrew, the Italians realised that they were on to a good thing. The dish spread from the basic trattorias where it had been invented to fancier establishments. Chefs threw out the US army bacon and began using Italian guanciale, a cured meat from the cheek (or jowl) of the pig.

 

   By the early ’60s, carbonara had spread outside of Italy – but with a few variations. The Mantecatura and the timing of the addition of the egg were too complicated for many cooks. Carbonara became a cream sauce, flavoured with bacon (nobody could pronounce guanciale, let alone procure it) and enhanced with the egg.

 

   That is the carbonara you get at most places in India (though if you go to an expensive Italian restaurant here, some idiot chef will probably also add truffle oil to the cream) with a few notable exceptions (Delhi’s Diva, Mumbai’s Vetro, etc.)

 

   I love a good carbonara and Rome, a city where you can eat well provided you stick to pasta and salumi, has many great versions of the real thing. But Italian chefs rarely play around with the dish, claiming that it is part of their ancient heritage (really?) and the most interesting Italian carbonara I have had has been in Milan where the Michelin-starred chef Viviana Varese makes her own version; spitting in the face of Italian chef patriarchy by adding a little cream.

 

   The most famous reinvention, however, has been by a German. Heinz Beck is to fancy Italian food what Paul Bocuse was to French haute cuisine (if Bocuse had been a German....) Beck has had three stars for decades and his restaurant, La Pergola at The Cavalieri Hilton (the hotel has some silly new name now), in Rome is still a place of culinary pilgrimage.

 

   It is now fashionable to diss Beck who, like Bocuse in his last years, is not very relevant in today’s food scene. (Italy’s most famous chef was dismissive when I brought up Beck’s most famous dish: “Beck? He is a German.”) And certainly, Beck’s other restaurants (apart from La Pergola) can be overpriced and inconsistent.

 

   But Beck did invent the most iconic reworking of carbonara. He dispensed with long pasta and used a filled pasta, Fagotelli, which is like a tortellini. He stuffed each dumpling with his version of the carbonara sauce (yes, he used cream) and cooked it so well that the delicate skin was translucent. When you put it in your mouth, it exploded as the sauce swamped your palate.

 

   The dish was made famous in the east by the Sühring twins (one of whom had worked for Beck) when they were chefs at Mezzaluna in Bangkok, but now you get this version everywhere. My theory is that it appeals to Asian tastes because it is like an Italian Xiao Long Bao or a soup dumpling.

 

   But last month, I had the ultimate non-pasta pasta carbonara. Disfrutar is a two-Michelin star (a third must surely be on its way!) restaurant in Barcelona run by chefs who worked at El Bulli. One of its signature dishes is Macaroni Carbonara. The ‘macaroni’ is little tubes of a transparent guanciale-flavoured gelatine. It is served in a pan with cubes of Parmesan and guanciale. At the table, they pipe a carbonara sauce and then grate black truffle over it.

 

   It is the best modern carbonara I have ever had. And it demonstrates that sometimes ‘molecular gastronomy’ can add new pleasure to familiar dishes.

 

   Why do people all over the world love carbonara? I reckon it is the ingredients. What is carbonara made of? Eggs, cheese, wheat and bacon (or variations thereof). That’s it.

 

   With exactly the same simple ingredients, you could make a bacon and egg breakfast with cheese on the toast. And indeed the dish developed at a time when fancy ingredients were hard to come by.

 

   It works, I think, because a) it uses these basic ingredients that have a universal appeal and b) it reminds us that great cooking ultimately is not (no matter what you may read) about ingredients.

 

   It is about what good cooks can do with those ingredients.

 


 

Posted On: 08 Mar 2019 09:53 AM
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