Monday, April 18, 2011

Deciphering the Carbonara Conspiracy

My love affair with pasta began at a very young age: I believe I was around 7 or 8. In fact, I remember it quite vividly.

During one of my shopping excursions with my mom, we stopped for an afternoon snack at a department store cafĂ©. Having always been an adventurous eater, I look through the menu, and spot something which seemed incredibly exotic to me at the time- Fetuccine Carbonara. I asked my mom if I could try it, and she raised a skeptical eyebrow at my request. After all, the only kind of pasta I have had before that was children’s-party-variety “Spaghetti Bolognese”, prepared Filipino-style with slices of hotdog in a sweetish tomato sauce. I remember her being supportive though, and watched me intently as I had my first bite of the creamy, flat noodles tossed with bits of mushroom and ham. Needless to say, I was hooked on everything pasta from then on.

But, as my maturing palate made me crave for food that is “bigger, better, more authentic”, I soon discover that my beloved Carbonara is not what it claims to be. Real Carbonara has no ham, no mushrooms and (gasp!) no cream. A traditional Carbonara from Lazio (where Rome is located) in Italy is made simply of the following ingredients: whole eggs or egg yolks, olive oil, guanciale (unsmoked bacon made from pork jowl or cheek) and Pecorino Romano cheese. (Guanciale and pecorino are easily available in the Lazio region, but when these are unavailable, acceptable substitutes would be pancetta (salt-cured pork belly) and parmesan cheese.) I also just discovered that fetuccine pasta is not a suitable match for this kind of sauce because it is too delicate. Italians are very strict in using only spaghetti or bucatini (sometimes penne) for Carbonara.

Recently, I chanced upon fellow food blogger Miguel’s Facebook page and he expressed his frustration on the lack of authentic Spaghetti Carbonara in Manila. He was surprised to discover that even in the better Italian restaurants, their Carbonara is prepared with cream. This made me wonder: Why is it that such a simple recipe (it practically contains just four ingredients) has been bastardized to such horrendous proportions that the “wrong” version is often believed to be the standard one?

I ask a chef friend about this, and he suggests that it could be brought about by foreign cooks adapting to what is available to them. During earlier times in the UK, for instance, cream is more accessible than poultry products, hence the switch. In my research over the net, angry purists blame greedy restaurant owners for using pricier ingredients in lieu of Carbonara’s otherwise regular cupboard fare to justify the additional zeroes in their prices. Being a guilty conspirator in the practice of “creamed” Carbonara, the reason could be as simple as this: Carbonara is easier to make with cream. A cream sauce can conveniently be prepared a bit earlier and re-heated when ready to serve. The traditional Carbonara, however, should definitely be cooked ala minute, very quickly, or else it could easily turn into an omelette.

I will not feign snobbery and say that putting cream in Carbonara is bad. In fact, give me a well-prepared cream-sauce Carbonara and I would be happy to eat it. I just think that, if you are a restaurant serving what you claim is authentic Italian cuisine, you must prepare Carbonara the same way they do it in Lazio.

As homage and “Oh-My-God-I’m-So-Sorry” to the pasta dish that started it all for me, I would like to share a recipe of Spaghetti Carbonara, done the traditional way. This is based on a couple of recipes I have gathered- all approved by some kind of Italian organization that protects the authenticity of their food- and tweaked according to availability of ingredients and personal taste.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

250 g. Spaghetti
1 clove garlic, peeled
2 teaspoons olive oil
200 g. pancetta, cut into cubes
2 whole eggs and 1 egg yolk, beaten
100 g. parmesan, grated
Salt and pepper for seasoning

- In a big pot of boiling water with salt, cook the spaghetti for 7-8 minutes, or until al dente. When done, remove from the water, draining the pasta water into a bowl and set aside to be used later.
- Mix in 2/3 of the grated parmesan into the egg mixture and season with a pinch of salt.
- In a separate pan over medium heat, cook the cubes of pancetta in the olive oil. Include the garlic, and remove before it turns brown. (Note: This will impart a subtle garlic flavor to the oil which will not overpower the dish. If you do not care much for garlic, you can skip the garlic part all together.)
- When pancetta has been nicely toasted, dump the spaghetti into the pan. Mix the spaghetti and pancetta mixture quickly, and then remove the pan from the fire. Stir in the egg and cheese mixture continuously until it acquires a beautiful, creamy consistency. If the sauce is a bit dry (or “tight”, as chefs call it), add a few spoonfuls of the pasta water.
- Move the pasta into a big serving bowl and season with some fragrant, freshly-crushed black pepper and top with the remaining parmesan cheese.
- Serve immediately.

It all seems simple enough, and it really is. I do need to stress the importance of mixing the egg mixture continuously to attain the creamy texture of the sauce. I myself began to panic when I noticed some parts starting to come together like an omelette, and I remember going “f_ck, f_ck, f_ck” under my breath. DO NOT PANIC. Just keep stirring, and the minute the sauce is creamy, it’s done. Buon Appetito!


Joni Llanora said...

Hey there, my daughter loves carbonara & so do I. Was planning on cooking my first this week and lucky for me you shared a recipe! Thanks!

Chinkee said...

Hi Joni! Oh, Carbonara is my absolute favorite! Done the traditional way, it's so flavorful and rich. Let me know how your carbonara turns out:-). Cheers!

Miguel said...

Nice! I've done yours and I've done the one with Guanciale and pecorino cheese which I prefer over the Pancetta and Reggiano Cheese.

Also, I cant seem to get it right by throwing the pasta in the what I did was was I put the pasta in the pan with the Guanciale and when it was really hot, I poured the pasta in a big bowl with the egg/cheese misture. Came it perfect...oh and yes I added some of the pasta water.

Chinkee said...

Hi mig! Yes, I saw your post on it... Kakainggit because I would have really wanted to try it with those ingredients. But since both were not readily available, i decided to try it out with pancetta and Parmesan. It still came out good, in fact I was surprised at how prominent the flavors were! Really intense flavors, so yummy...

I think pouring the pasta and guanciale mixture into the bowl of egg mixture is a more foolproof way of doing it. When the sauce hits the pan, that's when I notice the eggs get scrambled. Will try doing it your way next time...:-)

ChichaJo said...

Hi Chinkee! I can never get this right if I put the egg mixture in the pan so I always put the piping hot noodles and bacon (pancetta) into a bowl where I have my egg and cheese mixture (as Miguel said) and it comes out perfect :) So simple and good!

Chinkee said...

Hi Joey! Yes, I bet it really is simpler that way.:-). I just needed to try doing it the other way to see if using egg yolks is a tad more difficult than using cream. And, yes, there seems to be a bit more stress involved, but it's doable. Next time, no more showing off for me, though. I'll just do it the simpler way, i.e. dumping the noodles and pancetta into the egg mixture.:-)

Anonymous said...

hi! i just want to ask where did you buy your pancetta. Thanks :)

Chinkee said...

Anon- Hi there! I think pancetta is almost always available at Santis Delicatessen- they have branches in Rockwell and Yakal St. in Makati, Wilson St. San Juan, and Astoria Plaza in Ortigas Center. I think they have more branches elsewhere, kindly check their web site.:-) I think I also saw pancetta at the deli counter in Rustan's Makati. Enjoy!