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There's never going to be an 'authentic' carbonara and spaghetti in Philippine cuisine

By NICK GARCIA Published Jun 05, 2022 10:04 pm Updated Jun 06, 2022 6:48 pm

Rhubarbs always break out during discussions on how "authentic" or "traditional" food recipes should be, like spaghetti and carbonara, which are must-haves during Filipino birthdays or fiestas.

But going "authentic" and "traditional" with foreign cuisine in the Philippines is, apparently, a myth.

We'd always make them our own once we take a stab at cooking them. In Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture, the late Doreen Fernandez—a noted food historian—said we have a "variegated" food culture due to the country being an archipelago with over 7,000 islands.

Taking into account the influence of traders and colonizers, assimilation of foreign food, according to Fernandez, always involved indigenization. Tastes are adjusted to the Filipino palate.

The Pinoy version of spaghetti, which is apparently a misnomer since it's the type of pasta, generally uses ground pork, sweet tomato sauce if not ready-made spaghetti sauce, banana ketchup, sugar, sliced hotdogs, and processed cheese.

As it turns out, Filipinos must've conflated Italy's spaghetti pomodoro and spaghetti bolognese.

Based on Italian chef Carlo Cracco's recipe, spaghetti pomodoro should use date tomatoes, tomato puree, extra virgin olive oil, crushed garlic, and fresh basil. According to Gennaro Contaldo, meanwhile, spaghetti bolognese should use equal portions of ground pork, veal, and beef; diced celery stalks, carrots, and white onions; diluted tomato puree; red wine; fresh bay leaves; rosemary; and stock.

In any case, Filipinos who have long perfected their version could only care less.

Ditto for spaghetti carbonara. The late Antonio Carluccio said it should only use fried guanciale (cured pork cheek) and its rendered fat; pecorino romano, if not parmesan; cracked black pepper; and eggs.

Yet the Filipino take has bacon, ham, butter, parsley, canned mushrooms, cream, and evaporated milk. Along with the Pinoy spaghetti, this carbonara recipe is a recipe for disaster for Italian cuisine sticklers.

But does it even matter?

The late Clinton Palanca, in his essay "What is local food, anyway?" in The Gullet: Dispatches on Philippine Food, wrote that Filipinos are caught up in the "illogical contradiction" as regards their national identity when it comes to food: "to be truly Filipino is to love what is foreign" and "what is most local might be what is imported."

For Palanca, the idea of what is "Philippine food" encompasses so much, "even that which is apparently inauthentic and nontraditional and mashed up with foreign techniques and ingredients."

"Celebrating the local ends up celebrating what's foreign as well, simply because it's here and present and available to us," he said, "which is what local means, after all."

I've had my fair share of the authentic spaghetti dishes, as well as the "adapted" versions, and they've always resulted in clean plates. If time permits, I even do the cooking myself, and either take is a hearty meal for me and my family.

My papa's spaghetti dish, as far as I am concerned, has garlic, onions, ground beef, bell peppers, olives, tomato sauce, tomato paste, Hungarian sausages, and quickmelt cheese. My mama, meanwhile, would want the simple palengke tomatoes, garlic, grocery basil, and already-grated parmesan in her spaghetti.

Having said that, we'd still crave the iconic "jolly" spaghetti that even the late Anthony Bourdain had approved. We'd still eat the spaghetti being offered by that "golden plate" restaurant whose name is often mistaken to have the letter S. The spaghetti that two popular pizza parlors have would still be very much welcome.

In modifying the ingredients of foreign dishes, there are also accessibility concerns. For instance, a 150g guanciale for Italian carbonara costs at least P500 on Shopee. A 150g block of pecorino romano is worth at least P300 on the e-commerce platform, excluding shipping fees.

Besides, would everybody be able to afford a bottle of red wine just to make bolognese? Are date tomatoes for a proper pomodoro sauce even endemic in the Philippines? Issues on whether those in the lower class have adequate knowledge about Italian cuisine and others are also ever-present.

As the Latin phrase goes, "De gustibus non est disputandum." There are no disputes in matters of taste. Like in music and movies, each of us has preferences. Genres cannot also pigeonhole how or what music and movies should be.

Maybe the Pinoy spaghetti or carbonara, though dubbed as such in this lifetime, wouldn't even be Pinoy anymore in the distant future. What matters for now is it can satisfy the appetite, allow people to share meals together, and pave the way for change.