People often speak of the “True Italian Carbonara” (or “True Pizza”, or whatever). Does such claim about an ideal dish make sense? Is it possible to establish objective criteria to define the original version of anything?
As anyone, every time I’m tired or stressed after an especially long working day, I look for some comfort food. Spaghetti carbonara is one of my favorite of such comforting dishes.
Hearty and easy to prepare. Beautiful and affordable. Delicious and relaxing.
I have had carbonara everywhere. From a trattoria in Rome to a Mexican in Vienna. From a fine restaurant in Paris to a fast-food in a train station in Düsseldorf.
However, my favorite carbonara is the one I do myself. Developed over the years by Carla and I, it has the exact flavors and textures I appreciate. I will tell the recipe later. Before, however, I want to discuss something that annoys me a bit. It’s when someone starts to talk about the “True Italian Carbonara.”
People often complain about how dishes are prepared. They are not like the “original version.” The “True Italian Pizza” has a much thinner dough; the “True Brazilian Caipirinha” takes white, not brown sugar; the “True French Baguette” is much crispier; etc.
Cooking isn’t a hard science and, naturally, there are lots of variations of any dish. Taking the spaghetti carbonara to make my case, go to an Italian restaurant in Germany and you will most probably get some thick, heavy, creamy pasta. In Paris, you may get a raw egg still in the shell, which you are supposed to mix yourself with your pasta at the table (keeping a cool air, pretending that it’s normal).
Then, it comes the question: does it make sense to expect something like a “True Carbonara”? Is there a kitchen in Plato’s World of the Forms where an archetypical and capitalized spaghetti carbonara stands in, and from which we can only taste the shadows?
Things have history. They evolve and diversify. Therefore, there is no such a thing as a “True <insert Origin> <insert Dish>.”
Try the recipe from different Mamas in Italy today and you will certainly find an amazing variation of carbonara preparations. If we could monitor each specific continuous variable — amount of salt, cooking time, etc. — we would likely find a distribution around a mean value. In the same way, if we could monitor each discrete variable — garlic addition or not, full eggs or only yolks, etc. — we would also find a distribution of the relative frequencies of each value. (Most use only yolks, few use full eggs, fewer yet use a bit of whites, for instance.)
We could extend the distributions over time too. Check the carbonara recipes in Rome from since the dish first appeared with this name by the middle of the 20th century until now. Again, we would find a large variation in the recipes. Today, most of Romans probably use only the yolks, but I doubt that anyone would waste the whites in the post-war.
We could define the “True Carbonara” as that dish given by the mean value of all continuous variables and the most frequent values of all discrete variables. But it’s not even sure whether that it would be the most common carbonara in Rome. That’s probably also not the best carbonara we could do. For instance, following the statistics, we probably wouldn’t use garlic, as most of the reference carbonara dishes don’t take it. But garlic taste is chemically strongly correlated to Parmesan taste. Having both together enhances the flavor of the final dish.
(By the way, this chemical correlation is also true for shrimps and Parmesan. However, to serve these two ingredients together is the best way of inducing a heart attack in an Italian purist.)
We should abandon silly concepts like the “True Something” and taste the things for themselves, not for an ideal reference.
It’s also useful to keep an eye in the past and another in the future.
From the past, we bring the tradition and the memories. Decades, sometimes centuries, of kitchen evolution did an excellent job selecting the best combinations of tastes, flavors and textures for a certain dish.
From the future, we bring the physics, the chemistry, the technology to help us to perfect the dishes.
Cleverly mix past and future and you may present yourself with something amazing. But don’t be deceived: you will never be able to get the “Perfect Universal Carbonara.” Our taste preferences will always be bound by our personal histories — from feelings from our childhood to memories of special moments of our lives. This makes the ultimate carbonara an experience that varies from person to person.
After all, we are all in search of our own lost time, aren’t we?
As I promised, here it is my recipe: Carbonara di Barbatti. A true dish from a fake Italian.
- Dried spaghetti – 160 g / hungry person
- 2 eggs / person
- Parmesan cheese
- Bacon – 50 g / person
- Black pepper (I only use “True Black Pepper” brought from India in Portuguese Caravels)
- 1 small clove of garlic / person (I take 2 for myself…)
- Milk – about 30 ml / person
- Olive oil
- Chop the garlic in very small cubes.
- Chop the bacon and the parsley.
- In a bowl, add the milk, the yolks, a pinch of salt and black pepper. Mix them well and taste the salt. This will be the salt level of the final dish. Don’t worry if this milk-yolk mix looks too liquid… everything will be fine.
- Cook the spaghetti “al dente” in salted water (taste the water, you should feel the salt). Drain the spaghetti 30 seconds before the package suggested time. You will still need 3-4 minutes before serving it. Save a half cup of the cooking water, you may need it.
- While the spaghetti cook, fry the bacon on a generous amount of olive oil. Think of the amount of oil as to involve the whole pasta, but without letting it dripping fat. You want the bacon cooked, but not too crispy. 5 minutes in low heat should do the job.
- Reserve the bacon and fry the garlic in the same oil. It will take about 3 minutes.
- When the garlic is ready, add the past to the pan and mix them. At this point you should have already something delicious. If you just skip the next step and jump to point 9, you will have a nice aglio e olio.
- Turn off the stove. Add the milk-yolk mix and the parsley to the pasta. Mix everything gently but constantly to avoid that the eggs cuddle. Keep mixing for about 2 minutes to give time to cook the eggs and get a homogenous cream involving the pasta. If the spaghetti absorb all milk-yolk mix and get too dry, add a bit of the saved cooking water. But be careful, you don’t want your pasta swimming in the sauce, only involved by it.
- Serve the pasta in a deep pre-heated plate. Top with the bacon, more black pepper and Parmesan cheese.
- A body red wine is almost mandatory with this dish. Nero d’Avola or Primitivo are among my favorites.
- If you tried the recipe and enjoyed it (or not), let me know in the comments.
- And subscribe at the sidebar. One day I will tell my adventures eating tripes all over the world. You don’t want to miss it.