‘This should be illegal’: Why your carbonara could get you cancelled
The New York Times knows exactly what it’s doing. “Tomatoes are not traditional in carbonara, but they lend a bright tang to the dish,” read the tweet, linking to a recipe for a “smoky tomato carbonara”. If there is a more controversial topic to broach on social media I’d like to see it.
Even Jordan Peterson couldn’t stoke this level of ire. It had its desired effect – 1.8 million views later, a cooking debate as old as time had been reignited.
For some the only appropriate response was a simple: “This should be illegal.”
“Why does the NYTimes think adding eggs to an amatriciana (made incorrectly without guanciale) makes it a carbonara? Just say it’s a different dish,” wrote one outraged commenter.
“What is this thing where we treat dishes like it’s some sort of modular building set where we can swap in and out ingredients?” wrote another.
Reporting this for pasta misinformation. No tomatoes in Spaghetti Carbonara. Adding tomatoes makes it another dish.
— Gabor Gurbacs (@gaborgurbacs) January 30, 2023
The recipe, by food writer Kay Chun was first published in 2021, when it attracted such anger that the Italian farmers’ association, Coldiretti, actually released a statement on the matter, describing smoky tomato carbonara as the “tip of the iceberg” in the “falsification” of traditional Italian dishes.
Pasta carbonara, they said, was one of the most “betrayed” recipes in Italian cooking.
“The real risk is that a fake ‘made in Italy’ dish takes root in international cooking, removing the authentic dish from the market space, and trivialising our local specialities which originate from unique techniques and territories.”
It might sound dramatic, but they’re not wrong – since its invention in 19th century Lazio, carbonara must be among the most adapted, twisted, bastardised (depending on your point of view) recipes of all time.
There’s even an alternative origin story – that American soldiers invented it as a way to use their rations of egg and bacon when they were posted in Rome in 1944. For a dish which traditionally features just five ingredients (pasta, egg, pecorino, guanciale and black pepper), there are infinite versions out there, all of them purporting to be carbonara, very few of them having anything to do with the original.
Jamie Oliver makes a mushroom and rosemary iteration (he acknowledged it was controversial and his use of garlic in particular attracted controversy).
Nigella has been known to put cream, white wine and nutmeg in hers. Both undoubtedly delicious, but definitely unorthodox.
So what is an acceptable twist on the classic? Purists would say that if your version includes any ingredients not in the traditional recipe, you shouldn’t sully the carbonara name by labelling it so.
Added cream to the sauce? Congratulations, you’ve made a creamy, porky pasta. Thrown in a cheeky handful of peas or some sautéed mushrooms in an attempt to justify having a massive bowl of salty carb for your tea? Have a word with yourself and embrace a dinner that doesn’t include one of your five-a-day. Swapped the guanciale for ham, or the pecorino for (shudder) a little mature cheddar? Don’t, for the love of God, admit to it in front of an Italian.
For most of us, carbonara is one of those kitchen stalwarts – the old reliable in your culinary arsenal that never fails to satisfy. For me, it’s the sort of dinner that once I think of it, once someone even says the word “carbonara” in my vicinity, nothing else will do, I have to have it. It’s one of the first things I learned how to cook – pity my poor parents who had to watch me happily scrambling the egg and then make their way through a bowl of omelette spaghetti. These days I like to think I make a pretty good one.
My own recipe stays close to the original, with one notable exception. With the greatest respect and my deepest apologies to the Italian farmers’ association, I just don’t think it’s realistic to be militant about guanciale. (Scroll down for my full recipe.)
Does the best carbonara come from frying strips of Italian cured pork jowl (already beautifully seasoned with fennel, garlic and herbs) so that you have gloriously seasoned melted fat to toss the spaghetti through? Absolutely. Is one of those packets of anaemic supermarket lardons or some streaky bacon going to be a poor man’s equivalent? Definitely.
But my Sainsbury’s Local is simply not going to come up with the goods when a carbonara craving strikes on a Tuesday night.
I’d be just as likely to find Gino d’Acampo manning the tills. Speaking of which, if you want a laugh, watch this now ten-year-old clip of Holly Willoughby offending d’Acampo on ITV’s This Morning.
He’s made Holly and Phillip Schofield a baked pasta dish. Willoughby ventures: “Do you know, if it had, like, ham in it, it’s closer to a British carbonara.”
D’Acampo looks as if she’s just threatened his children. “If my grandmother had wheels, she would have been a bike!” he says, incredulous.
A quick check-in with an Italian expert, my friend Marina (from Rome) is conclusive. The swapping out of guanciale is, to put it mildly, not OK. She concedes that The New York Times’s recipe combination of ingredients “actually sounds yummy”, she’d just rather they hadn’t called it carbonara.
“Certain recipes are comfort food because they do not change, they’ve been perfected by grandmas over centuries, that’s just how we want them to be and what we expect to find in the dish when it comes to the table. Comfort over creativity.
“Reinvented versions of recipes are fine, but 1) give those recipes another name, or use inverted commas, so I know you know and 2) respect the tradition – don’t use bacon instead of guanciale, just don’t do it, it’s not OK.”
It’s worth noting The New York Times has form in this area.
In 2018 it published a recipe for Yorkshire pudding, describing it as a “large, fluffy pancake”, good for “breakfast, brunch, lunch and dessert any time of the year”. Are they trying to provoke us?
They should really watch Happy Valley before considering angering people from Yorkshire. Then again, it also recently suggested making a fry-up on a baking sheet in the oven so perhaps there’s no hope for the esteemed publication.
But back to carbonara. What about cheese? Is parmesan acceptable or will only pecorino do? And how many eggs should you use per person?
The pros are undecided. Angela Hartnett, who owns Michelin-starred Italian restaurant Murano, uses a mixture of pecorino and parmesan in hers.
For four starter portions she puts in three whole eggs and an extra yolk. And, controversially, includes a few chilli flakes and some chopped parsley. Gino uses butter in his, so does Giorgio Locatelli – meanwhile butter is unacceptable, according to my Italian source, who feels it should be all about the “melted fat” from the pork.
Locatelli also prefers a ratio of one whole egg to five yolks, while Gennaro Contaldo insists on a yolk-only policy.
The truth is, there is no absolutely nailed-on, definitive recipe. That just isn’t how recipes work. Even with timeless classics there are always little tweaks to be found here and there. Every cook uses a different pan, has a different way of slicing the meat, holds different opinions on how saucy they want their spaghetti.
My spaghetti carbonara
1 tablespoon olive oil
180g cubed pancetta or very thin slices of guanciale
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
3 eggs plus an extra yolk, beaten together
70g parmesan or pecorino, finely grated, plus extra to serve
Freshly cracked black pepper
200g dried spaghetti
Set a large frying pan over a medium heat with the oil. When it’s hot, fry the pancetta or guanciale until every piece is golden. Turn the heat off and add the garlic – it’ll cook just the right amount in the residual heat of the pan while you do everything else.
Beat the eggs with the cheese and plenty of black pepper.
Cook the spaghetti in plenty of well-salted boiling water until al dente. Reserve a couple of spoonfuls of cooking water when you drain it, then add the pasta to the pancetta pan. Use tongs to turn the spaghetti over in the oil. Add the reserved cooking water and mix that through too.
Mix in the egg mixture, stirring continuously for a minute or two off the heat. You want the egg to stay silky and liquid and cling to the strands of spaghetti, not to curdle. When the sauce has emulsified, you should serve up immediately, and top with more black pepper and cheese.
The Art of Friday Night Dinner by Eleanor Steafel (RRP £26). Buy now for £19.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514.