Carbonara: One Beloved Dish, Many Controversial Variations

Tue, 04/06/2021 - 07:27
Close-up of spaghetti alla carbonara

Perhaps there’s no other pasta dish that is at the same time as beloved and controversial as pasta alla carbonara. The dish is so famous and appreciated all over the world that there’s even a day dedicated to its celebration: April 6, or Carbonara Day. 

It is interesting to note that for a dish that has pretty much only five elements to it - pasta, guanciale (or pancetta?), pecorino cheese, eggs and pepper - there are infinite variations, some legit, some not. The main points of contention are: pancetta or guanciale? If you don’t have pecorino, will parmigiano do it? Only egg yolk or also egg white? Better short or long pasta? 

Among the many ‘Carbonara-gates’ of recent years, which have caused outrage among, well, 95% of Italians, the latest is the smoky-tomato carbonara proposed by none other than the esteemed food section of New York Times. Unacceptable, said the Italians. We can (hardly) tolerate things such as cream, garlic or prosciutto, which will make for a wrong carbonara, but still a carbonara; tomato sauce though, that changes the nature of the dish, they said, indignant. (The controversy was even picked up by The Guardian.)

Truth is, this heartfelt defense of the traditional dish is actually quite recent. In recipe books from the 1950s to the 1990s, even by renowned chefs such as Gualtiero Marchesi, cream often features among the ingredients, pancetta is not banished, and Parmigiano is accepted if you do not have pecorino. (I asked my 94-year-old grandmother, who is from Rome, how she prepares it: she uses pancetta because it's less fat than guanciale, but will not substitute pecorino with parmigiano.)

But these are controversial times for everything and everybody wants to voice their opinion. In any case, whether you’re a purist or a creative, you can take part in the virtual celebration by sharing your recipe or a photo of your dish using the hashtags #CarbonaraDay and #MyCarbonara. 

Carbonara Day is promoted by the pasta makers of Unione Italiana Food and IPO - International Pasta Organization, and in the past five editions it has reached an audience of 1 billion people. 

There’s no universal consensus on how carbonara originated, although most agree that it was born in the 1940s from the union between Italian pasta and the ingredients of the 'K Ration' used by American soldiers in Italy during World War II; the K ration contained powdered egg yolk and bacon; to supplement it with a dose of carbohydrates, the American military accompanied the 'K-Ration' with spaghetti.

This theory has been recently illustrated in a short film, in which, in a recently liberated Rome, an American soldier is given the task to organize a meal to lift the morale of the troops. Thanks to the help of an Italian cook, spaghetti alla carbonara are created, a dish that brought together two countries.  The film was commissioned by Barilla to celebrate Carbonara Day, and to remember that spirit of encounter and solidarity between cultures (hence the play on words 'CareBonara', the Italian pasta maker company will be donating a million plates of pasta to the refectories of Food For Soul, a nonprofit organization founded by chef Massimo Bottura to promote social awareness about food waste and hunger.

Watch the short film below and share your Carbonara on this Carbonara Day 2021!