Spaghetti in situ: the wonderful world of Asian pasta
Words by Vincent Vichit-Vadakan; Illustration by Natasha Phang-Lee
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Now I know what some of you who know me are thinking ─ Jonathan is on his anti-Italian drive again. And in some sense you are correct. My mission to publish articles about Italian food that would make actual Italians cry is something subconscious that I find difficult to avoid. But here’s the thing: I do it because secretly I love Italian food and I can’t escape it. You can trace my childhood restaurant history across North London’s trattoria’s: La Porchetta in Muswell Hill where I had my first penne alla amatriciana; Al Fresco in Whetstone where ordering carbonara, made without cream but just lush, golden eggs, made me feel like a grown-up. And equally, trips to Italian cities can be recalled through particular pasta dishes: pasta con sarde in Palermo, with the shocking sweetness of sultanas; an actual, slow cooked ragu in Bologna, which my dad insisted was the real thing but personally I felt didn’t stand up to my mum’s spag bol. It is because I love it so much, that I do not wish it to stay a cuisine of nostalgia.
London’s pasta restaurants have recently followed London’s pizza restaurant’s in their fealty to Naples and an Italian idea of regionality. But as much as its pasta scene has exploded in fresh yolk-yellow ribbons, I question the legitimacy of only making pasta dishes that a nonna might recognise when Italian food in a global city is in a very unique position where a chef can iterate on it and know that diners will understand the context.
Like Vincent Vichit-Vadakan, the writer of today’s newsletter, I have a fondness for all the bastardised pasta dishes in my life: from Alpino’s caff food, a puttanesca smothered in parmesan and served with an escalope and a mug of tea, to Yokoya’s creamy mentaiko spaghetti, all the way to last year’s Singburi x Ombra meal, where the commonalities between Thai and Italian food were explored in a plate of seafood spaghetti; capers substituted with the prickly heat of pickled peppercorns. Writing at the time, chef (and Vittles contributor) Feroz Gajia said it had ignited a million dollar idea to have a restaurant solely of inauthentic Asian pasta dishes, an anti-Padella.
But the best inauthentic pasta dishes are the ones you make at home. Gajia wrote
“Growing up, bastardised pasta dishes were a staple of weekend meals at home, where Western food was desi-fied to placate my father, my mum punching up the lamb mince in her spagbol and sneaking a bit of garlic paste and green chilli into the ricotta stuffed conchiglie.”
Similarly I’ve been enjoying the freedom to play around with the dishes of my youth recently: a wild mushroom dish with edamame miso and aged soy stirred into the creme fraiche, a simple crab pasta made with rice vinegar and Sichuan peppercorns (which I can tell you also made a banging cacio e pepe if you get the ratio right). And if you’re really craving Asian pasta ─ stay tuned to the end of the newsletter where you will find a recipe.
Still, if Gajia or anyone else wants to open that pasta restaurant let me know, I will suddenly misplace all my scruples and back you with everything I have.
Spaghetti in situ: the wonderful world of Asian pasta, by Vincent Vichit-Vadakan
The story of Marco Polo bringing pasta back to Venice from China at the end of the thirteenth century is one widely embraced, even in Italy itself. It’s a sweeping saga of great empires and arduous journeys, infused with a generous sprinkling of adventure and exoticism. The only thing is that the story lacks is historical accuracy. In actual fact, Italy had been cooking strands of boiled dough in some form or another for a least a millennium and a half prior to Polo’s arrival. The ancient Greeks, those clever Etruscans and imperial Romans all had takes on the dish that varied only in the flours and tools used. Arab ships carried dried pasta when they conquered Sicily in the ninth century. Modern scholars now generally agree that the Marco Polo pasta legend was a construct of nineteenth-century romantics with a taste for chinoiserie, and while he doubtless sampled noodles in the court of Kublai Khan, he would almost as certainly have seen similar dishes back home as well.
Fast forward to the current day and my own rediscovery of Italian pasta in Asia. What struck me when I relocated to Thailand from Rome six years ago was how irreverently pasta is treated here. Modern Romans are fiercely conservative about their pasta; bucatini are for amatriciana sauce; guanciale and pancetta (and, heaven forbid, streaky bacon) are not interchangeable; please don’t even suggest that cream could have anything to do with carbonara.
I left the land of rigid pasta purists and here I was standing in a busy open air lunch market in the heart of Bangkok, contemplating fragrant woks brimming with sa-pa-ghed-di pad kee mao, so spicy that the air above them makes my eyes water. Small packets of spaghetti, both ready meals and dried, are a staple at ubiquitous 7-11 shops, known here in Thai shorthand as Seh-wen, proof positive that a product has entered mainstream Thai culture. For me, the shock of a familiar ingredient in an incongruous setting was real.
But then again, who was I to say that spaghetti here was really out of place? It had made its way to Asia, not in caravans along the Silk Road but in shipping containers and as cargo on jets to meet a massive demand. The more I travelled around the continent, the more I encountered pasta in what were seemingly unlikely places. Spaghetti is the perfect foil for leftover murgh makhani (mild, creamy butter chicken), whether home-cooked or from a takeaway box. “Butter chicken pasta is a big thing nowadays where you use chicken tikka as your choice of meat and the makhani gravy as the pasta sauce,” a Delhi friend tells me, referring to a viral trend observed simultaneously in his home city, in London and around the globe, spread not by immigrants reproducing a recipe from granny’s spindly hand, but by bloggers, vloggers and all manner of online culinary influencers.
Some pasta traditions are more tied to a specific location: in any cha chaan teng, Hong Kong’s answer to a greasy-spoon diner, macaroni in thin brodo, maybe garnished with some fried Spam, is a quintessential breakfast that many Hong Kongers feel a visceral connection to. “Napolitan” spaghetti stir-fried with tomato ketchup, sometimes along with additions of green peppers, bacon and sausage, is a common fixture in cafés across Japan, the product of a glut of post-war American rations and, in at least one version of the story, the inventiveness of a chef in the Hotel New Grand in Yokohama. In modern-day Japanese konbini (24/7 supermarkets) and train station snack shops the spaghetti sandwich is piled into soft milk buns and offered as a warm or cold starch-on-starch combo that will give any chip butty a run for its money.
I was taken aback by what I took to be culinary oddities and struggled to unravel their meaning. Was spaghetti some sort of symbol of misplaced aspiration to Westernisation? Or was an entire continent subverting Western civilisation one transgressive wokful of macaroni at a time? Over time, though, I had to accept the evidence. There were no ulterior motives or coded messages. More often than not, the foreignness of pasta had been lost in the mists of time and had become just another staple, like any other noodle on the shelf.
Of course every rule has an exception and spaghetti in the Philippines isn’t quite that simple. When I made my first trip to the country five years ago I thought I knew a little about Filipino cuisine, but the adobo, lumpia and pancit that were the crowd-pleasers at the best birthday parties hosted by our Filipino neighbours when I was growing up didn’t prepare me for the traditional dishes I tasted for the first time. In the same way that sushi, pizza or green curry are not in any way representative of the culinary diversity of their respective nations’ cuisines, these dishes were just the low hanging fruit, easy to export and loved by all. None of them readied me for tucking into jet-black dinuguan thickened with pork blood or drinking kinutil, warm cacao spiked with coconut moonshine, a favourite of market workers after their early morning shift.
But not all dishes at a Filipino fiesta trace their roots back to indigenous ingredients. Take the case of Filipino spaghetti, simmered in a jarringly sweet tomato sauce. It can be made with banana ketchup too, a wartime ersatz that made use of the plentiful local fruit when tomatoes were in short supply. Thickening the sauce with canned evaporated milk, or even sweetened condensed milk, is common. Most people cook the boiled spaghetti in the sauce a second time until it is soft and bloated, closely resembling pasta out of a tin. (At this, the Roman in me silently screams “al dente, per piacere!”) Handfuls of cheese, usually processed, are added. And the protein of choice, in addition to mince cooked in the sauce, is lengths of supernaturally red, tumescent hot dog.
Even in the absence of the genetically programmed nostalgia that many Filipinos feel for this dish, I found the sweet, savoury, tangy combination to be soothing and tasty. It has become part of my culinary repertoire.
Industrial meat products are an integral part of Filipino spaghetti and are celebrated at least in part because of their foreign connection. “The lurid hot dogs in the spaghetti hark back to the Spanish colonial period,” says Ige Ramos, a respected Filipino food writer and book designer who is a walking encyclopaedia of culinary knowledge. “A dish that calls for Spanish chorizo was considered posh and fit to feed special guests in fiestas or any celebration. [It was] an extravagant commodity.”
More than three centuries of Spanish colonialism gave way to half a century of American domination. Their presence is still felt in Filipino food today. “The imported hot dog – or for that matter, any processed meat like Spam – cost an arm and a leg during the American period. The practice of putting chorizo or hot dog in Filipino-style spaghetti was considered a luxurious treat,” he says.
Ramos points out that, in addition to the red sauce version, there is now Filipino carbonara, made not with egg yolks and guanciale, but with tinned Nestlé ‘cream’ and cubed processed ham, yet more vestiges of Western cultural colonialism. Rather than rejecting the symbols of an imposed culture, Filipinos have subsumed them and made entirely their own.
Colonialism has shaped Asian pasta in subtler ways. Malaysians can thank an Anglophile, Europhile nineteenth-century sultan for the invention of a dish that has entered the country’s culinary canon: Johor laksa. Sultan Sir Abu Bakar, sometimes styled the Maharajah of Johor and other times calling himself plain old Albert Baker, is considered the father of modern Johor, the southernmost state of modern-day Malaysia. According to the Penang-based cook and author of The Fierce Aunty’s No Nonsense Guide to the Perfect Laksa, Nazlina Hussin: “Either he went to Italy and had spaghetti and developed the recipe in the palace or his [mixed Danish-Chinese second] wife created this as a fusion food,” though it is unclear how or when the dish left the palace walls.
These days, short of a palace invitation, there are only a few places in Johor to find this labour-intensive dish, and few home cooks have enough time on their hands to produce such an elaborate feast. The gravy is a thick paste of pounded wolf herring, mackerel, salt fish and fresh herbs, and it’s eaten traditionally by hand with spaghetti, fresh vegetables and sambal belacan, or shrimp paste chilli dip. A twenty-first-century century reading might interpret Bakar’s action as a form of self-loathing rather than the whimsy of a well-travelled gentleman, but whatever his motives there is something clearly aspirational in the Sultan’s choice of boiled spaghetti over run-of-the-mill noodles.
The Vietnamese go a step further and don't use Italian pasta at all. Like the recipe for baguettes used to make the iconic bánh mì that includes cheaper, more tender rice flour, Vietnamese macaroni is also a mix of both wheat and rice (and often other starches like tapioca), a combination that makes the familiar base ingredient uniquely Vietnamese. It is reasonable to assume that nui, a transliteration of the French nouille (noodle), arrived in Indochina during the time of French colonisation, though documentation is scarce.
Nui always comes in the form of elbow macaroni, spirals and other short pasta shapes. Boiled nui are commonly stir-fried with beef and vegetables (nui xào bò) or added to clear phở-like broths (súp nui). “Nui is considered child-friendly food in Vietnam,” popular YouTuberHelen Le tells me from her home in Danang. “You can find nui chiên – deep-fried crunchy pasta – at after-school snack shops or parties with many children.” She suggests tossing the crunchy nuggets in melted butter and sugar (nui chiên bơ ngọt), with salted plum powder (nui trộn bột xí muội) or with spicy garlic sautéed in melted butter, then cooked with sugar, fish sauce and chilli flakes until lightly caramelised to coat the noodles (nui chiên bơ tỏi ớt cay).
The more I uncovered these hybrids, the more it became apparent that I have an innate attraction for places where cultures collide. As the son of bi-cultural immigrants now living in my fifth country on my third continent whose cultural lines have always been blurred, I was predestined to take to them. My Californian childhood included hot dogs rolled in tortillas, steak dinners with rice and kimchi on everything (and no, we are not Korean). All are still part of my comfort food diet today. Cross-cultural spaghetti, wherever it is from, fits right in.
Maybe part of the appeal for me as an outsider looking in is the thrill of anti-conformism and transgression, even if the dishes are now mainstream. More than anything, however, I think my love of these dishes is just a translation of my insatiable appetite, not just for new tastes but also for people who are passionate about what they put on the table. As a writer, how people share the food they love has become a leitmotif in many of the stories I tell, and that fascination naturally extends to what I cook and eat myself. In the kitchen, I'm a culinary sponge as likely to turn out facsimiles of Keralan mango pulissery as I am a festive pastilla learned from a Marrakshi chef or a Oaxacan mole. Or a pot of sweet spaghetti.
“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are,” wrote Brillat-Savarin more than two centuries ago. While there is truth in that, I am not sure what conclusion he or anyone else could draw from my eclectic diet, except for possibly the good fortune I've had eating with so many like-minded people. Don’t believe me? Tell me what you're having for dinner and chances are we will have plenty to talk about.
Recipe for spaghetti pad kee mao
Here in Bangkok, the easiest way to satisfy my Asian pasta cravings is ordering a plate of spaghetti pad kee mao (สปาเก็ตตี้ผัดขี้เมา),or drunken spaghetti. As the name suggests, this is something you don’t generally cook for yourself. It is most often consumed late night after being out on the town or the next day as part of a spicy recovery plan. Generally the dish is flash-fried to order for one, but this recipe makes two plates and can be scaled up or down as needed.
200 g dried spaghetti
200 g prawns, shelled and deveined, but tails on (or pork mince, for a meatier variant), pounded to a rough chunky paste in a mortar (or chopped coarsely)
3 large cloves of garlic, chopped
Bird’s eye or other spicy chilli pepper, to taste, chopped
2 large spur or other mild chilli, chopped
A few stems of gai lan (Chinese broccoli) stems sliced on the bias, leaves shredded or roughly chopped
Sliced baby sweetcorn
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1/2 tablespoon light soy sauce
1/2 tablespoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon Thai dark soy sauce (or Indonesian or Malaysian kecap manis, for colour)
1 teaspoon castor sugar
White pepper, to taste
Aromatics (all are optional but adding any or all will give your dish added depth of flavour and fresh pop):
Fresh green peppercorns on the stalk
1 finger root, shredded
1 handful makrut lime leaves, bruised
Generous handful of holy basil leaves, stems removed. Substitute Italian sweet basil or Thai basil if unavailable. This is almost like another leafy vegetable. Don’t skimp.
Any neutral oil for stir-frying
There are a lot of ingredients so prep everything before you start to cook.
Boil the spaghetti in salted water for two minutes less than the package instructions. Drain and reserve some of the pasta water.
Heat oil over medium-high heat, stir-fry prawns until they just begin to turn pink but are not cooked through, then remove. In the same pan, add corn and gai lan stems and cook for a minute. Add rough chilli garlic paste, and cook for a minute until fragrant. Add any or all of the aromatics and cook for another minute. Add the gai lan leaves, prawns, spaghetti, sauces and seasonings to taste. Add a bit of pasta water to deglaze the pan and give the noodles a sheen. When noodles have absorbed the sauce and are cooked al dente, turn off the heat, stir in the holy basil leaves to wilt and serve immediately. There should be sliced chilli in white vinegar, fish sauce, chilli flakes and sugar on the table as condiments.
A young Vincent Vichit-Vadakan was offered a job on a bus between Bastille and Montparnasse that led to a long career in publishing. He is now based in Bangkok and writes about food, travel, culture, social issues and current affairs for a variety of international publications. Find his published writing on Facebook, his food on Instagram and occasional outbursts on Twitter.
The illustration is by Natasha Phang-Lee. You can find more of her work over at https://www.natashaphangleeillustration.com.