Carbonara and Creativity

Carbonara has become a global phenomenon and at the same time a very misunderstood work of culinary art. We perhaps need a new cookbook which lists all the ingredients not to use.

Spaghetti Carbonara

do not use:
heavy cream
a knob of butter
a splash of oil
minced garlic
chopped onions
chopped parsley
egg white

Carbonara features very few ingredients and depends entirely on the process of making it. Pasta, guanciale (or bacon), egg yellow, pecorino, parmigiano and some pepper is all you need.

Carbonara is a quintessential concept from the tradition of Roman cuisine, an over two thousand year old craft where generations of cooks invented and improved recipes which elevate simple ingredients. Here, simplicity is elevated to a philosophy and an art form. Another good illustration of the idea of Roman cooking would be Cacio e Pepe, a brilliant dish which only features 3 ingredients: pasta, pecorino, and pepper.

The most watched cooking videos on Youtube reflect stereotypes: Youtube cooks, all striving to display more showmanship than their competitors, add all sorts of ingredients – heavy cream, butter, egg white, parsley, onions, garlic – although none of these are called for. See here what three Italian Chefs think of the most popular Carbonara recipes on Youtube:

The same holds true for Mexican, Chinese, Indian and many other dishes of world cuisine which have been altered with stereotypical interpretations. In the case of Carbonara, it is presumed that Italian cuisine always uses garlic, that the creaminess of the dish comes from the use of cream, and parsley is perhaps just added to make the whole thing look more colorful. In German, there is a special word for this kind of process: “verschlimmbessern” – making something worse by tring to improve it.

Carbonara is not improved by adding ingredients, but it is open to creative interpretation. In cooking, just as in every creative endeavor, interpreting something requires an understanding of what you are dealing with, of its idea and concept. Here the recipes for three creative Carbonaras: