Finding My Way Home Through Ketchup Pasta

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“This is not spaghetti with sausage,” my then-boyfriend exclaimed, as he threw back his head and laughed. “What do you mean?” I asked, mortified that he wasn’t impressed by the very first meal I made for him. “It’s hotdog and ketchup with noodles,” he chortled. As a broke college kid wanting to impress my American boyfriend, I had set out to recreate one of my favorite dishes from when I was growing up — something we ate on special occasions, accompanied with soda-filled champagne flutes for a touch of sophistication. In my Asian household, “western” food was considered fancy. To make sure I followed the right steps, I even splurged on an overseas call to Singapore — an extravagant expense in the ’90s — to ask my mom to guide me through her recipe. In college, my cooking skills were mediocre at best, and in that moment, with laughter echoing in the kitchen, any culinary confidence I had was dashed. That was the first and last time I made spaghetti Napolitan. 

That memory popped in my mind when I caught a whiff of a delectable, garlicky aroma during a flight to the island of Hawai’i last summer. I was en route to my new home on the Big Island, a pandemic-inspired move to be closer to nature. The wounds from my divorce had started to heal, and I had finally sold our marital home to get a fresh start in a new state. I hadn’t thought about my ex or spaghetti Napolitan in a long time.

I glanced over to my seatmate and watched her unpack her repurposed KFC box filled with spaghetti and chopped-up hotdogs. She noticed me looking at her and tilted the box towards me. “You want?” she asked, with a warm smile. “No thanks,” I replied politely, with a tinge of regret. The lady’s airplane snack was Filipino spaghetti, a take on spaghetti Bolognese but with hotdog and banana ketchup. The dish shared similar lineage with spaghetti Napolitan — both were born post WWII, where ketchup was a plentiful part of U.S. military rations. In Japan, it’s been reported that spaghetti Napolitan was invented by the head chef at the Hotel New Grand, which once housed General Douglas MacArthur and served as a residence for U.S. officers in 1945. My mother, who grew up in the shadows of a war-devastated country, loved all things western. She hums Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” during Christmas, watches John Wayne movies religiously, and furnished our childhood home with flashy Italian Baroque-replicas. During birthdays, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve, she would prepare steak (with a side of grated daikon and plain white rice) or spaghetti Napolitan. 

I inherited my mom’s love for the West, moving from Singapore to the California at age 17 to further my education. I lived with my sister, who attended the same college, and she did most of the cooking. I didn’t venture into the kitchen until I met my ex. During the early years, the kitchen disasters were epic — burnt steak, fish “mush,” and undercooked pie crusts. I resigned myself to the fact that cooking was not my forte, until I landed my dream job at a food magazine where I was surrounded by patient food editors who taught me the science behind reading recipes, to always season to taste, and, if all else fails, add butter. 

I can’t say for sure that it’s related, but as I regained confidence in the kitchen, I started to become more assertive in my marriage. The dynamics of our relationship shifted, and the union ended after 16 years together. 

When I moved to my new home, I replaced my modern wedding china with vintage Hull brown-drip pottery. And I filled my fridge with the fish sauce, belachan, sambal, and dried anchovies — pungent Asian staples that were once forbidden in the kitchen. As I took inventory of my groceries, I was suddenly inspired to make spaghetti Napolitan. I didn’t have a recipe, so I recreated the dish from memory.

The beauty of spaghetti Napolitan is that you can customize it based on what’s in your kitchen. You can swap out hotdogs for bacon or Spam, or you can make the dish vegetarian by omitting the meat. Add as much or as little vegetables as you like, and cook it to your preferred doneness. (I personally like my onions and peppers to retain their crispness.) I brought a pot of salted water to boil before adding the spaghetti and cooking it for around 10 minutes. Even though some recipes recommend cooking the spaghetti until it’s soft — to mimic the texture of udon — I prefer my noodles to be al dente. In a separate pan, I heated up olive oil and added minced garlic, sliced onion, sliced green bell pepper, sliced white mushrooms, and hotdogs (cut on the bias). Add some ketchup, a couple squirts of soy sauce, a little sugar, and, of course, a slab of butter. Toss in the pasta and a splash of pasta water. Mix the sautéed vegetables, sauce, and pasta with a pair of long chopsticks or tongs. Transfer the pasta to a plate and top with black pepper and grated Parmesan cheese. I like my pasta with a little kick, so I added a few dashes of Tabasco — a popular condiment at Japanese-Italian restaurants.   

Using a spoon as a guide, I twirled the ketchup-slicked spaghetti onto my fork. I hesitated for a minute, apprehensive at the embarrassing gustatory memory it might evoke. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and took a bite of the savory, umami pasta. Instead of shame, I felt the joy of celebrations past where my family was all in the same country, feasting around the same table. Spaghetti Napolitan was dreamt up by a chef who wanted to make comfort food for homesick American soldiers. And the dish was my mother’s connection to Japan in the three decades she lived in Singapore. Now, this simple dish of ketchup, hotdogs, and pasta will comfort me in a strange new place I call home. 

This 30-minute pasta dish is a weeknight dinner crowd-pleaser.

Ingredients

  • Salt

  • 1

    medium white onion

  • 1

    medium green belll pepper

  • 8 ounces

    white button mushrooms

  • 4

    all-beef hot dogs

  • 3 cloves

    garlic

  • 1 pound

    dry spaghetti

  • 2 tablespoons

    olive oil

  • 1/2 cup

    ketchup

  • 1 tablespoon

    unsalted butter

  • 2 teaspoons

    soy sauce

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    granulated sugar

  • Freshly ground black pepper

  • Tabasco sauce

  • Grated Parmesan cheese, such as Kraft

Instructions

  1. Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, thinly slice 1 medium white onion and 1 medium green bell pepper. Remove the stems from 8 ounces white button mushrooms and thinly slice the mushrooms. Cut 4 all-beef hot dogs crosswise on a slight diagonal into 1/4-inch thick pieces. Mince 3 garlic cloves.

  2. Add 1 pound dry spaghetti to the boiling water and cook according to package directions until al dente, about 10 minutes. Reserve 1/3 cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta.

  3. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add the onion and sauté until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the bell pepper, mushrooms, and hot dogs, and cook until the peppers and onions are crisp-tender, about 4 minutes.

  4. Add 1/2 cup ketchup, 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, 2 teaspoons soy sauce, and 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar, and stir to combine. Add the spaghetti and reserved pasta water and toss with tongs until just combined and coated in sauce. Taste and season with black pepper and a few dashes of Tabasco sauce as needed. Served topped with grated Parmesan cheese.

Recipe Notes

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days.

Rachel Ng

Contributor

Rachel Ng is an award-winning food and travel writer based in Hawaii. She’s been published in National Geographic Travel, National Geographic Family, Outside, Robb Report, Men’s Journal, and the London Times. You can follow her adventures @rachelloveschicken on Instagram.

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