The origin of pasta alla carbonara, a Roman pasta dish, can't reeally be clearly traced and opinions vary widely. In any case, it seems that the recipe dates only from after WW2. The most plausible story is that the Allies were partly responsible because they brought bacon, the English version of pancetta, which belongs in the recipe. On the other hand, it is often said that the dish came from the mountains of Lazio and was an invention of the carbonai (the Romanesque pronunciation of the word carbonara, meaning miners), who needed food items that were easy to carry and wouldn't spoil easily. For many Romans the dish is absolutely a classic and you should make it at least once in your life!
An Italian chef explained to me which mistakes you should definitely not make. "Carbonara is a particularly sensitive subject. The recipe is simple, but you have to respect it, starting with the basics, i.e. using the right ingredients and the way to prepare it. Here are the 5 mistakes to avoid if you want to make a real carbonara." (See the original in Italian here).
These are the 5 points he mentioned:
- "We must insist, nothing can replace pork cheek bacon (guanciale) when making a pasta carbonara. No regular bacon, no ham, no chicken (yes, some people use chicken). From a historical perspective there will always be a debate about this fundamental ingredient. Some place carbonara in a mythical rural setting somewhere in central Italy and ancient traditions. But others claim that the dish was born out of necessity from the rations of American troops brought over during World War II. I prefer the first, if only because guanciale reflects the Roman cuisine better and that is where, like it or not, carbonara originated. But if you prefer the less fatty and more delicate flavor of bacon, no one will sue you for it."
- "Adding random ingredients. Here we touch a painful part of the story. A few years ago, as you may remember, Carbonaragate almost caused a diplomatic incident. The French, the British, everyone was adding their own ingredients, while the Italians were horrified by the addition of garlic, onion, oil, butter, cream or crème fraîche. We wanted none of that: carbonara follows the ancient principle of "less is more". You only need a few ingredients to make it right, provided, of course, you use the right ingredients."
- "The final step in making pasta alla carbonara is adding the egg. However, it should be made clear from the start that we are not going to break a whole egg directly onto the pasta. Carbonara requires that you separate the yolks from the whites: you want that yellow, creamy sauce? Before beating the eggs, separate the whites and, depending on the servings, calculate a ratio of 1 yolk plus 1 whole egg for every 3 yolks each."
- "When you have fried the guanciale without adding oil and added the pasta and the eggs, making a creamy sauce, what is next? Surely not stirring over high heat, which causes the eggs to be scrambled instead of a carbonara. As soon as you add the eggs, turn off the heat: Article 4 of the constitution of carbonara."
- "When we talk about typical Roman dishes, pasta carbonara is usually first to come to mind. So why, when you cook it at home, do you season it with just any grated cheese? Carbonara requires pecorino cheese and there are no other cheeses you can use. You use the guanciale not to have to add any other fat and the pecorino not to use extra salt: in practice, the pasta prepares itself and only asks you not to mess it up."