Growing up in the Philippines, you get used to attending birthday parties even when they’re against your will. Often, if you are a kid, you find yourself sitting in the classroom while your classmate’s parents are passing around styrofoam boxes of food to celebrate. More often than not, you will be welcomed by a familiar sweet and tangy aroma once you open the box and find spaghetti, a familiar and common sight for sore eyes for a child waiting to dig into some birthday grub.
Filipino spaghetti is in a league of its own. Despite it being a nightmare for every Italian whose veins pump traditional, authentic pasta dishes, it has become one of the most sought-after and common dishes served in any kind of celebration in the Philippines. Sometimes, even carinderias – stores that sell various local viands – also sell these as a breakfast item (yes, breakfast!), which my mom would sometimes buy in the morning on the way home from the market if she didn’t have the time to cook breakfast.
Filipino spaghetti is quite different from your classic Italian tomato-sauced pasta. What makes it different other than the addition of banana ketchup and sliced up hotdogs? The communion of children with sauce-doused mouths happily gobbling it up, perfectly-concocted to tickle their taste buds. Sometimes, if there isn’t enough money to buy hotdogs or ground beef, ground pork or corned beef can be used as substitutes. Even local sausages called longganisas are used as the main protein of the sauce, giving it an added garlicky kick.
But where did it actually come from? Did someone just decide to violently douse bolognese or neapolitan sauce with a ton of sweet banana ketchup?
The answer lies more than 80 years ago during the American occupation of the country, when they landed on Philippine soil and found that there weren’t any tomatoes to make their beloved condiment, tomato ketchup and tomato sauce.
To address this, Maria Orosa, a brilliant Filipina chemist widely known for her work in food technology, thought of a way to utilize bananas and turn them into ketchup to satiate the need for the condiment. This sweet, slightly spicy concoction has been a Filipino household and restaurant staple ever since. It has been used widely for almost a century now in a variety of dishes – starring of course, in Filipino spaghetti, a dish which would not have been possible if it were not for Orosa and a General Douglas McArthur craving for Neapolitan spaghetti and Filipino cooks bringing him a mouthwatering pasta dish made with this ketchup.
The unique spaghetti dish has ingrained its place so deeply in our culture that almost everyone who has ever experienced a Filipino celebration instinctively knows that there will be spaghetti there, and it will taste as sweet and glorious as it is, a mound of cheddar cheese on top
In fact, it is also one of the main highlights in the country’s local fast food restaurants like Jollibee, a now internationally-known and rapidly growing homegrown fast food chain. Most known as an accompaniment for the restaurant’s fried chicken or ChickenJoy, their spaghetti is a true kid-approved favorite, ensuring that every child finishes their plate with a smile – a testament to their tagline that at Jollibee, “bida ang saya” (happiness is the star) not just to Filipino kids but anyone who wishes to indulge in this savory sweet pasta goodness across the globe.
Even I have fond memories of eating Jolly spaghetti growing up, and even during my college years. It was a guilty pleasure meal that brought me back instantly to carefree days when all I could worry about were tomorrow’s homework and what toy to pester my mom to buy next. A plateful of this spaghetti brings me back home, when my mom would make kilos of it on my birthday, and serve them to my classmates as a lunch treat.
There is no party, really, without Filipino Spaghetti.
WORDS: Patricia Leuterio.
IMAGE CREDIT: Jollibee Foods.