Make Miso-Butter Spaghetti Carbonara, The Gateway To Japanese-Italian Cooking

When it comes to fusing the cuisines of different cultures (I'm trying hard to avoid the loaded term "fusion"), the Japanese were ahead of their time. Around the turn of the 20th century, Emperor Meiji decreed incorporating Western ideas and cultural norms would help Japan advance as a global player. One aspect of this was in food, and it kickstarted the popularity of curry rice, fried pork cutlets, hamburger steaks, and dishes of the like. It's known as Yoshoku, the Japanese take on Western cooking. (Ivan Orkin and Chris Ying's The Gaijin Cookbook is a terrific resource.)

The Japanese have a particular fondness for Italian food, and in particular, spaghetti. Spaghetti Napolitan is enjoyed by children ages five to 95, a pasta of sliced hot dogs, bell peppers, and mushrooms, cooked in a ketchup sauce. (Don't scoff. It's delicious.) Another beloved spaghetti dish has mentaiko, a savory fish roe, incorporated with shiso leaves in a butter-cream-soy sauce. Just as Chinese-American cooking is ingrained in our culture, and Korean-Mexican cuisine is certifiably a thing, I'm rooting for Japanese-Italian—known as Itameshi—to take off.

Recently I found myself in Las Vegas, and of all the great restaurants in that town I most looked forward to eating at Trattoria Nakamura-Ya. Its chef, Kengo Nakamura, describes it as Tokyo-style Italian, and the restaurant's signature dish is a sea urchin linguine in tomato cream sauce. In the end, I opted to try the spaghetti miso carbonara, because it sounded like a dish I might replicate at home. The version at Trattoria Nakamura-Ya features pancetta, fried strips of burdock, sesame seeds, and scallions in a miso egg-cream sauce. It tasted as good as it sounded—the familiar pleasures of a spaghetti carbonara with deeper umami elements.

Upon returning home, I experimented with incorporating miso paste into my standard spaghetti carbonara. Nothing was quite meshing, until my wife suggested one addition: butter. I've always loved the idea of miso butter (especially on broiled seafood), and borrowing those flavors for a creamy pasta dish sounded like it would work. It did.

A few notes:

  • Traditional carbonara recipes call for guanciale. I've got bacon on hand; it's fine.
  • Japanese interpretations of cream-based pasta tend to be saucier than their Italian counterparts, which is why you'll see the inclusion of heavy cream here. (My go-to method of spaghetti carbonara wouldn't dare use cream.)
  • To make the dish more identifiably Japanese, I sprinkled furikake and strips of seasoned nori over the bowl before serving.
  • If you want the true Japanese spaghetti experience, dash some Tabasco over the top and add parmesan—not fancy Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino Romano, but the stuff from the green plastic shaker bottles. That's how the Japanese roll.

Miso-Butter Spaghetti Carbonara

Serves 2

  • Half box of dried spaghetti
  • 3 slices thick-cut bacon, diced
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 2 Tbsp. melted butter, slightly cooled
  • 1 Tbsp. miso paste, softened with a splash of hot pasta water
  • 3 Tbsp. heavy cream
  • 1 Tbsp. parmesan from the green bottle
  • Black pepper
  • Furikake or seasoned dried nori
  • Tabasco sauce
  • Add dried spaghetti to a pot of boiling water.

    Sauté diced bacon in a skillet over medium heat. Turn off the stove right before the bacon gets too crispy.

    While pasta is cooking, beat three egg yolks with heavy cream and warm (not hot) melted butter in a large bowl. Soften miso with a few splashes of hot pasta water, then whisk miso into yolk-cream-butter mixture. Add in parmesan and grind in a generous amount of fresh black pepper. Incorporate well.


    Once your spaghetti is about 30 seconds from al dente, transfer from pot with some pasta water into the bacon skillet. Slosh the spaghetti around in the pan. Quickly transfer pasta + bacon + pan liquid into miso-butter-egg bowl. Use tongs to ensure every strand is covered with sauce.

    Finally, use tongs to lift creamy pasta into individual serving bowls. Add a few generous spoons of sauce on top, sprinkle with furikake/slivers of dried nori, plus more parmesan. Dash in Tabasco and serve immediately.