On Aug. 30, 1945, newly appointed Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers Gen. Douglas MacArthur landed at Atsugi Airport in Yokohama and headed straight to an elegant hotel overlooking the harbor that had escaped destruction during the war. The Hotel New Grand served as his headquarters for three days, before turning into a residence for U.S. officers.
Anxious to please his new customers, Shigetada Irie, the head chef of the hotel, drew inspiration from the spaghetti with ketchup that was part of U.S. military rations to create a new pasta dish that he called “spaghetti Napolitan.” According to historical accounts, Irie did not use ketchup in his sauce; after all, he had been trained in methods of classical French and Italian cuisine by the first head chef of the hotel, a Swiss. Instead he used canned tomato puree, flavored it with sauteed garlic and bacon, and added canned mushrooms and chopped vegetables. He later supposedly left the pasta for hours after cooking it so that the texture would become more like that of udon noodles, suited to Japanese tastes. (The hotel still serves its version of spaghetti Napolitan, which includes a tomato-based sauce without a trace of ketchup.)
The dish was a big hit and it was soon copied by other restaurants, but since tomato puree, not to mention fresh tomatoes, was expensive and scarce, ketchup was used instead. Ketchup was regarded as a high-quality condiment in Japan well into the 1960s, never acquiring the down-market image it has in the West.
Later, the addition of wiener sausages became popular and provided a cheap form of protein. This is the spaghetti Napolitan that is a fixture at yōshoku or restaurants serving Western-style Japanese cuisine. While the original version created by Irie may not have been that far from a Neapolitan-style spaghetti with tomato sauce, the current version is probably closer to the U.S. military-rationed spaghetti that inspired it.
There are some who question the Hotel New Grand’s ownership of the dish: It may have been the Japanese Imperial Navy that found inspiration in the pasta with tomato sauce eaten in Italy during World War I, or Mitsukoshi Department Store restaurants that served it along with other Western dishes, or even another restaurant in Yokohama that may have started serving it six years before the Hotel New Grand. Whatever its origins, though, today spaghetti Napolitan is considered to be a particularly Japanese dish that is quite different from Italian pasta — in the same way that curry rice is seen as uniquely Japanese and separate from Indian, Thai or other curry-type dishes.
The recipe this month is for a modified spaghetti Napolitan that is somewhere in between the original Neapolitan-inspired version (if we stick to the Hotel New Grand origin theory) and the current ketchup-sauced version. You can leave the ketchup if you prefer, but if you’re serving this to a Japanese old-timer you may want to leave out the tomato sauce and stick with just the ketchup instead.
Recipe: Spaghetti Napolitan
400 g spaghetti 1.7 mm or thicker
1 medium onion
1 clove garlic
1 small or ½ medium green bell pepper
4 slices bacon
8 small wiener sausages
2 tablespoons olive oil
100 ml tomato puree
2 tablespoons tomato ketchup
salt and pepper
chopped parsley and grated Parmesan cheese, to taste
Bring 4 liters of water to a boil and add two heaping tablespoons of salt.
Slice the onion and peppers thinly. Finely chop the garlic. Slice the mushrooms and cut the bacon into thin strips. Cut up the sausages diagonally.
When the water comes to a boil, cook the pasta. While the pasta is cooking, heat up the oil in a large frying pan and add the onions. When they have wilted, add the peppers and garlic. Saute until fragrant, sprinkle with a little salt and pepper, and take out of the pan.
Add the bacon and saute for two to three minutes, then add the sausages and mushrooms. Saute until the sausages are brown on the edges.
Add the vegetables back into the pan, with the tomato puree and ketchup. Stir, and add the cream.
Drain the cooked pasta and add it immediately to the frying pan. Stir to coat the pasta with the sauce. Season with salt and pepper. Serve topped with chopped parsley and grated cheese.