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Originating as a simple dish from Rome, pasta carbonara relies heavily on rendered guanciale (cured pork jowl), or pancetta (an Italian salumi), to create what is essentially the ultimate bacon, egg and cheese dish.

It’s one of my favorite dishes to make (and eat), but authentic cured pork is nearly impossible to source in Japan — and no, those thin, flaccid slices of processed bacon just won’t cut it. But how can you make a legitimate carbonara without pork?

Working as a line cook in Philadelphia taught me to cherish maitake mushrooms. They were elusive (and expensive), but when they were in stock, every chef I knew would buy them up. I love them for their rich, earthy flavor and meaty texture — they are the star of any dish. When I first moved to Tokyo, I couldn’t believe how affordable and accessible they were.

Instead of pining over what I can’t have (delicious Italian cured pork), why not embrace what I do have (delicious Japanese mushrooms)? While nothing will ever quite live up to the real thing, this dish is just as simple and heartwarming as a classic carbonara, while also embracing the unique ingredients Japan has to offer.

The maitake and shiitake mushrooms, backed up by a hint of white miso, give this dish a salty, meaty and umami-rich quality that serves as a surprisingly effective stand-in for the guanciale a more traditional carbonara features. Garnished with a bit of kizami (shredded) nori to tie it all together, it’s an incredibly luxurious bowl of pasta that pairs well with a glass of sauvignon blanc for an impressive at-home dinner date.

Mise en place: Even without authentic Italian guanciale (cured pork jowl), it’s possible to make a rich, hearty carbonara with ingredients from any Japanese supermarket. | W. TANNER KIRK
Mise en place: Even without authentic Italian guanciale (cured pork jowl), it’s possible to make a rich, hearty carbonara with ingredients from any Japanese supermarket. | W. TANNER KIRK

Recipe: How to make mixed mushroom and miso carbonara

Serves 2

Prep: 5 mins.; cook: about 20 mins.

 

For the sauce:

2 whole eggs

3 additional egg yolks

1 cup (about 100 grams) of freshly grated or pre-grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons of freshly cracked black pepper

1 teaspoon of white miso

cup (about 300 milliliters) of reserved pasta cooking water

Salt to taste

 

For the pasta:

225 grams of dried pasta, about half a package

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups (about 300 grams) shiitake mushrooms, medium diced

2 cups (about 300 grams) maitake mushrooms, medium diced

3 large cloves of garlic, thinly sliced

1 large pinch of salt

¼ cup (about 5 grams) of thinly sliced green onion

Kizami (shredded) nori, for garnish

 

1. First make the sauce. Add the eggs and egg yolks to a medium-sized bowl along with the grated Parmesan, black pepper, and miso. Whisk together until thick and homogenous.

2. Preheat a stainless steel pan, pot or dutch oven over medium-high heat and add olive oil. It’s very important that the pan is hot, as the temperature will drop once you add in the mushrooms and achieving a deep browning on the mushrooms is the key to this dish. Once the olive oil is shimmering in the pan, add the mushrooms with a generous pinch of salt and reduce heat to medium. Saute over medium heat for 10 minutes, or until they’ve released their moisture and are browned.

3. As soon as the mushrooms are browned, drop your pasta of choice into a large pot of heavily salted water heated to a rolling boil.

4. Reduce the heat under the pan to low and add the garlic, stirring until softened and fragrant. You can add another tablespoon of olive oil if you feel your pan is too dry.

5. After the pasta has been cooking for about five minutes, retrieve ¼ cup (about 60 milliliters) of water from the pot with a measuring cup, taking care not to scald your hands. Whisking vigorously, slowly pour the pasta water into the bowl containing the sauce mixture. This will temper the eggs, preventing them from scrambling, as well as loosen up your sauce. The sauce should now have a smooth and silky texture. If not, slowly add pasta water, a tablespoon at a time, until the sauce loosens up.

6. Once your pasta has been cooking for six or seven minutes, until just shy of al dente, reserve another cup of pasta water and drain the pasta into a colander. Introduce the pasta and the cup of cooking water to the mushrooms and cook on medium heat for an additional two to three minutes, stirring occasionally. This will allow the pasta to finish cooking while also absorbing all of the delicious, umami-rich flavor that you’ve developed in the pan.

7. Once the pasta has finished cooking and the majority of the pasta water has been absorbed, remove the pan from the heat and add the green onions and sauce to the pan, stirring constantly. The residual heat will allow the eggs to cook slightly, bringing the entire dish together with a luscious and luxurious finish.

8. Serve in a bowl garnished with a pinch of kizami nori.

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