Filipino Spaghetti — How to make Alvin Cailan's version of this sweet and 'strictly Filipino' recipe
In his cookbook Amboy: Recipes from the Filipino-American Dream, he adapts a favourite dish he made growing up
Perhaps Filipino spaghetti is a staple at family gatherings, or you’ve had it at Jollibee (or maybe you’ve never tried it before!) — but chef Alvin Cailan’s recipe might look slightly different than others. Read on for his version of this famous dish, featured in Cailan’s cookbook, AMBOY: Recipes from the Filipino-American Dream — and why he thinks you should never ever mix it before serving!
By Alvin Cailan
This dish is not like Italian spaghetti at all—it’s extremely weird, hypersweet, and often served at big family gatherings, like funerals. Danilo and I would make it for the nuns at Sacred Heart. I remember having to defrost tons of hot dogs for it and using crazy amounts of banana ketchup for the sauce.
Now, I try to make sense of it all. Instead of using sweet banana ketchup, I’ll make a gastrique. In French cooking, you reduce sugar and vinegar into a syrup and you use that to tighten sauces. In my opinion, you can’t use San Marzano tomatoes in this recipe. It’s not an Italian dish. It’s a strictly Filipino dish. You have to channel your inner Filipino to understand. I use Pomì tomatoes, which are on the sweeter side.
In this recipe, I use large chunks of onion. For me, if you can’t see a big petal of onion, it’s not Filipino spaghetti. I also throw in chopped garlic, a bit of sugar, soy sauce for depth of flavor, ground pork, and hot dogs.
I love Jollibee’s fast-food rendition of Filipino spaghetti. I don’t like the version I usually see at house parties. It’s almost always a joke dish, overly sweetened and unappetizing on purpose—with cold shredded cheddar on top and room-temperature pasta that is always overcooked.
When I have really bad Filipino spaghetti, I just imagine a Betty Crocker postcard landing in the Philippines and being picked up by a lady who wants to make something that looks exactly like the picture on the card but lacks the ingredients to do it. So she makeshifts the recipe: “We don’t have tomato sauce, but we have ketchup, so let’s just use ketchup.” It’s a culture based on necessity.
In my experience, Filipino spaghetti is never mixed. That would defeat the customizability of it. I’ll place a pot of spaghetti sauce next to the noodles, but that’s as close to “mixing” as I go. Your ratio is your prerogative, so have as much as you want!
- 3 tbsp canola oil
- 1 large onion, cut into 1-inch chunks
- ¼ cup chopped garlic (about 8 cloves)
- 1½ lbs ground pork
- 1 tsp kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
- 1 (6-oz) can tomato paste
- 2 ripe bananas, diced
- 1 (26.46-oz) box Pomì strained tomatoes
- 1 red bell pepper, roasted, seeded, and chopped
- ½ cup sugar
- ½ cup rice vinegar
- ¼ cup Datu Puti or Silver Swan soy sauce (available at Asian markets and on Amazon)
- 4 hot dogs, sliced at an angle
- 1 lb spaghetti, preferably Barilla
- 1 lb Edam cheese (rind removed and discarded) or 2 (7-oz) cans Kraft pasteurized cheddar cheese, shredded, for serving
For the sauce, heat a medium Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot over high heat until hot. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil and cut the heat to medium. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until the onion is translucent, 3 to 5 minutes.
Add the pork, breaking up the meat, and stir to combine. Season with the salt and cook, stirring constantly, until the pork has caramelized and is an even brown, 7 to 10 minutes.
Add your tomato paste and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the bananas and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Cut the heat to super low. Add your tomatoes and roasted red bell pepper and scrape up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is reduced by one-third and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 1 hour.
In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and vinegar and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Once the sauce is bubbling, cut the heat to medium-low and cook until the gastrique is viscous, clear, and light yellow in color, 3 to 5 minutes.
Transfer the hot gastrique to your tomato sauce. Add the soy sauce and cook stirring occasionally, until the flavors marry, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat a small frying pan over medium heat until hot. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and heat until you see the oil ripple, about 30 seconds. Add the hot dogs and cook, stirring constantly, until crisp and caramelized around the edges, 3 to 5 minutes.
Throw the hot dogs into the tomato sauce and continue to cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the flavors marry, 5 to 10 minutes.
While the sauce is cooking, fill a large stockpot with water and bring it to a rolling boil over high heat. Season generously with salt. It should taste like seawater. Add your spaghetti and cook according to the package directions, stirring occasionally. Drain the spaghetti.
Divvy up the spaghetti into bowls and serve with the sauce. Sprinkle on as much shredded cheese as you desire, and serve hot and weird!
Yield: Makes 4-6 servings
Excerpted from AMBOY: Recipes from the Filipino-American Dream © 2020 by Alvin Cailan. Photography © 2020 by Wyatt Conlon. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.