food · The Big Durian

Cultural Exchange Series: Spaghetti Bolognese



The third evolution of my version of spaghetti Bolognese


For me, spaghetti Bolognese is another dish associated with my late childhood memory. I remember when my grandma first made it for me, probably when I was around 10, and I told her how much I loved it. Being my grandma, of course, she ended up making it for me every day for the next one week. By the end of that week, I had to take a break from spaghetti, yet it was something that I would ask my grandma to cook every now and then.

As I recall my history with spaghetti Bolognese, I’m realizing that is probably the only dish my grandma had ever shown me how to make without kicking me out of the kitchen.

To my grandma and most Indonesians of her generations, the only Italian food was spaghetti and it had to be served with this ground beef and tomato sauce concoction that has been bastardized so much to suit the Indonesian taste. Fellow Italians, if you think the American version of spaghetti Bolognese is bad, you’re going to cringe even more when you hear about our version. My grandma puts garlic, chicken buillion, ketchup, chili sauce and sugar in the meat sauce. If that doesn’t make your spine curl yet, in the Philippines people also put condensed milk in the sauce and substitute the ground beef with hotdog cuts. I’m guessing the latter is another product influenced by the war time.

In reality, spaghetti Bolognese doesn’t even exist Italy. Even if you go to Bologna, a food heaven which name is associated with the dish, nobody will have a clue what spaghetti Bolognese is, unless perhaps they have been to the US. They call it tagliatelle al ragu. Tagliatelle is a type of pasta that is similar to fettucine, except wider, while ragu refers to a meaty sauce, slow cooked to perfection with very little seasoning. In Bologna, ragu consists of onion, lean ground beef, tomato sauce. Some salt and pepper to taste. Done. No oregano. No basil. No garlic. No fuss. In other parts of the country, you might find a different type of ragu served with a different type of pasta.

Back in Davis, my friend’s mom, who was visiting from Italy, was kind enough to teach me how to make the real version of the sauce. It takes so much patience and self-containment, as everything has to be cooked very slowly with constant attention and minimal seasoning. The ingredients should speak for themselves.

She made me promise not to put anything else other than those three main ingredients, yet I can’t help but to add my own little kick to suit my parents’ and Sean’s taste. Chili flakes, anyone?

Spaghetti Bolognese is indeed one of our family’s favorite choices of dinner. I used to make it for my parents before I left for graduate school, I used to make it for Sean in Davis and I still do make it for our somewhat newly updated family now that I’m back in Jakarta. What’s tricky is how to adjust the flavor to everyone’s liking. Now that my palate has slightly changed, Mom will complain that the sauce is not sweet enough and Dad will automatically ask for sweet soy sauce as soon as food is laid on the dinner table. Meanwhile, Sean will comment that it’s not as spicy as I used to make it for him back when it was just the two of us. I had to change the seasonings a couple of times to find the right composition that would hopefully make everyone happy. However, despite the fact that everyone still enjoys the dish, there’s always something to improve.

If anything, I’ve learned one thing through the evolution of my spaghetti Bolognese. We all make compromises. I had to pick and choose which could be added into the dish and at the same time let go of certain things. One goal is in mind for sure: how can I make the dish better for whom I’m making it?

Today 42% of the citizens of Jakarta may have experienced a heart break, one that might cost us the next four years. It will determine the future of my hometown, with its plethora of diversity and animosity to become better, to improve towards success and the ability to say, “Yes, I am a Jakartan and I am proud of it”. I’m willing to make a compromise and let the other guy do the work he claims he’s capable of doing. Here’s to hoping that the other side of the party is willing to do so as well.



2 thoughts on “Cultural Exchange Series: Spaghetti Bolognese

  1. I know what you mean all too well. Indonesians make pasta with ketchup, just like the Japanese! Haha and I have been to Bologna and eaten tagliatelle al ragu at one of their traditional eateries there. Come to it, spaghetti bolognese is probably one “Italian” dish that is close to the heart of many Indonesians (pizza hut, anyone?)


    1. The funny thing is, I think a lot of the “Western” food in Indonesia are somehow rooted to the American interpretation of many dishes around the world. The whole sauce and mayo lathered all over our sushi? That’s American!


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