Pasta dishes are a staple of Italian cuisine, and though they are often considered to be simple, they can also be very versatile. Of all the pasta dishes known to man, one of the most well-known around the world is spaghetti Bolognese. A meat-based sauce, Bolognese is typically made by stewing ground beef with tomato, onion, herbs, spices and vegetables. The sauce is then served on a bed of pasta, sprinkled with grated parmigiano (parmesan) cheese. This universally-popular dish was invented in Bologna, Italy, where it is known as ragù alla Bolognese, or simply “ragu.” While the inventor of the sauce shall forever remain nameless, in 1891, a man named Pellegrino Artusi became the first person to publish a recipe for the now famous ragu.
Although most of us enjoy Bolognese sauce on spaghetti, in Italy, the sauce is traditionally served on tagliatelle. The pasta is to be freshly-made made with eggs and soft wheat flour, and cooked until al dente, which means firm, but not hard. Besides tagliatelle, broad-shaped pastas like pappardelle and fettuccine, or tube-shaped ones like rigatoni and penne, are considered acceptable alternatives for this dish. Interestingly, Italians don’t serve their Bolognese sauce with spaghetti, as the ground meat doesn’t stick well to this type of pasta.
The difference between Italian Bolognese and the rest of the world’s versions doesn’t end there. According to purists, most foreigners get the Bolognese sauce recipe wrong. They believe that the Bolognese sauce we know and love today, is a far cry from the original Italian recipe. To ensure that the authenticity of Italian Bolognese is never lost, in 1982, the Italian Academy of Cuisine (Accademia Italiana della Cucina), an organisation dedicated to preserving the culinary heritage of Italy, recorded a recipe for classic Bolognese ragù with the Bologna Chamber of Commerce (La Camera di Commercio di Bologna).
In the genuine article, the ragù alla Bolognese requires a variety of slow cooking techniques, such as sweating, sautéing and braising. The recipe also calls for finely-chopped onion, garlic, celery and carrot, as well as minced meat, typically beef, veal or pork, as the main ingredient. To add flavour, herbs like thyme, oregano and bay leaves, as well as spices such as black pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg may be used. According to celebrated Chef Mario Batalli, an expert in Italian cuisine, the classic ragù alla Bolognese also features pancetta (Italian bacon), milk, white wine and just a hint of tomato paste.
This is unlike the spaghetti Bolognese sauce known by the rest of the world, which is very tomato based. Outside Italy, the spaghetti is also rarely made fresh, and is purchased in dry form and boiled before use. Though not very authentic, spaghetti Bolognese remains a very popular “Italian” dish that is enjoyed all over the world. Known as “spag bog” or “spag bol,” in the United Kingdom and Australia, it is also one of the most re-interpreted Italian recipes, whether in professional or home kitchens.
In Malaysia, spaghetti Bolognese is often made in two variations, with minced beef or minced chicken. It is also not unusual for the dish to be served without parmesan cheese, or very sparingly, as it is a costly ingredient. Additionally, in halal eateries, pork, bacon and wine are left out of the recipe, although some local cooks substitute the wine with prune juice. Traditionally, when making spaghetti Bolognese sauce from scratch, the sauce will need to be simmered for as little as one hour to up to four hours. This is to break down the meat and vegetables. However, today, short cuts are possible thanks to ready-made Bolognese sauce sold in jars or cans.
Whether true to the Italian classic or not, spaghetti Bolognese will always be a favourite, as it offers an all-in-one meal that’s as filling as it is comforting.