Hot Dog-Packed Sweet Spaghetti Took Over the Philippines. Is the US Next?
Filipino spaghetti is made with banana ketchup rather than ordinary tomato sauce and features sliced hot dogs.
In the tropical islands of the Philippines, where ripe bananas hang heavy like the humidity, there exists a dish that is a quaint doppelganger of traditional spaghetti and meatballs. The noodles are the same, but instead of standard spherical meatballs as the main protein, this dish calls for diagonally-cut slices of hot dog in a medley of ground beef and sweet peppers. The sauce is a familiar vibrant red -- like that of a traditional tomato sauce -- but in place of marinara, this recipe is developed using dyed banana ketchup. This is a story about how sweet, Filipino spaghetti came to be -- and why this comfort food isn’t going away anytime soon.
Filipino spaghetti is a timeless dish that dates back to when European traders sailed the oceans in search of spice and salt. The noodles were brought over then, and adapted, to fit the needs of Filipino natives. Like many Filipino foods, there is a historical ebb and flow of new ingredients and interpretations of foods, brought by traders, settlers, and colonizers.
Following the pasta came the satisfyingly sweet sauce. When America colonized the Philippines in the late 1800s, they brought with them canned goods -- including the illustrious tomato ketchup. Filipinos found the dip to be perfect for anything and everything: French fries, hot dogs, chicken wings. The tangy condiment became a mainstay in Filipino cuisine. Unfortunately, during the second World War, food was scarce. Pair that with the fact that tomatoes don’t grow as well in the Philippines’ humid conditions and it became clear that Filipinos had to find a more available alternate. Enter a fruit that not only grows in the Philippines’ climate, but thrives: the humble banana.
Banana ketchup was invented by the widely celebrated Filipina food technologist and pharmaceutical chemist, Maria Orosa, who also taught the country methods of preserving special delicacies, like calamansi juice and adobo, extracted vinegar from pineapples, and made flour from coconuts. As documented by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, “Advances in modern Filipino food technology owe a great deal to the creative researches and salutary inventiveness of a woman chemist and pharmacist from Batangas.”
There isn’t a specific timeline that shows when the spaghetti, banana ketchup sauce, and hot dogs came together and formed what we now call Filipino spaghetti. It’s rumored that General Douglas MacArthur, the American Field Marshal of the Philippine army during World War II, was served a Filipino interpretation of spaghetti napolitan (which is already an interpretation in and of itself -- a Japanese-style spaghetti).
As noted by writers Sue Halpbern and Bill McKibben for Smithsonian Mag, “Filipino cuisine was Asian fusion before there was Asian fusion. It has borrowed and modified elements of Chinese, Spanish, Malaysian, Thai, and Mongolian cooking, to name just a few of its influences.” The creation of Pinoy spaghetti is a perfect example of a dish resulting from a blend of cultures. Instead of the savory tang a typical tomato-based spaghetti sauce has, Filipino spaghetti gets its unique sweetness from banana ketchup, which is exported to dozens of countries with large Filipino populations. It’s nicely balanced with the saltiness from hot dogs, which also adds a textural snap.
Filipino spaghetti has even made its way to fast food menus across the Philippines, including that of worldwide-known Jollibee -- which opened its first US location in Daly City back in 1998 -- and McDonalds. The “Jolly Spaghetti” and “McSpaghetti,” as they are respectively known, both feature the sweet and spicy banana ketchup-based sauce and sliced hot dogs that are at the core of what Filipino spaghetti is.
Though the dish has only expanded in popularity, and is considered a must-serve item at Filipino parties, not everyone is in love with the sweet pasta.
“When we were growing up, we lived with our grandparents on our dad’s side and they used to always make Filipino spaghetti and I loved it -- with the hot dogs in there. It was one of my favorite things that they would make,” said Ross Pangilinan, the chef and owner of Filipino-fusion restaurant Mix-Mix in Santa Ana, California. But over time, the delight in the dish subsided. “Now, when I look at it, I can’t eat it,” he admitted. That being said, Pangilinan declared Filipino spaghetti a staple party food, and also shared that his children love it.
Chef Ross’s story also coincides with reporting from Filipino food magazine, Pepper. “Sweet spaghetti is like that kitschy ‘90s boy band song on your iPhone playlist: it’s something you’d rather not admit to liking… but good gracious, I still have a raging craving for the stuff from time to time,” writes Serna Estrella. “Apart from being a Filipino comfort food staple (and Italian culinary nightmare), sweet spaghetti is also the default children’s party dish… resulting in the ultimate nostalgia evoking birthday dish-slash-comfort food on this side of the globe.”
Even Jollibee’s brand manager, Dianne Yerro, acknowledges the legendary dish as a must-have party food. “It’s not your typical Italian-style spaghetti… Jolly Spaghetti is similar to what is usually served at children’s birthday parties in the Philippines. Kids love it, as well as kids at heart.”
Whenever and wherever it's consumed, sweet Filipino spaghetti continues to be both an iconic and nostalgic dish for Filipinos everywhere. It’s a dish developed from scarcity and highlights the ways that food can evolve in new, different environments to satisfy the needs of a people. And if you haven’t tried Filipino spaghetti yet, you should -- because life is sweet and so is this spaghetti.