Pasta

The Story of Spaghetti Napolitan, Japan's Best Pasta Dish

A love letter to ketchup.

by:
May  3, 2019
Photo by Ty Mecham; Anna Billingskog (Food Stylist); Brooke Deonarine (Prop Stylist)

Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms.


Before I ever tasted spaghetti Napolitan (or what I like to call "ketchup spaghetti"), I had omurice, a Japanese-style fluffy omelet over a bed of ketchupy fried rice.

Regularly, in fact. My family and I ate it once a week at Don Quixote, a Korean bunsik ("food made from flour") restaurant down the street from our church in Buford, Georgia. In the late '80s, as South Korean immigrants were just starting to move to Atlanta and set up shop, the one place to get comfort food from back home (like noodles, rice cake soup, and Korean fried chicken) was on Buford Highway, now a veritable treasure trove of immigrant cuisines.

As Irene Yoo tells it, during the 1960s in South Korea, "Park Chung-hee strived to regulate rice consumption among his people in order to grow the nation’s reserves. 'No rice days' were implemented, and citizens were encouraged to eat more flour-based dishes and mix alternative grains into their white rice."

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Top Comment:
“My mom put ketchup in so much when I was growing up, from spaghetti meat sauce to Chinese “Russian” soup. So I still do it. I can’t wait to try this. (PS I grew up in Greenville, SC and my family used to drive all the way to ATL / Buford highway for our Asian food fixes!) Thank you for another awesome article.”
— Cynthia C.
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The result? Bunsik restaurants that served affordably priced, big-portioned plates, like jjajangmyeon, tteokbokki, and omurice.

Spaghetti Napolitan is tangentially related to omurice for a couple of reasons:

  1. First, its base is also a ketchup-laden carbohydrate, fried in butter, then topped with an egg.
  2. Second, its long and twirly story, like omurice's, most likely starts in Japan. Due in large part to colonization, Korea and Japan have for centuries been linked—culturally, linguistically, and especially culinarily. So tomato ketchup is, for me, as Korean and Japanese as it is American.

There's a connection here, actually, with the United States: namely what happens when Asian countries start to interpret Western food, but also the influence of war on cuisine. As Namiko Hirasawa Chen of the Just One Cookbook blog claims,

The strongest theory is that ketchup spaghetti originated in [postwar] Yokohama. Around the 1950s, the head chef at the New Grand Hotel created this recipe when he was inspired by the spaghetti and tomato sauce dish served for the American military. Since tomato sauce was a rare ingredient, ketchup was used as a substitute for the pasta. He then named it Spaghetti Napolitan, after Naples, Italy.

The "ketchup" in ketchup spaghetti, aka Napolitan, has certainly piqued my interest as a lover of food history and unique trends. Yet I've found that my peers are significantly less excited about this dish whenever I mention it to them.

"Ketchup spaghetti?! Gross!"

People hear the words "ketchup" and "spaghetti" together and cringe without knowing its history and, most importantly, how fabulous it actually tastes.

So why are people so scared of Japan's best pasta dish?

I have a theory: I've found that the American palate has for so many decades been conditioned to associate Heinz ketchup as a condiment, disallowing any acknowledgement of it as an ingredient in its own right. Which is unfortunate because (hear me out) when you caramelize it in butter, onions, and red bell peppers, it gains an almost tomato paste–like flavor that pairs beautifully with pasta.

It is telling, too, when you realize that the word ketchup may borrow from the Cantonese k'ē chap ("tomato juice"), or from the Southern Min kôe-chiap (Xiamen) and kê-chiap (Zhangzhou). This can be a little confusing because kôe or means "salted or pickled fish or shellfish." But there's a reason for that: While not its current tomato variation, kôe/kê-chiap was a table fish sauce that the British brought over from China around the 1700s, which means tomato ketchup is, at least etymologically, Asian by origin.

In the late '80s, as South Korean immigrants were just starting to move to Atlanta and set up shop, the one place to get comfort food from back home (like noodles, rice cake soup, and Korean fried chicken) was on Buford Highway, now a veritable treasure trove of immigrant cuisines.

But maybe you have your own ketchup spaghetti story.

Our Big Little Recipes columnist Emma Laperruque, for instance, remembers eating something she called "ketchup spaghetti," thanks to her doting grandma who boiled a packet of spaghetti and doused it in the tomato-y condiment.

"It was literally my favorite thing, and she was the only one who made it for me," she tells me. "And her fridge was always stocked with grape juice boxes to go with."

Though my version may be less nostalgic than that, it certainly relies on ketchup in the same way, i.e. as feature presentation. It's a sweeter tomato sauce for pasta, that's for sure, but it's also got some sharpness from the vinegar which adds a bright note to an otherwise simple spaghetti dish.

My advice? Don't knock it till you've tried it.

Do you have a "ketchup spaghetti" story? Tell, tell in the comments below.
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Eric Kim is a Senior Editor at Food52, where his weekly solo dining column, Table for One, runs every Friday morning. Formerly the Digital Manager at Food Network, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.

49 Comments

patricia G. June 21, 2019
Buttery pasta tossed with a squirt of sweet-sour-umami-ish tomato ketchup and parmesan -- an emergency/comfort food of my childhood. My mother was Belgian and I spent my early growing-up years in Kuala Lumpur, so goodness knows how this combo originated in my family.... but, trust me, it's oddly felicitous. Just another example of the universality of this homey dish.
 
Deb June 10, 2019
Going back to childhood (60 years ago), one of my go-to comfort foods has been leftover spaghetti heated up with a ketchup and milk mixture and some butter. The best part was the crunchy spaghetti at the bottom of the pot (pity my poor father, who usually cleaned it!). The dish was finished off with grated American cheese (sadly, no longer available, so now I use shredded cheddar). I don’t know who in my family came up with this dish — my ancestry is Eastern European — but it has been interesting to learn in recent years that pasta and ketchup is a frequent combination in Asian/Asian-American cooking.
 
Zorayda N. May 13, 2019
My dilemma now is how do we make this recipe Keto friendly and keep the essence of this yummy dish 🧐🧐
 
Lucy B. May 13, 2019
My mother came from Poland and never heard of pasta and tomato sauce is her early years here in America. A neighbor in the building she was living gave her some Italian pasta and meatballs with sauce. She fell in love with it. Trying to duplicate the dish she came up with spaetzle (pasta) and ketchup as the sauce. We children all loved it!! The article brings back memories!
 
karon May 13, 2019
Where is the vinegar in the ingredient list?
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 13, 2019
Hi karon! No vinegar in the ingredients, but I see the confusion in my words: I meant to describe the vinegar that's typically found in store-bought ketchup.
 
Allie September 1, 2019
Can you edit it, maybe? Several months later and I was confused by the very same thing. I would generally not suggest an edit but I spent a bit of time looking back and forth on your ingredients looking for the vinegar. It would be great to edit/clarify bc this is such a good article in so many other ways!
 
suzy May 12, 2019
In winter, my mom made hamburgers on the stovetop griddle, and served them over egg noodles with brown butter. I would stir a bunch of ketchup into the noodles -- I can taste it now! That was 45 years ago, and I still make it once it a while...
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 13, 2019
I love that.
 
Carlos C. May 9, 2019
My first experience with spaghetti ketchup was in Haitian breakfast. A really popular breakfast dish is spaghetti with hotdogs dressed in ketchup (and other seasonings, of course). The US also invaded and occupied Haiti for a long time, and this is how the country got exposed to spaghetti, hotdogs and ketchup. Ketchup is actually a fantastic ingredient to have on hand. It can balance out the savoriness in a bolognese, can make an excellent sweet and sour sauce, and makes an excellent glaze for pretty much anything. I think one of the issues with a lot of these US processed foods is that as a people, Americans really are attached to receiving instructions for what to do with their food. I blame Fanny Farmer for turning cooking into this unnecessarily rigid, pseudo-scientific chore instead of the vehicle for creative expression it truly is. I am always amazed at how chained people in this country are to recipes and how many people treat recipes as if they are mandates from God. I feel the same is true for manufacturers' intended uses of a product. Heinz specified ketchup is for dipping fries, so in many peoples' eyes, that's all they can do with it. Spam needs to be eaten plain, cold and on white bread with mayonnaise, so that's all people do with it. Of course, they will get bored of it soon and abandon these products. In other cultures, we try to make potato salad from potatoes and lemonade from lemons. We look at these products and come up with new ways for using them, for bringing out the best in them. And that is why they stick around and are so much more popular than in their countries of origin. It's like American culture doesn't give people permission to experiment and be creative in the kitchen....and this is why we look down on ketchup as an ingredient....because it feels like a transgression to go against the serving suggestion.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 9, 2019
Very convincing, Carlos. Thanks for being an advocate!
 
Maaahia May 6, 2019
Very interesting! When I was little I used to have spaghetti with ketchup whenever my mum was too busy to cook a "real" meal for us kids. I live in Germany and this is actually realtively normal kids' food here. My sister and I still make it, especially after a drink or five! I highly recommend adding fried breadcrumbs :)
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 7, 2019
I've been reading that all week! That this is a German thing, too. Thanks for sharing, Maaahia.
 
Katsu Y. May 5, 2019
I am Japanese American. This is not a Japanese American dish, so much as it is a Japanese dish, from Japan. It is considered 'yoshoku' or Western style Japanese food (which includes curry rice and other dishes that seemed to have especially been adopted post WW2). That said, I am not a fan. The Italian Americans that I grew up with taught me better. This dish is also on the sweet side and less savory than Italian American pastas.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 9, 2019
Thanks for pointing out, Katsu!
 
ANHDAO N. May 5, 2019
I grew up with immigrant viet parents in North Carolina. My mom made this ketchup-spaghetti bolognese that lended itself to more of a sloppy joe. My bowls were always 70% sauce and 30% pasta. I haven’t had it since I was a teenager (I guess I discovered Olive Garden (blech!!)? Still to this day I secretly crave it and I’m soooo glad I’m not the only one out there with this strange craving. I’ll have to make it one night and spin it off as this great Food52 editor’s pick! ;)
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 7, 2019
Aw, I love your story. Half of my family immigrated to North Carolina in the ‘80s. There’s something to be said for the universality of this dish (read the comments below—everyone has a ‘ketchup spaghetti’). Also, though I know this isn’t your point: Olive Garden has really, really good salad.
 
Valeria K. May 5, 2019
Growing up in the Soviet Union exotic good was rare. So rare, in fact that I did not try toast bread until I was 8 years old and we'd moved to Germany. We ate peanut butter on untoasted white bread, smothered everything in ketchup until we grew sick and tired ... until we could bear the sight no longer. Now, I'm well in to my 30's and live with my husband and son in Charleston, SC. Those exotic foods I grew up with that are now all too familiar in my refrigerator, bring back a certain nostalgia from time to time and I am glad that I'll be able to pass on the tomato sauce made out of ketchup and other oddities to my son. To him, it'll be a fascinating part of history. To me, at one point, it was all we had as a family but sad thoughts aside, those are the moments I cherish most with my family.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 7, 2019
Nostalgia is a powerful spice.
 
Carolyn May 5, 2019
My parents brought a picnic lasagna for a few of my brothers SC Gamecocks co-players. The, now pretty famous, quarterback asked for ketchup. My Mom replied, “If you put ketchup on my lasagna, you will have a problem with any more of your perfect passes.” I bet she would be sorry now. No, he wasn’t from Japan.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 7, 2019
Sounds yummy to me! Ha.
 
Regine May 5, 2019
We have a similar dish in Haiti with ketchup (or tomato paste), butter or oil, onions and hotdog. The onions and sliced hotdogs are cooked in the butter/oil and mixed with spaghetti. The flavor imparted by the combination of fried onions and hotdog with the ketchup or tomato paste gives a special flavor to the dish. I recall having it for breakfast. My son requests it quite often and calls it Haitian spaghetti. I will also sometimes make it without hotdogs and instead add a tiny bit of herring paste to further enhance the umami flavor of the dish.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 5, 2019
I didn't know that! Thanks for sharing, Regine. I had to Google "herring paste"—delicious.
 
Cynthia C. May 4, 2019
Yes!!!!! This is the first time I’ve ever heard of spaghetti Napolitan and I feel I’ve been bereft until now. My mom put ketchup in so much when I was growing up, from spaghetti meat sauce to Chinese “Russian” soup. So I still do it. I can’t wait to try this. (PS I grew up in Greenville, SC and my family used to drive all the way to ATL / Buford highway for our Asian food fixes!)

Thank you for another awesome article.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 5, 2019
I love that! Didn't know you grew up in the South, too. Thanks for reading, Cynthia x
 
Alessandra May 4, 2019
Noooooo dai! Che orrore!!!!! I Napoli a si rivolterebbero nella tomba!!!!!! 😫😫😫
 
gourmet B. May 5, 2019
This dish has nothing to do with Naples, but I'm guessing you didn't read the piece.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 7, 2019
Right, this dish is almost apologetically un-Italian. Stems from postwar rations. It’s unfortunate, though, that people are so myopically minded that they can’t recognize that food travels and evolved through time and space.
 
Kara May 4, 2019
My favorite izakaya here in Japan serves the most delicious tomato ramen made with ketchup! So interesting to read a bit about the history, as we’re only a stone’s throw from Yokohama. Thanks!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 4, 2019
I love the idea of "tomato ramen."
 
Kara May 5, 2019
It’s seriously amazing!
 
Katie May 5, 2019
I just moved to Tokyo and NEED to know where this tomato ramen place is as part of my plan to eat as much ramen as possible in the 2 years I'll be here!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 5, 2019
Same!
 
Pam S. May 4, 2019
Due to shortage of tomatoes during WW2 (or shortly thereafter), people got creative with tomato dishes. Try banana ketchup, sautéed with garlic, onions olive oil, tomato paste and ground beef. Even the pickiest-eater child won’t be able to resist.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 4, 2019
Banana ketchup! Sounds marvelous.
 
Zorayda N. May 5, 2019
Yes and you can use Banana Ketchup on chicken and pork bbq :)
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 5, 2019
Delicious.
 
Zorayda N. May 4, 2019
Hey the Japanese are not alone and we Filipinos must have used Ketchup first because America colonized the Philippines ahead of Japan before WW2. So you can get Filipino spaghetti at Jollibee and it has Banana Ketchup and hot dogs! Oh how sweet it is!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 4, 2019
So interesting! For sure, ketchup definitely has early connections to the then Malay states (and southern China), so the Philippines makes sense.
 
Emily May 3, 2019
I lived in Prague for a year in the late 90s and I was fascinated or horrified (depending on the day) with ketchup spaghetti packages sold in the supermarket. Heinz ketchup and a packet of spaghetti noodles were sold together in a convenient cardboard carrying case. I never bought one.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 3, 2019
That's so fascinating.
 
Whiteantlers May 3, 2019
I've never eaten ketchup spaghetti but my grandmother (one of the world's worst cooks) used to make something like it and told us kids it was a Great Depression dish. She would fry left over spaghetti flattened out like a pancake in bacon grease, browning both sides so they were quite dark. This got transferred to a plate, topped with cottage cheese and ketchup. I would not eat it. Ever. I did rely on ketchup and horseradish to help me get my Nana's cooking down because it was pretty much inedible otherwise. As a result, I grew up thinking of ketchup as something that was a necessity to cover the taste of vile food rather than a complementary condiment.

My sister shocked me once when I invited her over to dinner with her ketchup request. This was in the early 70s and I was learning Cantonese cooking. I'd made several dishes and a large pot of steamed rice. I brought everything to the table family style and sat down to enjoy the food. My sister served herself then sat expectantly without touching anything. I asked what she needed and she asked, "Where's the ketchup?" I said it was in the fridge, where it belonged, but she would not eat anything until I brought it out and she mixed it generously into each of her dishes. Is this a thing?! I was aghast.

Finally, Eric, as a food historian, do you think ketjap manis, the Indonesian condiment composed of soy sauce, palm sugar and seasonings like garlic, ginger, dried chiles, curry leaves and star anise is distantly related to American ketchup?
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 4, 2019
I love hearing your side of the ketchup story. For what it's worth, I'd totally eat your Nana's cottage cheese/ketchup spaghetti cake. Sounds DELICIOUS.

Re: ketjap manis, great question. I'm not finding any historical/culinary connection, but I bet it's related to the table fish sauce that inspired English colonists to make mushroom ketchup -> then later, tomato ketchup.