Brow Beat

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

A love letter to ketchup.

Spaghetti with red sauce and a fried egg.
Photo by Ty Mecham; Anna Billingskog (Food Stylist); Brooke Deonarine (Prop Stylist)

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.”

The result? Bunsik restaurants that served affordably priced, big-portioned plates, like jjajangmyeontteokbokki, 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.

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.

Ketchup Spaghetti for One

Serves 1.

• 4 ounces spaghetti (I prefer thin, but regular is fine)
• Kosher salt, to taste
• 1 large organic egg
• Olive oil, for frying egg
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
• 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
• 1/2 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
• 2 tablespoons ketchup^
• 1 pinch sugar
• 1 tablespoon milk
• 1/4 cup Parmesan
• 1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley

See the full recipe on Food52.

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