What is Filipino-style spaghetti and why is it named one of the worst dishes in the world?

The sweet spaghetti prominently includes sugar and banana ketchup

Spaghetti from Jollibee. Photo: Jollibee
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A red sauce spaghetti is a quintessential dish at every birthday party in the Philippines, and it's typically a kind that is specific to Filipinos — prominently sweet, sometimes creamy, with cut-up hot dogs, and a few spoonfuls of banana ketchup.

This variation is starkly different from the traditional Italian Bolognese, which has a more tangy flavour, elevated by the addition of dried herbs such as oregano, basil and thyme.

Filipino-style spaghetti is often made at home, but fast-food chain Jollibee has cemented its stronghold on the Filipino palate — and introduced it to the world. Whether it's a Jollibee in the UAE, London or New York, a sweet spaghetti is definitely a key offering in its “jolly” menu.

This is why when TasteAtlas, an online catalogue of more than 10,000 foods and drinks, ranked it as one of the worst dishes in the world earlier this month, many Filipinos were quick to react. Some even called the platform “Tasteless Atlas”.

Three other Filipino dishes made it to the list, including hotsilog, a dry meal composed of hot dogs, garlic fried rice and fried egg; kinalas, a noodle soup dish with a thick deep-brown broth made by extracting pork or beef meat; and balut, or incubated duck eggs, that is a popular street food in the country.

"We all have different tastes. I don't like Italian spaghetti. Filipino spaghetti is still the best!" one Twitter user said.

"These dishes might be bad for foreigners, but good for those who grew up eating them," another user echoed.

Other reactions highlighted that taste was subjective, and that these dishes, especially the sweet spaghetti, have an emotional relevance to Filipinos.

"[The list] does not matter. These dishes are part of our culture," another Twitter user said.

“Filipinos are emotional, and this reflects a lot on our cuisine," Filipino chef David Pamplona tells The National. “The sweet spaghetti appeals more to children, whose palate tend to favour sweets rather than other flavours.”

Pamplona, who works as a food consultant in Dubai, describes Filipino food as predominantly “home-cooked” and “simple”. Even in his own style of cooking, he rarely follows written recipes.

"It's all about the feeling," he says.

This speaks to the popularity of sweet spaghetti, which, despite the diversity of the Filipino palate, still remains an important cultural dish. “It conjures a lot of childhood memories. I remember eating it from a clear plastic bag, without utensils, when I was in elementary school,” says Pamplona.

But more than the emotional weight of the dish, its popularity and sweetness could be a result of more practical, economical reasons.

Sugar production is a big industry in the South-East Asian nation. Manufacturers played a big role in its widespread use in cooking, wrote American historian John Larkin in his 1993 book Sugar and the Origins of Modern Philippine Society.

Another crucial ingredient of the sweet spaghetti is banana ketchup, which is believed to have been invented during the Second World War, when there was a shortage of tomatoes in the Philippines. The country is one of the biggest producers of bananas globally.

This history offers a more practical explanation of the flavour profile of a Filipino-style spaghetti — with many negative reactions to the TasteAtlas list alluding to it, while some questioned who the people behind the ranking were.

The website, that describes itself as “an encyclopedia of flavours", says its rankings are based on reviews.

Like every dish from every cuisine, taste is subjective. But for Filipinos, especially those who grew up eating sweet spaghetti, the ranking, it seems, is a little too difficult to swallow.

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Updated: February 18, 2023, 4:02 AM