Writing by Diya Mukherjee // @diyas.dinners
Carbonara became a regular fixture in my life around six years ago, when my friend Zuzka and I moved to Madrid together. We had both just been dumped by not-very-nice boyfriends back in London, and we were processing our heartbreak with takeaway pizza and pasta on a near daily basis, from the tiny Italian restaurant next door. Inspired to curb our spending habits by buying in bulk, we bought a litre carton of pasteurised ready-mixed egg. It had an oddly thin consistency, and a yellow-grey colour that was faintly reminiscent of mucus. It looked too suspicious to make omelettes with or to scramble, but we were staunchly opposed to any sort of waste — it had to be used up.
So began our tradition of regularly making carbonara for each other with the runny egg mucus in our sparsely furnished flat just off the Puerta del Sol. With enough grated cheese, hot pasta, and salty fat rendered from corner shop lardons, we conjured something bordering on decadent from the carton’s contents. In time, we could judge exactly the right temperature to add the egg mixture to the pan to avoid it scrambling, adding splashes of starchy pasta water until the sauce was just right — silken, clinging to each individual spaghetti strand. Any friend, date, or relative that passed through our doors was unfailingly given a mug of tea and a bowl of spaghetti (boiled in the same saucepan, given our limited kitchen supplies at the time). When money was tight we would even make a bastardised, vegetarian, not-quite-carbonara, sparing the luxury of meat in favour of crushed garlic fried in cheap olive oil.
It was in Madrid that I felt the first flickerings of anxiety. I was constantly nervous, and simply could not figure out why. Back home, I had a reputation as a big eater: friends and family joked about my ability to put away a week’s worth of food in a single meal. Now it felt like my throat was clamped shut. It was as if every organ in my body, every muscle fibre, was poised for something truly dreadful to happen. Zuzka didn’t even have to ask if I was hungry when I walked through the door — she knew to put the pancetta in the pan, and put her arms around me. I would bury my head in her curls, and inhale the smell of sizzling pork mingling with her smokey perfume. Bit by bit, breath by breath, calm would slowly fall over me, and I would feel suddenly, rapturously starving. We still make carbonara for each other whenever we meet, with each of us adding increasingly sophisticated flourishes: Zuzka now makes her own heavenly linguine from scratch, I have been introduced to crispy guanciale, and both of us have thankfully graduated to using actual eggs.
Carbonara is the first meal my partner Sean ever made for me, which I inhaled after a week of eating lukewarm dinners in the office in the run up to a trial. My body was constantly tense in a way that I was now familiar with. I would do back-to-back sixteen hour days, wading knee deep in paperwork, screaming internally at the assault of a thousand emails - but no matter, there was light at the end of the tunnel. Salvation would soon come in the form of Sean, quietly unpacking pecorino and guanciale onto the kitchen counter, and pouring me a glass of chilled wine.
I’m fairly certain that my love for carbonara is rooted in my adoration for these two people, and their sixth sense of knowing when I need comforting most. My fridge almost always contains a few chunks of some sort of hard Italian cheese, and I keep a stash of pancetta cubes in my freezer, ready for weary souls in need of soothing. Most recently, I make it for my parents, who work on the NHS front line, and come home exhausted after carrying the burden of others’ suffering. Nothing I do can alleviate this, but ours is not a sentimental family, and this is my small way of saying that it was their turn to be cared for after a long day of caring for others. And while I’ve had the most incredible restaurant carbonaras, I must say — it never tastes quite as good as when it’s made for you by someone who really loves you. Even if it’s out of a carton.
This piece was originally published in our third issue, Back to Basics. Get your copy here: