This summer, I ate at Basta Pasta in NYC, which is a restaurant that makes pasta the way that it is made by Italian restaurants in Japan. Although many of their dishes are classic Italian, there are a few surprising dishes that top Italian pasta noodles with a mixture of Japanese and Italian ingredients. In other words, it is Japanese-style spaghetti; in Japan this is called wafu pasta or wafu spaghetti since wafu (sometimes also spelled wafuu) means “Japanese-style”. As JustHungry.com explains, this style emerged in the 1970s when “essentially, things that are usually eaten with white rice were mixed into or put on top of spaghetti and other [Italian] pastas”. The resulting flavor combinations are a fun and unexpected mix, which strangely go well together.
One such wafu dish that I adored at Basta Pasta is “Spaghetti with Tobiko and Shiso”, which is spaghetti with tobiko (flying fish roe), julienned shiso (a minty Japanese herb), and a butter and garlic sauce. The tobiko are like little bubbles–it adds an unexpected texture since it pops as you chew; its flavor is mild and slightly sweet. The shiso adds an herbal minty brightness. This dish is the inspiration for my version of the recipe (To my knowledge, Basta Pasta has not published their recipe). Keeping with this dish’s Italian-Japanese theme, my sauce is a mix of Japanese ingredients and Italian ingredients–garlic, butter, sake, and dashi. It looks light, but it actually has a lot of butter in it; this is important for getting a full rich flavor. At the end of cooking, it is accented by a small amount of lemon juice, just enough to add brightness and sparkle but not enough to make the lemony flavor noticeable.
It is important to not over cook the noodles since Italian noodles become soft and lose their chewy texture if they are cooked too long. The noodles should be slightly under boiled so that they become al dente from residual heat the moment they are eaten. It is also important to cook the noodles in heavily salted water (see here for an explanation of what heavily salted pasta water means) and to season (salt) the noodles until they are tasty.
If you are interested in knowing more about wafu pasta, some examples of wafu pasta dishes from Japanese restaurants are described here on SeattleChowDown.com and some recipes for other wafu pastas are described here on JustHungry.com.
Source: Inspired by Basta Pasta in Nyc’s “Spaghetti with Tobiko and Shiso”. The recipe is modified from “Shiso Tobiko Spaghetti” by Gorumando.com.
Shiso Tobiko (Flying Fish Roe) Spaghetti
- 1/2 lbs fresh spaghetti or dry spaghetti
- 4 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 6 Tbsp (3 oz.) dashi (click here for the recipe)
- 4 Tbsp (2 oz) sake
- Diamond Crystal kosher salt
- 0.135 lbs (about 1/3 cup) tobiko (flying fish roe)*
- 1 tsp lemon juice**
- 6 to 10 leaves shiso, julienned
Preheat your serving plates in a barely warm oven (200 F). Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil.
Choose a skillet which is large enough to hold the sauce and cooked pasta. Heat the skillet on medium low. Add the butter. After the butter melts and bubbles, add the chopped garlic and cook until fragrant but not browned (this should take only a minute or two). Add dashi, sake, and 1/2 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Bring the sauce a simmer and lower the heat to maintain the simmer until it has reduced to about 1/2 cup, or to what looks appropriate to coat the pasta (err on the side of too much sauce since the pasta will absorb some). Keep the sauce warm on very low heat if the pasta will cook quickly, otherwise turn off heat and rewarm the sauce a couple of minutes before the pasta will be done. Don’t let the sauce completely dry out.
Cook the pasta for slightly less time then specified on the package directions. It should be slightly undercooked (more raw than “al dente”) when you drain it because it will cook more when it absorbs the sauce and also from residual heat even after it is plated. Ideally it will become al dente just at the moment it is first eaten. If using fresh pasta which cooks in 1 to 2 minutes, then cook the pasta for only 20 seconds. If your pasta needs to cook for several minutes (e.g. for dried pasta), then you should stop cooking it approximately 1 or 2 minutes before it is done. Do not rinse the pasta after it is drained.
Turn up the heat on the sauce to medium. Immediately after draining, mix the pasta with the warm sauce and a tablespoon or two of the starchy pasta water. It is important for the pasta to be hot when it is mixed with the sauce because this is when the pasta will absorb the sauce best and when the sauce will stick best to the pasta. The starch from the cooking water will help the sauce to thicken and coat the noodles.
At this stage, the pasta should be pleasantly chewy and slightly more firm then al dente since it will continue to cook even more from the residual heat as you plate it and bring it to the table. There should be enough sauce to help prevent the noodles from sticking together but the noodles shouldn’t be swimming in sauce. If the dish has just the right texture or if the pasta is threatening to become too soft and overcooked, then quickly go on to the next steps to finish the dish before the pasta becomes more cooked. If adjustments need to be made because the pasta is undercooked or the sauce is too watery, then use the following behavior to adjust the dish: mixing in a few tablespoons of the starchy pasta water will initially loosen the pasta, and then after a minute or two the heat will cause the pasta to absorb the extra water and to soften since it will cook more, the starch to thicken the sauce, and some moisture to evaporate.
To finish the dish: Turn off the heat. Quickly mix in the tobiko and lemon juice. Taste and add more lemon juice or salt if necessary. The lemon juice should give just a little bit of brightness to the pasta but it shouldn’t be enough to make a lemon flavor noticeable. The tobiko is best if it is not cooked much, so once it is mixed in, the pasta should be in the hot pan for as brief a time as possible.
Quickly swirl each portion of the pasta into a pretty spiral arrangement in the pan and transfer to the warmed plates. Place a cluster of julienned shiso on top of the finished pasta. Don’t mix the shiso into the pasta before serving it–this doesn’t look pretty since the heat causes the shiso to become dark or black colored and it makes shiso’s delicate flavor disappear.
Serve immediately. Diners should mix the shiso into their pasta as they eat.
* Tobiko can be found fresh or defrosted in Japanese markets in the sushi fish section or sometimes in the frozen section. If frozen, it should be defrosted in the fridge before it is used in this recipe. Often it is packaged in small plastic condiment containers (about 1/3 cup), which are the perfect size to make two servings of this pasta. It is normally orange and unflavored but it can sometimes also be found in various flavors and colors, such as squid ink (black), yuzu (yellow), wasabi (green). For a variation on this recipe, try substituting one of these flavors.
** One lemon usually has 2 to 3 Tbsp (6 to 9 tsp) of juice.