Comfort Food Without Borders

Kate, in her excellent blog, “The accidental Hedonist,” wrote in a recent entry about what exactly constituted “comfort food.” She notes that comfort food is a term that is not limited to entrees, side dishes or desserts, and that it seemed to include foods that did not appear on the menus of three-star restaurants. She says, “From this, I’ve come to a conclusion. “comfort food” is a term that is analogous to the phrase “guilty pleasure”. A guilty pleasure is something that you enjoy that you feel as if you shouldn’t. Comfort food is a food you enjoy but you probably wouldn’t find on a three star restaurant’s menu. In short, “comfort food” is a food you enjoy, but you believe you need to qualify it as somehow worthwhile.”

I think that she has part of the answer. One generally does not find “comfort food” dishes on the menus of fancy restaurants; such artless, simple food, is not what one expects to get dressed up and sit down to a white linen and crystal laden table for. Wine lists and comfort foods just do not go together.

I think that “comfort food” encompasses any simple, homestyle foods which remind a person of their childhood, and the comforts of home, hearth and Mamma.

Alice May Brock, of “Alice’s Restaurant” fame (yes, Virginia, there really is an Alice–did you think Arlo made the whole thing up?) says in her cookbook, The Alice’s Restaurant Cookbook, that comfort foods are all those milky, soft things that make us feel like we are back in Mommy’s lap being cuddled.

I tend to agree with Alice, except for the milky and soft part.

Because every culture has comfort food, and many of them have nothing to do with dairy products, nor are they all soft.

I mean, a lot of them are soft. A typical American comfort food is mashed potatoes–you cannot get much smushier than that. Oatmeal is a comfort food for many of my Scottish friends–that is pretty mushy, too.

Cantonese folk are comforted by congee–a porridge made with rice and chicken stock, which is served either plain or with a dizzying array of condiments or accompaniments, like fish balls, thousand year old eggs, shreds of pork or pickled vegetables. It is a breakfast food that is considered to be highly nutritious for everyone, but particularly for the very young or old, and women recovering from childbirth.

Soups are comforting the world over–chicken soup being a favorite almost everywhere. What Jewish American doesn’t crave matzoh ball soup when they are feeling under the weather or a little depressed? I am told by my Thai friends that tom ka gai-chicken coconut milk soup with galangal will cure the common cold, a hangover and a broken heart. My Pakistani personal chef clients loved red lentil dal cooked with chicken and lots of garlic and chili peppers. They told me it cheered them up just to smell it cooking on the stove.

Cucumber mint raita was another big comfort food for them. I would make quarts of it for them, and they kept asking for it over and over.

My Syrian Aunt Nancy was comforted by the smell of garlic and basil cooking–she grew up in an Italian/Portuguese/Middle Eastern neighborhood in Providence Rhode Island, and just smelling anything Mediterranean in origin on the stove gave her a smile and spring in her step.

Among Native Americans, I suppose a good example of a comfort food would be fry bread–a Navajo recipe that is widely cooked and served on the powwow circuit. Fry bread serves as a substitute for tortillas in Indian tacos–ground buffalo or beef meat served on hot fry bread with some cheese and salsa and lettuce on top. My daughter craves those, and can eat inordinate amounts of them at a sitting.

Essentially, what I am saying is this–comfort food is no one thing. It has no one meaning, no one definition–it is a concept which is both universal and fluid. There are no borders to comfort foods–every culture has them, and while they may never feature in the fancy restaurants around the world, they form the backbones of the real cuisines of every country on earth. The real cuisines are not made in restaurant kitchens, but in the hearths of every family on the planet. Professional chefs do not invent cuisines–they refine them, they change them, they are inspired by them, but the soul of a cuisine comes from the hands of mothers and fathers all over the world who toil to feed their families every day.

The creators of “comfort foods,” are the ones whose food moves our spirits and call us back to the table.

They are the real heroes of cooking, and one should -never- be ashamed to eat their food.

I agree with Kate wholeheartedly–food does not have to be anything but good.

9 Comments

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  1. Very true – though most of them do seem to be simple. I’m not sure if there is a universal New Zealand comfort food. Possibly steak and mashed potato. I know my two favorite comfort foods are tomato soup with a swirl of milk in it (shades of sick days as a child) and grilled cheese on toast.

    Comment by Christina — February 16, 2005 #

  2. I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather and mmm…congee would really hit the spot. My mom and I used to pretend that the chunks of meat she put in were ‘cannons’ and ‘guns’ and the rice was ‘ammunition’ to fight all the germs making me sick.

    I am going to be horribly embarassed by the revelation in about 3 minutes.

    Comment by etherbish — February 16, 2005 #

  3. Grilled cheese and cream of tomato soup are big comfort foods to me, too, Christina.

    Homemade noodles with stewed chicken over mashed potatoes is another.

    There is nothing to be embarrassed about eating congee with cannons and guns and ammunition in it, Ladi! My Mom used to say similar things about the vitamins in spinach and other greens. Not that I needed help in eating them, I craved them, but still. ;-)

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — February 16, 2005 #

  4. Hi Barbara,
    I’ve not heard of Chinese women taking congee after childbirth. There is usually a period of convalescence/confinement for 30-40 days for these women, where certain practices are observed. Many of these practices were passed down from many moons ago. Congee is considered a ying food, which is deemed too cooling for the frail new mother, who needs lots of yang food to build up her strength.

    Shirley (shiangy_l@yahoo.com)

    Comment by Anonymous — February 17, 2005 #

  5. Thank you, Shirley–after reading your comment, I went back to dig out where I had read that comment about giving congee/jook to a woman after childbirth, and no surprise–it was written by an American. It is in a book called The Tao of Food, which is a fairly accurate overview of the chi in food and how to harmonize and balance one’s diet in a Chinese way to help promote health and well-being. I say “fairly accurate,” because it is not very in depth, and makes no reference to what Grace Young calls “yun” soups–soups which are meant to revitalize and balance a person’s body in the face of illness or after eating too many yang foods.

    Now, I am wondering how shallow the book really is.

    Thank you for correcting me, Shirley. One of the things that I am still working on learning is the underlying principles of chi that are foundational in Chinese cooking. I know a small amount, in general terms, but very few books discuss the depth of the topic at all–probably because it is assumed that Western rationalists would scoff at the idea.

    But the understanding of harmony, balance and energy is so integral to Chinese cooking, that I wish there were books that talked about it at length.

    Can you recommend any yorself–unfortunately, they have to be in English, which is my handicap, though I keep thinking I should start the effort of learning Mandarin or Cantonese, just to be able to have access to more information. Or, maybe I should take to interviewing very experienced cooks….

    Thank you again, Shirley!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — February 17, 2005 #

  6. Barbara,
    No such thing as correction. We’re all learning. I am pretty new to cooking as well and I have yet to find my calling. I dabble too much in too many areas and simply can’t make up my mind. I have come across books written in Chinese about soups and using herbs in dishes. Most of them don’t adequately address the balance of chi. I find that they just tell you what to put it and what it supposedly does to your body, e.g. strengthens the spleen, improve the appetite etc. I haven’t seen any decent English ones. But rest assure I’ll be on the lookout for a good one to recommend to you. As for “yun” soups, I might be able to help because hubby’s family is Cantonese, where soups are a must. Would you want to give me your email address? I can’t find it on your blog, or, you can email me at shiangy_l@yahoo.com. Thanks! Shirley

    Comment by Anonymous — February 17, 2005 #

  7. Thank you very much, Shirley. I will email you in the morning, after I get back from taking our dogs for their shots and before starting to make chili for the chili cook-off tomorrow!

    A lot of what I have learned about the energy of Chinese foods I have picked up in dribs and drabs from talking with people and from reading. Also I had a couple of times at work when I was feeling sickly, or very stressed and one or another of the cooks at the restaurant would make me a special soup to balance my energy or to make me better. Lo was very good for that.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — February 18, 2005 #

  8. Barbara,
    Is the book by Richard Craze and Roni Jay? I saw it in a used book store here but it’s sealed to prevent browsing. Let me check out the libraries here. Shirley.

    Comment by Anonymous — March 1, 2005 #

  9. It is, indeed, Shirley. It is an interesting enough book, though I am wondering if I should suspect the veracity of the content.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — March 2, 2005 #

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