Comfort Foods Across Cultures
Warm apple pie or a spicy chicken stew, a hearty soup or piping hot haleem (a slow cooked, spicy meat and grain dish popular in South Asia), regardless of when or where you grew up, chances are your comfort food of choice elicits those warm, fuzzy feelings as when you first ate them. Comfort foods trigger fond memories, peppered with bouts of nostalgia. For many, it is what their mother or grandmother made for them as children. With families increasingly living in countries other than where they were raised, it is comfort food that connects them with a taste of home.
Cooking comfort foods can become even more interesting when two cultures come together through marriage. Cjala Surrat’s winter comfort food is hot Dutch Apple Pie with Vanilla Bean ice cream on top. “Now let me be clear, not any old apple pie with a plain crust on top,” Surrat explained. “Dutch Apple pie has a brown sugar, butter and cinnamon crumple topping. Dutch apple pie really is perfect for a cliché winter postcard moment.”
In contrast, her husband, Emad Abdul Rahim’s winter comfort food is a traditional Cambodian beef or chicken stew called kutiev (ca-tee-you). “Growing up, we knew that family was coming when kuytiev preparations began,” Abdul Rahim said. “I knew they had started the stew when I heard the unique thud of the solid granite mortar and pestle being lugged from beneath the cabinet and placed in the center of the floor where my youngest sister was often tasked with grinding the garlic, roasted peanuts, chili peppers and kapich (fermented fish paste).”
The couple, who recently moved to Chicago, believe that the main difference between their comfort foods, besides the vast difference in geographic origin, is that his is made from scratch at home. Hers, on the other hand, is from what she deems the “best bakery in Long Island” and mailed frozen overnight, by her grandmother. “Even though I do miss mixing the ingredients, rolling out the dough and enjoying the smell of sweet pie that wafts from the oven, I do get the pleasure of having my plate ready as soon as the timer pings so I can offer up my plate for the first slice,” Surrat reminisced.
Eau Claire, Wisconsin based Amanda Mouttaki was raised through the long, cold winters of the American Midwest, while her husband grew up in hot Southern Morocco. So while big pots of soup boiling on Grandma’s stove or heavy pasta dishes bring comfort to her, he prefers crisp, refreshing salads and anything not very hot.
“After I came to Islam, I adapted my comfort foods to my new halal lifestyle,” said Mouttaki who also has a popular blog, www.MarocMama.com “I found common threads between both cultures and now chicken tagine is our family’s winter comfort food.”
Tagine is named after the special earthenware pot in which it is cooked and is common in North Africa. Amanda has perfected the art of using warm Moroccan spices like cumin, paprika and cinnamon with harder fall and winter vegetables like potatoes and carrots that come together in a light sauce.
“It’s funny how my kids love the Tagine,” Mouttaki said. “My eight year old son wanted me to make it for his birthday!”
“I don’t think comfort food is microwavable at all,” said Haya Radwan of Washington D.C. “Comfort food isn’t just about the food itself, but about the vibe that comes with it. So if it came from your mom or someone special or if it reminds you of your childhood, then it is comfort food. There is nothing comforting about a microwave. It needs to be cooked with love.”
Personally, Radwan’s winter comfort food is shish barak, an Arab dish comprising warm yogurt soup with dumplings of tiny stuffed meat pies. “My mom always made it for the family in the winter,” Radwan said. “It tastes amazing when it’s nice and warm. Most importantly, it was made with her love, and she always called us to come eat it with her soft, loving voice.” For her sister, Alia Radwan, shish barak doesn’t quite cut it. Alia’s comfort food? The all American soft, warm chocolate chip cookie with melted chocolate inside.
Over the years, Radwan has become skilled at baking comfort foods herself. “I usually bake all the goodies for the family, and I’ve even developed my own techniques on how to make the consistency that everyone loves. It’s so much fun,” she adds.
Surrat feels that comfort foods can be microwavable — after they have been made from scratch.
“It isn’t simply the mechanics of turning on the stove that makes something a comfort food. It is the process that might begin before you enter the kitchen. Many memories I have of special dishes started at the grocery store, as I was told which cut of meat to get or instructed on choosing the perfect piece of produce to ensure the right flavor combination. I think heating something in the microwave is fine the next day — after a dish has been properly fussed over, tweaked and tasted; when an ample number of jokes, memories and family stories, have been told.”
“Convenience can come from the microwave, not true comfort,” Mouttaki says. “In a pinch, it may be the second best option, but when I think a processing plant making microwaveable foods, it doesn’t scream comfort to me.”
The first thing that comes to Aamna Anwer’s mind when she thinks of comfort food is creamy tomato soup with a toasted Asiago bagel on the side.
“Comfort food needs to be something delicious, that’s within reach, makes you happy when you’re stressed — and keeps you warm when you’re cold,” said the newly-wed from Omaha, Nebraska, whose husband recommended the soup. Ideally, Anwer believes that anything her mother makes is comforting because she doesn’t get to eat her cooking very often. That’s why she needs comfort food that’s easily accessible.
Radwan believes that restaurant comfort foods are huge for people in the United States whether it’s a burger and fries or a good steak and potatoes. Many of her friends’ comfort foods come from diners that they remember going to with their parents. They think diners have comfort foods, good service and kind servers that pour the extra coffee, she says.
Mouttaki agrees that for younger, on-the-go professionals, comfort food can come with a check. “With healthier dining establishments on the rise, you can get high quality meals that make you feel good even if a loved one didn’t make it from scratch.”
Comfort foods can alleviate stress and cheer you up, but if you go overboard with the extra calories and emotional eating, it can do more harm than good. According to nutrition gurus, three out of four times people overeat due to emotional reasons. Whether you are sick, lonely or stressed, the insulin high that comes with eating may result in a craving for foods rich in carbohydrates and sugar.
So while Mom’s heavy meal can make you feel good in the moment, it can also leave you reaching for yet another helping — a move that may do your health more harm than good.
That’s where eating comfort foods in moderation or having them occasionally makes sense. There are other ways to find comfort too — whether it’s taking up a sport or splurging on a massage or pedicure. Those come with far fewer calories than comfort food and can have similar therapeutic effects. After all, if a comfort food ends up making you feel uncomfortable, it has defeated its purpose altogether.
About the Writer: Kiran Ansari is a freelance writer with bylines in 30+ publication. She is also founder and CEO of Up A Notch, specializing in personalized party favors and gifts. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.