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What exactly is comfort food?

A simple question led a group of us (albeit some were a bit more intoxicated than others) into a heated 'debate' over what exactly comfort food is? Some of the items discussed were fried chicken....burgers....spaghetti and meatballs....meatloaf....chicken pot pie....pizza....pot roast.....dumplings.....curry.....submarine sandwiches. I thought it was interesting that nobody said soup (except me). Just wondering what some of your 'comfort foods' are?

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  1. See, to me, comfort food entails something you grew up eating - something familiar, something your mom (or dad) would fix you after a crummy day at school.

    And in my house, that was daal bhaat (Nepali lentils and rice). Pretty sure all the Nepali restaurants in the area serve it (i.e., Kathmandu Spice in Arlington, Annapurna in Cambridge, Himalayan Bistro in West Roxbury, Mt. Everest Kitchen in Allston/Brighton).

    However, I share your love of soup, and despite only being introduced to it five years ago, I like all the Pho bowls at Pho & Rice, the little spot on Beacon St. next to Petsi Pie, on the Cambridge/Somerville line. One of my favorite soups to get there is the Duck Noodle Soup. The broth is intensely ducky, and you get a hell of a lot of roast duck parts in the bowl, including whole legs. Nothing fancy, but man, is it good when it's cold out.

    I find comfort when I eat Haleem, the rich Pakistani stew of goat/beef, simmered all day with lentils and white. Sort of a meat porridge - goatmeal, if you will. It's intensely rich and, like lasagna, tastes even better the next day. You are to eat it with cut strips of fresh ginger. (Don't tell anyone - the other week, I had a Haleem schmear on a bagel.)

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    Mt. Everest Kitchen
    182 Brighton Ave, Allston, MA 02134

    4 Replies
    1. re: Prav

      Yep. Comfort food is a taste of Home and everything that means. For me, it's Matzo ball soup, noodle kugel topped with crushed cornflakes,"baked" (roasted, in anyone else's lingo) chicken, and sweet/sour meatballs or stuffed cabbage (prakes). Ma wasn't a cook, but she did pretty well with these standards - less so when she was trying to be all modern and experimental, which once consisted of making a pecan pie and realizing she was out of pecans (and walnuts) and substituting peanuts. This was not successful. But her classics were, and they're what I want when I'm blue.

      1. re: mamachef

        I agree that there is some childhood nostalgia in comfort foods. Things my grandparents made, then my mom made and passed on to me to make. Pot roasts, stews, turkey dinners, mac & cheese, soups, meatloaf with country gravy, fried chicken with country gravy, scalloped potatoes & ham with creamed corn, spaghetti and various other delights. Since then, we have added some of our own things to the mix. Cajun chicken fettuccine, love a good stuffed baked potato, pizza, chicken marsala, almost anything that has gravy and popcorn! I'm not a big dessert person, so I don't worry about that one. Just the occasional ice cream craving.

        1. re: boyzoma

          bz, the very best boss I EVER had, after a terrible romantic break-up, said to me, "go home for a few days, and crawl into bed and eat nothing but stuffed baked potatoes." What a doll she was. And her recipe works to this day for a truly nasty case of the willies.

          1. re: mamachef

            What a good boss. Never had one of those.

            For me "comfort food" goes back to being a kid: chicken noodle soup and saltines; grilled cheese and tomato soup; rice in tomato sauce.

            As I got older--a really good meatloaf, mac & cheese that isn't orange, pizza goldfish (the dorm staple).

            At any age, a good potato pancake with lots of onions fried in lots of butter.

    2. Whatever makes you feel happy and, of course, comfortable.

      For some, it's PB&J because that's what mom made for them after school let out.

      For others, it's Mac N Cheese because, well, for those people it just tastes so damn good.

      For others, it's more haute - perhaps something like champagne and caviar -- because it makes them feel rich and provide a nice dose of "Marie Antoinette" schadenfreude.

      Essentially, it's just what makes you happy.

      1. Comfort foods are things that make you feel better for the nostalgic feeling they give you whether that be a taste, a smell, or a feeling from the past.

        I recently put MY comfort food feelings onto my son who had moved away to college and emailed me to report that he had a sore throat and was not feeling well. I sent hm a box with chicken soup, microwave mac and cheese (he doesnt have a stove) and animal crackers...among other things like cough drops and lip balm. I think he 'got' the chicken soup and mac and cheese but asked about the animal crackers. "Is that what you eat when you are sick?" My response, no...but I thought you would like them, they are beach shapes and you are near the beach.

        I guess you can't change comfort foods.

        1. Comfort food is personal to everyone. For me, comfort food eases the issue. If I have a cold, it's pho. If I have the flu, it's saltine's and gingerale. If I'm homesick for mom, it's frikerdeler and mashed potatoes. If I had a bad day at work..pizza...PMS..chocolate. Homesick for dad and wife, red beans and rice.

          1. It depends what part of me needs the comforting.

            I make soup if I need to 'bring myself home', and have the time and energy to do that. Something like that is as much about ritual of making it as it is about the eating of it.

            A very long day might mean something from one of the local take-out joints: extra spicy singapore noodles, or a corn dog with pickle chips, or even a furtive drive through from a Whopper with mayo and a chocolate shake. That's a reward, a guilty pleasure.

            There are some meals that aren't really meals, but snack foods, eaten in a particular setting, on a particular sort of day. I've had popcorn for dinner, or a large bowl of drained and salted chickpeas, edamame, or canned sardines. This usually comes at the end of a project on a day when I am not responsible for the comfort or care of another person outside of myself. That is the comfort of reveling in being more than a caretaker.

            If I'm homesick, I try to recreate things that are particular to my region but have no available recipe. I've done a fantastic job making the Michigan sauce that graced many of my childhood hotdogs at the local stand. That's comforting, knowing that I could give myself that.

            I don't think I've ever seen a can of Campbell's chicken noodle without thinking of my mom. In our house, you ate what was served, and you ate all of it. Unless you were sick, and then you were tucked away, and offered your favorite Campbell's soup. When I had the flu, my mother fed me with a desire to please, and make me well.

            And then there is pie. Pie is a good dozen categories unto itself, my favorite being the secret breakfast.

            1 Reply
            1. re: onceadaylily

              wow, the idea of making food as being a comfort in of itself... ya, I grok dat.

              luv pie. best hiking breakfast in da world!

            2. comfort food is anything you eat for the good feelings you get from it. it is emphatically NOT about taste. in fact, it may be good even if it is a "reasonably bad" (not vile) rendition.

              comfort food gives you a hug, and reminds you of home.

              1. Pudding! Rice, dark chocolate, butterscotch, vanilla, flan, pumpkin custard
                Something creamy and rich is comfort food to me.

                1. A loaf of Wonder Bread makes a really comfy pillow.

                  1. Comfort food to me includes grilled cheese, baked beans on toast, soft boiled egg with toast soldiers (yes, I am English), and my dad's chicken soup..

                    1. For me, comfort food is not necessarily about childhood nostalgia. I hate to say it, but the items on my list are high in fat. Not just pizza, but extra cheese and pepperoni pizza. Ditto the meatloaf, mashed potatoes (extra gravy please), Chicken curry over Singapore noodles with about a bucketful of the hot spicy oil, and, of course, spaghetti with meat sauce. Oh - forgot cheesesteaks, lasagna, fettuccine Alfredo...

                      I guess comfort food is about indulging yourself, just for a little bit.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: Whinerdiner

                        Whinerdiner, after the foods I mentioned above, I'd have to say that my comfort food choices coincide directly with the fat concentration: Chicken pot pie made with cream; macaroni and cheese; mashed potatoes and gravy; cheese-scalloped potatoes, Divan, Tetrazzini....all creamed vegetable soups, too, especially spinach or asparagus.

                      2. Comfort Foods give emotional comfort to the one eating it. Foods linked to a person, place or time with which the food has a positive association.

                        1. To me comfort food is anything that just makes your entire being go AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!

                          1 Reply
                          1. Concur with what everyone said on this site. Comfort food for me is mostly Korean: sullung tang, tong galbi, galbi jjim, sam gye tang, soo jae bi, ginger tea, a roasted Korean sweet potato held gingerly and peeled while eating around the table. It really is more about the memories and nostalgia associated with the foods, as many here noted what their parents made them.

                            1. If you're asking what exactly is "comfort food" as in what does it mean when it's a restaurant category (eg. on Opentable) it's likely the range of food you mentioned: burgers, mac n cheese, meatloaf, spaghetti, tuna casserole - stuff your mom made for you as a kid and she was a good cook but not a professional chef.

                              It's not the same as asking what anyone's "comfort foods" are, which could be anything that people eat when they need comforting, which could include ethnic foods and champagne & caviar, not generally considered "comfort food" on a restaurant guide.

                              1. I would extend comfort food from an East Asian culture perspective, to be basically a taste of and from the streets that satisfy the masses and something they identify with and is also tasty, affordable, and delicious.

                                For example in Hong Kong, a very small city with an extremely dense population, people eat out a lot (I would extend that to parts of Taiwan, even big cities like Tokyo and even Seoul in Korea and other parts), and some find comfort in an outdoor street vendor / street hawker, no BS kind of "al fresco" setting where they can enjoy a plate of nosh from vendor X, get a drink from vendor Y, and chew the fat with a local sharing a table who ordered from vendor Z. In those days, the eating hole or watering hole was a way for the blue collar folk to relax and indulge affordably after a crappy hard day's work, so one can find comfort (or escape) that way. Maybe there should be a separate thread for "what is escape food".... Izakaya's in Japan (and many cropping up in the USA) serve that purpose exactly and is the parallel to Dai Pai Dong's (or whatever of them are left in HK, many have moved indoors).

                                So with that said, it can be a simple but very labor intensive prep of a stir fry plate (e.g. the food from Dai Pai Dong's, the old time street foor vendor who holds licenses granted from the Hong Kong goverment aeons ago), perhaps a bowl of jook/congee for some as this was practically the "chicken soup" when people felt ill, and it made them feel comfortable again (chicken soup / chicken noodle soup is also one of the definitive comfort foods as it provided miracle cures for colds....as seen on even reality TV shows like the most recent Bachelorette episode). You mentioned soups, yes Cantonese soups are stewed for hours or cooked on low heat for much longer than say Taiwanese soups, sometimes the herbs and ingredients are complex but they do a lot of wonders.

                                For a place like Singapore (or Vietnam) and their street foods, the use of spices and ingredients are a bit more complex (and definitely labor intensive for some preps). I can easily see Hainan Chicken Rice as comfort food, ditto for Laksa, Hokkien Mee, Prawns Mee, Bee Hoon, etc etc etc etc.