"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." -- Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
A lot of people have a problem with the term "comfort food." It's far too arbitrary, they argue. It changes from one part of the world to the next. Ice cream and brownies aren't nearly as popular in China as they are here. Lobster rolls aren't nearly as popular here as they are in Maine. And the term is too individual, too: One person's comfort food is another person's oddity. Macaroni salad? Fried bologna? A garbage plate?
That the term itself is so nebulous shouldn't be a surprise: It's only been around since 1977, according to Webster's Dictionary. But nebulous and arbitrary don't mean that the concept of comfort food itself isn't well-defined.
"When people talk about comfort food, the obvious explanation is that it's all about nostalgia and missing Mommy," wrote Anneli Rufus last year in Gilt. "And really, it takes more than this to create the rush of sensations that make us feel safe, calm, and cared for. It's a complex interplay of memory, history, and brain chemistry, and while some basics apply -- most of us are soothed by the soft, sweet, smooth, salty and unctuous -- the specifics are highly personal."
In short, "comfort food" is defined as being a deeply personal ideal. But as with all matters culinary, you can tell a lot about people by the choices they make and the ideals they hold. I like that the term "comfort food" is arbitrary because that just means it's an open-ended question. Ask a person what his or her favorite comfort foods are and watch a fascinating, thought-provoking and educational discussion unfold.
Because most Americans are quick to name off at least a few of the same things when polled about their most beloved comfort food -- fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, milkshakes or french fries -- we thought it would be interesting to find out more about what "comfort food" means across the world, to seek out the foods that comfort others.
I polled a cross-section of my own foreign-born or first-gen (those raised here with foreign-born parents) friends for their answers, and you may just be surprised at the areas in which their comfort foods overlap with your own thanks to an increasingly global food community.
"White rice with yogurt. My mom would make it for me whenever I was sick." -- Nada, Lebanese
"Nihari, biryani, chicken tikka, naan, haleem, lassie, chaat, bhajiya, aloo ghosht, chicken kardhai, paya, shaami kabab, tikkya, shaawarma, roos bukahri, fool, fatayer, baklava, iskander doner, vetkoek, malva pudding, anything braaied, gulab jamun. Oh my God, I love food." - Areej, Pakistani
"Black bean soup, fried eggs and plantains with Mexican cream and cheese, strong Oaxacan coffee." -- Maria, Mexican
"Beef bourguignon, veal stew and in winter some pork loin with red cabbage, chestnuts and apples! Geez, I am hungry!" -- Genevieve, French
"Chilean empanadas, sopapillas, humitas (sweet corn tamales), charquican (orange squash with potatoes, beef, et cetera mashed into a delicious mashed concoction served in clay bowls). Oh my God, now I'm having cravings!" -- Natacha, Chilean
"Pho! Anytime I go out of town, when I come home, no matter where I've been, I'm throwing down some pho." -- Judy, Vietnamese
"Prebranac: baked beans with caramelized onions. Podvarak (sauerkraut made with my dad's smoked pork), palachinke (crepes), sarma (cabbage rolls made with my dad's smoked pork and home-fermented cabbage)." -- Dragana, Serbian
"Breakfast: bacon, Spam, over-easy eggs, rice, salsa (or furikake). Snack: bologna, kim chee on wonder bread with Coke. Any other time: miso soup or chuk (when sick; chicken / five-spice / bean thread soup served with rice topped with chiffonade lettuce). Kalua pig. An mochi. Misoyaki butterfish. Poke." -- JoAnn, Japanese
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"Hot chocolate, fries with mayo, bowl of leek soup with bread and butter all my young years in Brussels." -- Catherine, Belgian
"Nihari. Biryani. Haleem. Karahigosht. Tikkay. Shami keba. Pulao. Sajji. Barbecue brisket. Prime rib. Broccoli cheese casserole. Jalapeño cheese loaf. Pecan pie, followed by diabetic coma." -- Kaiser, Pakistani