We’ve reverted to mean here in Seattle. People are back in their sensible rain boots, Gore-Tex, puffy jackets, and fleece. Runny noses, germs and Kleenex are making their rounds along with the Halloween candy. And in a few short weeks, it will be dark at 4pm. Fashion aside, the fall chill from the drizzle and gloomy skies has a surprising but tasty side effect: a constant craving for warm comfort foods like slow-cooked stews, hearty meat pies, and homemade soupy noodles and broth. When we eat out these days, I’m pretty much craving some kind of broth with noodles like pho or ramen or udon. That’s my personal comfort food as it warms my fall soul.
This got me to thinking about comfort foods and what we tend to crave when it’s cold outside or when we’re under the weather. What does comfort food really mean anyways, and why do certain foods console us, making us feel better? My theory is that a key component of a comfort food is that it somehow evokes memories of childhood and being loved and cared for. It reminds you of mom, and my mom makes delicious soup.
To me, a clear but rich soupy broth is the ultimate comfort food, especially when it’s cold, wet, and nasty outside. I’m currently obsessed with replicating my mom’s Chinese style bone broths from scratch, usually a chicken or a beef short rib soup. I’m no chef, but I’ve discovered that I am actually kind of fanatical when it comes to making clear broths. No Tetra Paks, MSG, bullion cubes, or cans are allowed anywhere near my homemade soups!
After we were newly married, I got sick. DH (being the thoughtful and kind DH he is) tried to “make soup” for me. But his plan backfired when he started by heating up a Tetra Pak of organic chicken stock (or maybe it was a can of Progresso?) I can’t exactly remember because I think I blacked out from the sheer shock and the horror. Soup from a Tetra Pak or a can = Blasphemy. Needless to say, DH has since learned what legit soup-from-scratch really means. And while soup-from-scratch tastes far superior to soup in a can, it does take at least 4 hours to stew. But it’s worth it and once you’ve had some, you just can’t go back to processed soup.
Growing up, my mom used to make various Chinese-style dishes, including soups from scratch. We would normally only drink the broth, and we rarely ate the meat, since the meat and bones were merely for flavoring the broth that had already absorbed all the nutrition and subtle wonderful tastes. Thinking back, it was a little wasteful, but that’s just how we served our soup at dinner. Every family is different, and many of us hang onto what we grow up with, especially when it’s tasty, comforting, and reminds you of childhood and what your mom made especially for you when you were sick and home from school.
And while I’m not Cantonese, I can totally appreciate the Cantonese skill and art to making broth in Hong Kong. They really know how to make their soups there, and have elevated broth into a culinary art form with different double-boiling techniques. But you don’t have to order exotic and expensive soups. You can’t go wrong just ordering the “soup of the day” (lei tong) for a decent price at a legit Cantonese restaurant. And in Hong Kong, they serve their Cantonese soups right: with the flavorful broth served in your bowl, and all the meat and stewing vegetables served separately on a platter for you, with soy sauce on the side.
So call me a soup snob, but since moving back to Seattle, I just can’t bring myself to order Western-style soups, even at a nice restaurant. Or partake in whatever they’re serving at the organic grocery soup bar, since it’s often a cream-based or potato soup with lots of salt and cornstarch. I just can’t call that thick goopy mess “soup” with a clear conscience. I suppose I don’t appreciate thick Western-style soups because I didn’t grow up with them. Certain Western soups don’t offer me comfort, but rather, a sense of frustration and disappointment in being labeled “soup” when its consistency is (in my opinion) closer to a bland sauce.
Comfort foods reveal some of our habits and preferences in cooking. We often learn about food from what we observe growing up. I didn’t grow up with creamy tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. (Well, we had the grilled cheese, but never the creamy tomato soup, and yes, I admit the pairing is quite nice.) So this year I made creamy tomato soup for the first time, ever. It was frighteningly fast, and only took about 20 minutes to make. But I was shocked by the amount of cream, butter, and cream cheese the recipe called for. While the soup was tasty and easy to make, I couldn’t help but think of it as “a liquid creamy tomato heart attack.” Of course all that liquid milk fat tastes delicious! How could it not be with all that heavy cream?
In my book, “real soup” (and “real food”) takes time—a long time. It can’t be instant, and so creamy tomato soup, no matter how delicious and easy to make, just doesn’t qualify as soup-from-scratch.
We all have comfort food preferences that are probably radically different. Case and point would be the story of a friend of mine (well, the DH of one of my best friends) who happens to be a vegetarian who hates vegetables… Seriously. When we were all living in Hong Kong, we all had dinner together over New Year’s with another couple. As we three couples were discussing what we did over our respective Christmas holidays, I learned about other types of comfort food, and how my personal comfort food might be the antithesis of someone else’s comfort food. My friend and her English Vegetarian Who Hates Vegetables (“VWHV”) DH had just gotten back from a trip to Sapporo, capital of Hokkaido, and we were curious about their trip. DH and I knew about the VWHV’s aversion to Asian food, but this other couple didn’t, and so the conversation went something like this:
Friend 1: So did you have any good ramen in Sapporo? I hear there’s this place called Ramen Alley that is really good for ramen.
Friend 2 (confused): Oh wait, that’s right, you’re vegetarian. But they have vegetarian ramen too, and there aren’t many vegetables in ramen either.
Friend 2: So wait, you didn’t try the miso ramen in Sapporo? It’s as famous as the beer! How could you not have ramen there? It’s like the ramen capital of Japan!
Friend 1 (interjects): So what did you eat during your trip?
VWHV: Nope. Nope. I had lots of cheese sandwiches… oh and some Italian pasta and cheese pizza at Pizza Hut. It was delicious.
Friend 2 (incredulous): What?
VWHV: I don’t like ramen. Actually I don’t really care for any type of Asian food at all.
Friend 1: Oh… so all you ate was cheese sandwiches, like at every meal, the whole time you were in Sapporo? Wow, you must really love cheese sandwiches.
VWHV: Yup. It’s my favorite. And cheese pizza.
Friend 1 and 2: … (stunned silence)
Everyone craves his or her go-to comfort food, especially when the weather changes. And like the weather, we tend to revert to our own internal “comfort food means” when it’s cold outside. For me, it’s 4-hour Chinese soup-from-scratch and Asian-style soup noodles. In fact, I’ve been given gentle feedback from DH that my Chinese food influences are so subconsciously pervasive that even when I attempt to cook Italian-style pasta (say, with garlic, shrimp, basil, and grape tomatoes in olive oil,) it somehow inevitably ends up tasting and looking kind of like Chinese shrimp chow mein…
But I suppose the flip side is that my Chinese soups have been improving. In fact, earlier this year, my mom tasted one of my soups, and she quoted a Chinese idiom 青出於藍, which means, “The student has surpassed the master” in praising my efforts. Growing up, I’d always watch my mom cook in the kitchen, and I suppose some of her Chinese soup techniques have somehow recorded themselves as I try to replicate some of her comfort food smells from my childhood in my own kitchen.
I guess I’m becoming a more legitimate American Taitai now. So watch out, I’ve got my Chinese soup in my Corning Ware dutch oven to prove it!
Too bad my Corning Ware dutch oven isn’t the Spice O’ Life version.