A World of Comfort
These Foods Fuel Your Soul
Set your way-back machine to childhood and brush off your passport. We’re on the trail of comfort foods that are busting borders and crossing territorial lines ... and may be America’s next phenomenal find.
A steaming bowl of noodles. A stick of chilled fresh mango. A piece of deep fried bread dotted with salt. A crepe bursting with sweet Nutella.
Seeking solace in the warm embrace of a favorite food is a time-honored tradition, and a cherished part of every country, culture and ethnicity. While there is no one dish that stokes the universal appetite, most comfort foods stem from the same soul-nourishing place – the family table. Like vintage photos and golden oldie soundtracks, food can take us back home, to a time and place of pure, simple happiness. Whether that’s wrapped in a bowl of creamy mac and cheese or pastitsio matters not at all, it’s the ineffable flavor of nostalgia that elevates every bite.
“Comfort foods around the world are typically family meals that are shared and remembered fondly, or foods that family members prepared when we were ill,” says Sue Reddel, certified culinary travel pro and co-founder and editor of FoodTravelist.com. “Eating the foods again brings memories of comfort and love.”
Bobbie Hasselbring, editor-in-chief of the award-winning website realfoodtraveler.com, views comfort foods through a similar lens. “They often have an affectionate childhood link. For instance, one my favorites is warm soup, because it reminds me of my mom bringing me soup when I didn’t feel well.” Other elements that link comfort foods are textural – silk, creamy, crispy, brothy – and often, warmth.
Let Restaurant Inc be your travel guide as we discover:
The most surprising comfort foods
Pizza - “We’ve had it everywhere -- coal-fired pizza in Italy to Cuban restaurants to pizza al fresco along the Seine River in Paris,” says Reddel. “I’m a big pizza fan,” reveals Erik Wolf, executive director of the World Food Travel Association, “and wherever you go, they take on different shapes, from extremely flat in the Middle East to sparingly filled Italian ones to French pizzas with butter in the crust.”
Cracklins - “Those bits of pork belly fried and refried to a golden crispiness,” enthuses Hasselbring. “They’re crispy and crunchy and once you start eating them, you can’t stop. Also, boudin (pronounced boo-dan), a sausage made with pork meat, pork liver, onions, white rice and spices.”
The comfort foods that cross cultures
Pockets with fillings - “Latin empanadas, Polish pierogies, Chinese dumplings, calzones, sweet or savory crepes, every country has a version,” says Wolf.
Noodles - Whether it’s a bowl of noodles in Asia, a pasta dinner in Italy or a cheesy spaetzle in Germany, all evoke memories of family, warmth and love, says Reddel. Wolf agrees heartily, adding jajangmyeon from Korea to the list, a bowl of noodles with soy or black bean paste that “looks and tastes amazing.”
Ice cream - “It has a sweet childhood memory and the creamy texture associated with comfort,” says Hasselbring.
The global comfort food most likely to find American fans
Pintxos - From San Sebastian, Spain, these finger foods offer really tiny bites and beautiful presentations, shares Wolf.
Poutine - “That messy, tasty calorie bomb from Canada that consists of French fries, fresh cheese curds, and brown gravy,” says Hasselbring. “I’ve already seen poutine being served in some U.S. bars, breweries, and restaurants. And why not? It’s got just what Americans love—big portions, crispy fried food, and a creamy texture (the curds and gravy).”
Of course, America’s no slouch when it comes to comfort by the forkful. “There’s an implied unhealthiness in comfort food, and we do unhealthy food really well here, from mashed potatoes to fried chicken to mac and cheese,” says Wolf.
Hasselbring ticks off some of the highlights from each state: “sugar pie in Indiana, maple syrup, candy and ice in the Northeast, BBQ and Tex-Mex in Texas, anything with green chiles in New Mexico, lobster chowder and lobster rolls in Maine, smoked salmon chowder in the Northwest ... the list goes on and on.”
Some places to sample the comforts of the world here at home:
Piccolo Sogno, Chicago, Il, where Chef Tony Priolo prepares his Sicilian grandmother’s classic recipes to create new comfort food memories, according to Reddel.
Emeril’s New Orleans restaurant, bringing authentic Cajun and Creole tastes to the American menu.
B&O Kitchen in Sulfur, LA, “for some of the best cracklins and boudin I’ve ever eaten,” says Hasselbring.
Toro Bravo in Portland, OR, incorporating seasonal variations, local farmers’ produce, modern techniques and unexpected flavors into Spanish-inspired small plates.
The Normandy, an authentic French restaurant in the heart of Lincoln, NE and the Parthenon Greek Grill and Taverna for perfect re-creations of regional Greek dishes.
Morimoto Waikiki, Hawaii, owned by famed chef Morimoto, for uber-authentic Japanese dishes; the Slurping Turtle in Chicago and Ann Arbor, Michigan, for chef Takashi Yagihashi’s favorite comfort dishes, including noodle and dumpling bars.
Memphis BBQ in Horn Lake, MS and in NC and GA, run by pitmaster Melissa Cookston.
67 Biltmore, Asheville, NC, features an evolving assortment of global warmth, including Thai and Indian curries, Irish lamb stews and Moroccan-style braised chicken. “Comfort food exists in every culture in the world and there’s a never ending supply of inspiration and new dishes,” says owner Adam Thome.