In the United States, comfort food might be mac and cheese or mom’s pot roast. But nearly everyone has a food that evokes nostalgia. That includes cultures that don’t call it comfort food; they just call it food made with love. We asked Charleston chefs who grew up in different cultures what comfort food is for them.
Dolly Awkar, Lebanese
“We don’t have comfort food because cooking is part of the family life and our tradition, and it is a daily comfort,” said Dolly Awkar, general manager and owner of Leyla Fine Lebanese Cuisine in downtown Charleston.
Awkar says she grew up with a housekeeper who cooked for the family, which included Awkar, her parents, two brothers and a sister. Although there was no notion of comfort food in Lebanon, she said this recipe was something that everyone liked and that it reminds her of her childhood.
“What makes this comfort food? It is hearty and filling, and without feeling overstuffed once you finish eating it,” she said. “You enjoy it, the taste is wonderful with so many spices, and then when you eat it, you feel also good. Before, during and after.”
Baked Kafta and Potatoes
(For 4-5 people)
1½ lb. lean ground beef or lamb
1 onion, finely diced
1 cup parsley, finely chopped
1 tbsp. butter or oil
2 lbs. potatoes, cut in round slices, blanched in hot water and then drained
2 tbsp. tomato paste
1 lb. tomatoes, sliced
5 cups water or stock
Salt, black pepper, cinnamon — 1 tsp. each, adjust to taste
Combine meat, onion, parsley. Sprinkle with half of salt, pepper and cinnamon.
Spread meat mixture in buttered or oiled baking pan, either spread to cover bottom of pan or make meatballs and flatten out.
Bake halfway, just enough to brown meat.
Remove from oven and cover meat with potatoes. Put tomatoes over potatoes.
Mix tomato paste with water or stock. (I like to add a little bit of lemon juice, 1 tbsp., to tomato paste mixture and a little bit of sumac.)
Add salt, pepper and cinnamon to tomato paste mixture to taste.
Pour tomato paste mixture into baking dish on top of potato layer.
Bake for 30 minutes or until potatoes are soft at 350 degrees.
Serve with hot rice, or mixture of hot rice and vermicelli.
Nikko Cagalanan, Filipino
“My grandmother was the matriarch of the family and she was the one cooking everything,” Nikko Cagalanan, owner of Mansueta’s Filipino Food, said. “She was the one who would go to the market three times a day, for breakfast, lunch, dinner, just because everything was so fresh you didn’t need to refrigerate anything. You can’t get any more fresh, all the produce, meats, fish. We were so abundant with fish because we were surrounded by water.”
Cagalanan said all food from the Philippines is comfort food to him.
“For me, comfort food is kind of like a nostalgic feeling of when you eat something and it reminds you of your childhood. It’s familiar to your soul,” he said.
But, the ultimate comfort food, he said, is his grandmother’s Arroz Caldo, a big bowl of rice porridge with ginger and lemon grass that was the dish of choice when he was sad or sick.
1 tbsp. canola oil
1 red onion, peeled and dice
5 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
4 tbsp. ginger, peeled and minced
2 lemongrass stalk
1 cup rice
7 cups water
2 tbsp. fish sauce
1 tbsp. chicken bouillon
Salt and pepper to taste
Kalamansi or lime wedges
Heat a pot over medium heat and add the oil. Add onion, garlic and ginger and sauté for three minutes, until soft and brown.
Add rice and stir until it’s toasted. Add the water and lemongrass, fish sauce and chicken bouillon. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. When it starts to boil, turn the heat to low and keep it covered. After 30 more minutes, add salt and pepper to taste.
Serve in a bowl and add your toppings.
Maryam Ghazvnavi, Pakistani
Comfort food is “high in good fats, with a ton of spices, a depth of flavor, but it’s simple where the ingredients still shine,” said Maryam Ghaznavi, chef and owner of Ma’am Saab.
She grew up in Saudi Arabia, but often went home to Pakistan to visit family and said she remembers her grandmother cooking over a low cooktop, adding ghee and then freshly ground aromatic ingredients like cumin and ginger. For Ghaznavi, any food prepared by her grandmother or mother when she was “super-tired or grumpy or had a broken heart” was comfort food.
Her mother would pack a lunch for Ghaznavi that included an omelet wrapped in a homemade flatbread called paratha.
“It takes me back to my childhood and my bus rides with that roll wrapped in foil and it smelled like heaven, cooked with spices in the eggs and cooked in butter or oil. I can still smell it right now,” she said.
2 organic eggs
Salt to taste
¼ tsp. red chili powder
¼ tsp. crushed black pepper
¼ tsp. garam masala
Few sprigs fresh cilantro
½ red onion sliced
1 serrano or jalapeño pepper sliced
Mix all spices and vegetables with the eggs and whisk thoroughly by hand. Remember the more you whisk, the fluffier the omelets.
Add preferred fat (vegetable oil, butter or ghee) to a shallow, non-stick skillet. Pour the egg mixture once the fats have heated up, otherwise the omelet will be too oily and soggy. Flip to cook the other side. (I like my omelets well done).
Enjoy wrapped in a bread of your choice (my favorite is a paratha) with mint chutney or a mango pickle. Makes a hearty breakfast or mid-day snack.
Dung “Junior” Vo, Vietnamese
Dung “Junior” Vo might be executive chef at O-Ku, but he lived in Vietnam until he was 11, and that’s where his comfort food comes from.
“Comfort food was meat, which we didn’t eat every day,” Vo said. “It was a monthly thing or a payday thing. So, for me, comfort food is chicken and rice, but it’s not as simple as chicken or rice. It’s the feeling of having a family dinner. It’s not just food. It’s the people around you and who you had it with. How did it make you feel? For me, comfort food is a special occasion, where Mom or Dad would take that time and prepare it properly with a lot of care, love and thought and then we’d eat together as a family.”
His mother died in 2004 and his father is in Atlanta, but Vo says he still tries to create his parents’ chicken with lemongrass.
“Obviously, the ingredients are not the same, but I do my best to replicate it as much as I can for the people I love. Eating comfort food alone is great, but you should always try to have dinner with other people,” he said.
Grilled Lemongrass Chicken
3 lbs. chicken (any kind you prefer)
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper
2 tsp. fish sauce
1 tsp. sugar
2 stalks of lemongrass, chopped finely
2 Thai chili pepper or 1 tsp. dry pepper flakes
2-3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp. oil
1 lime, cut into wedges
Cut chicken into bite-size pieces.
Mix all other dry ingredients with the oil and marinate the chicken thoroughly for a minimum of 30 minutes.
Grill the chicken on charcoal, air fryer or even pan-sear if you like. Chicken should be cooked on medium heat for 3-4 minutes on all sides and then it’s ready. Since the chicken is cut into smaller pieces, it will cook faster and more evenly.
Serve on steamed rice with a squeeze of lime.