“Pastrami was our madeleine.”
Marilyn Brass, cook and cookbook author of Baking with the Brass Sisters.
At what point do we identify something as comfort food, and what makes it so?
By definition, comfort food is designed to trigger memories that take us to a time of safety and familiarity, nourishing both body and spirit.
But for me, fortunate inhabitant of the vast county of Los Angeles, comfort food is continuously re-defined expansively and often surprisingly so as one of the more exquisite and tangible consequences of immigration.
Eating places are embedded in neighborhoods; some of these venture out into more mainstream communities, followed or led by the food suppliers--from corner stores to super markets--specializing in particular ingredients that create a sense of comfort and by extension home.
In my mind and heart, the idea of comfort food is not a fixed memory of a particular dish such as my grandmother’s schav, a cold sorrel soup that provided such relief on a hot Chicago summer’s day. Any taste experience, no matter what the source or time frame, can land easily in my comfort food column.
I wondered why some of us can make the psychic and palate leap from Cream of Wheat to congee, from bologna to andouille -- and some cannot? There is mounting understanding that fear of anything new--food neophobia--is influenced by genetics and early survival instincts. "Avoid the untried as it is probably dangerous." And then there is the middle of the arc, those who moderate somewhere between Jonathan Gold and the folks who eat nothing more than buttered noodles. For the somewhat cautious, but willing to place toe in the water before swimming, this week’s post is dedicated to you.
Back to the Beginner’s Mind and the Story of the Spider
"Too much comfort is like a spider whose web is both a home and a trap.”
And so, I push myself into food markets where 90 percent of what I see is a mystery. In a recent foraging expedition, my puzzled face became an invitation for acts of kindness and welcome in every store I entered. Without fail, I was approached by a variation on the Nona/Grandma, whose knowledge of a particular food culture was as deep as her desire to teach. As an enthusiastic learner, I was ready for any tidbit that came my way.
I learned that:
- Masa made on the premises is better than the dried packaged stuff.
- To make a better salsa, it is best to blacken the jalapenos first.
- A salsa can be made mild, medium or scorching depending upon the ratio of chilies to tomatoes and onions.
- The pre-made masalas are not as good as making a masala from whole spices that roasted first and then ground.
- Indian stores are treasure troves of choices for ghee (clarified butter), lentils and chai.
- Certain brands of oyster sauce are exceedingly better than others. (I have the good stuff now.)
- The mystery greens in Asian markets are used to flavor soups and stews or can be stir fried. When very young, they can be eaten uncooked in a dressed salad.
In so many cases, there is the similar food “cousin” that acts as a bridge to the unfamiliar ingredient.
The sweet, Chinese sausage so much like pepperoni (but even more delicious); bitter greens that are interchangeable with kale or arugula; a fat slice of Oaxacan egg-infused bread spread with butter and sugar that is equivalent to a brioche; a tiny dollop of tamarind paste that could double as dried apricots or plums and adds umami to a chicken marinade or baked winter squash.
My pantry is now bulging with new ingredients after a month of foraging. I have gorgeous saffron and a small package of tamarind paste purchased from the Punjab Grocery; smoky colored cellophane noodles made out of sweet potato, delicate chrysanthemum greens and oyster sauce from 168 Market; and from La Mayordomia, a bottle-green colored bowl-shaped mortar designed for grinding chiles.
From left to right: The beautiful vegetables at 168 are impossible to resist: cucumbers, Japanese eggplant, zucchini and bottle gourd. Middle: Wrapped piloncillo at Mayordomio, a solid brown sugar that tastes delicious when grated over hot milk or toast. Right: Jack fruit looking disturbingly like beached sea lions at 168 have no food cousin. Therefore they are challenging, even to me.
Two young brothers make one of the quintessentially comforting breakfasts of all time, buttered bread and chocolate milk in François Truffaut's film, Small Change.
To make the move to the unknown irresistible, I turn now to a sampling of children’s comfort foods from around the world. Predictably, they are amply represented by the trifecta of starch, fat and sweet, and nearly all of them depend upon a slice of something to hold the yum. After a sampling by two tasters, the hands down favorite was from Spain --toast with broiled olive oil, chocolate and salt--followed closely by a family favorite of mine, peanut butter sprinkled generously with sugar and then broiled to a caramelized deliciousness.
Next time, we go swimming into more challenging waters. Enjoy!