Comfort a la Carte

by Liz Caskey on August 19, 2009

Comfort_Food_1What I have most missed since I moved to Chile, now almost nine years ago, are those homey meals; the comfort food I used to eat at my Mom’s house, with my grandmother, in diners, and my favorite ethnic dives. When I pine for those flavors, what I am really wanting is to relive those moments through food. The flavors reconnect me, even if for a few minutes, with memories of those places, my gente, and feelings of love, security, warmth, and happiness. They are familiar, family-style dishes I have eaten hundreds of times as I grew up and even today, they somehow console me and manage to cut down the distance when I feel pangs of homesickness (now few and far but they never totally go away). 

When I got married in 2007, the best present I received was a handmade book from my mother with the 200+ recipes she had prepared for us as kids. Of all my cookbooks (and there are dozens and dozens), it is the most beloved.  It opened the door to recreating all those dishes I craved so intensely from afar. I began to revisit my childhood and feel close again to my family through food: tortilla soup; macaroni and cheese with sharp cheddar, smoked ham, and brioche crumbs on top; matzah ball soup when it was rainy and cold; roasted chicken; meatloaf which we devoured with mashed potatoes; pot pie, a Pennsylvanian Dutch classic (Lancaster County is my hometown!); shepherd’s pie; meatballs simmered until tender in homemade tomato sauce.

Arriving in Chile, I quickly came to miss, in addition to comfort food growing up all the ethnic food I had lived on in New York and had become part of my daily gastronomic lexicon: authentic pad thai; Indian dhal; Mexican chilaquiles verdes; Vietnamese pho on a cold, blustery day; and freshly steamed dumplings for dim sum. Necessity eventually drove me to procure the ingredients, authentic recipes, and recreate at home.

With the recession in the US, the tremendous return to comfort food is real. However, beyond scaling back, eating more  simple, economical foods and dishes, and (gasp) even eating in, I think in times of uncertainty, people inherently seek what’s familiar, food included. Food is so intrinsically tied up in our emotions and close to our heart that, of course, it will give some sense of reassurance and emotional security too. 

Comfort_Food_2On the flip side, in Chile I have totally fallen in love with its comfort food. In fact, when I away for too long, I also start missing it. Comfort food, in my opinion, is the heart of Chile’s gastronomic soul: familiar, rustic, and warm. It’s simple with little pretext nor complications, only seeking to coax out its pure flavors. Most importantly, it is made with a lot of cariño, loving care. If you ask me where I would prefer to eat for *real* Chilean food, I will almost always take you to a joint over any gourmet restaurant: Venezia’s porotos granados, fresh cranberry beans with corn, pumpkin, and basil in the summer time; cazuela from San Remo; the cumin and paprika infused pork roll that drove Tony Bourdain crazy, arrollado, from El Hoyo; the empanadas and dulces chilenos from my friend María Luisa on Merced and José Miguel de la Barra in the Bellas Artes neighborhood, around the corner from my house; the crab pie, pastel de jaiba, from Doña Zuni in the fishing village of Quintay; the fresh sweet corn tamales, humitas, Carmen makes each summer with patience in la Vega Chica; the typical corn pie off Route 5 South at Juan y Medio, an old truckers stop; the plateada, braised beef brisket (in the photo), which hasn’t changed for decades at Colo Colo near Curicó; the charquicán, pumpkin potage, my maid Oti makes; my father-in-law’s kick ass asado  (BBQ); the “soupy” empanadas from Señora María in San Clemente on Chilean Independence Day; the marraquetas from La Espiga bakery in Nuñoa–crunchy outside, spongy inside;  sopaipillas, fried pumpkin bread, as they traditionally prepare them on a stormy day. 

All these dishes have a delicious flavor but the secret ingredient is the love infused during the cooking process. It is felt, absorbed, and profoundly thanked. In those fleeting moments while you disconnect and partake in the pleasurable ritual of eating, food made with kindness, care, and affection is transformative you. It lifts you up. It makes you feel so good. You feel connected and understood. That is what we, and all life, are seeking. More life. More love. More security.

Adapted from monthly column in Placeres Magazine (Chile), June 2009.


Margaret August 19, 2009 at 5:43 pm

Well put… and you’re making me HUNGRY! What I wouldn’t give for a cazuela de vacuno… or costillar con pure picante… o plateada! YUM!

Annje August 20, 2009 at 2:56 pm

…or carne mechada o pollo arvejado…

I was just explaining the idea of “comfort food” to my Chilean husband the other day. I also made cazuela and marraquetas because we both had a “hankering” for it (even though it is over 100 degrees here in TX–not bread baking weather!)

ps. I need a better recipe for marraquetas if you know of one

Liz Caskey August 21, 2009 at 1:27 pm

Yes, there are so many! I am working on a cookbook right now on South American cooking for the US market and pollo arvejado will be in there.
I actually don’t have a recipe for marraquetas since living here, you just can buy them anywhere. I do have a couple favorite bakeries though–the ones that hit the crunchy, chewy, yet soft inside duo. And served warm.

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