Comfort food brings up all kinds of dishes: macaroni and cheese, meat loaf, casserole, matzo ball soup. French fries, ice cream, chocolate. These foods are comforting for lots of people. But comfort food is so subjective. What comforts someone, might be strange and unappetizing for someone else.
What makes food comfortable and familiar is oftentimes a complex interplay between memory, taste, nostalgia, personal history, ethnicity, and emotion. There is no existing formula to make things comforting; they either are or they aren’t.
Despite the subjectivity of comfort food, I do think that in order to be comforting, there are certain qualities that must be present:
1. The dish is usually warm. Sno-cones, for example, evoke nostalgia. You can crave a Sno-Cone. Do you want a Sno-Cone to comfort you when you have had a disaster day at work? Probably not.
Ice cream maybe, but ice cream has enough fat to have a luxurious mouthfeel, negating the fact that it is cold.
2. It’s usually filling. True comfort should relax you. It should be full of soft middles and rounded edges. It should warm you from your core, and make you feel full and satisfied. It should make you feel safe, cosseted in familiar smells and textures.
3. It’s usually full of salt and fat, or fat and sugar. Despite efforts to negate our very human attraction to calories, millions of years of biology and evolution have made us creatures who crave fattening foods simply because they are fattening.
4. Comfort food should above all taste good. It should hit all the sweet spots, and tick all of the boxes.
If you had to say something about comfort food, it makes you happy to eat it. It takes your stress away. It transports you to a simpler, less complicated time. Recently, there was a NYT article about Filipino cruise ship workers who pull into Red Hook when their luxury liners dock in New York City. It’s really a great little story about how food can connect you, and make you feel closer to home.
And that is precisely what fried rice does for me. My mom would make fried rice for me after school, after long speech meets, after coming home too late, after long hours at summer jobs, after exhausting semesters at college, after months abroad. She would use leftover rice, and whatever else was in the fridge. It didn’t matter if it was some extra pork, or beef, shrimp, or chicken from the night before. Sometimes she had some broccoli, some carrots, some peas. Sometimes she just had some scallions, which — let’s be honest — she always has.
Left with some extra soy-poached chicken and steamed rice myself after dinner with Tomoko, I decided to do the same.
Fried rice has no recipe. What I do when I am just making it just for myself is I scramble two eggs in a skillet, breaking up the curds into smaller bits. When they are done, I remove them from the skillet and set them aside. I add about a tablespoon of vegetable oil to the same pan, and set it over medium-high heat. When the oil starts to shimmer, I add the rice, the chicken, and the eggs. I let the everything begin to brown and sizzle, stirring and tossing the ingredients together all the while. I add a few splashes of good soy sauce, continuing to move all the ingredients around with a spatula. Once most of the liquid has evaporated, I add a handful of chopped scallions. I toss everything together so that the scallions are evenly distributed throughout the rice. Then I eat, and think of home.