Maybe you know the feeling, the way a nostalgic bite can put you in a whole new headspace. Or you have at least seen the years 2007 Ratatouille, when a spoonful of the title dish sends critic Anton Ego back to his carefree youth, reminding him of his home.
This is the power that food can have. It can bring people to another time or place – to a place of peace, comfort and warmth. And this power is universal for home cooks, professional chefs, and even those who don’t cook. One bite can stir up a lot of memories and emotions.
Being a home cook myself, there is always a favorite dish when I feel lazy, depressed or homesick: spam, rice and too easy eggs. A simple dish, I know, but it’s what I ate most mornings growing up and it reminds me of times when I didn’t have the responsibilities I have now.
For professional cooks, simplicity is key to summoning that intimate feeling to warm the mind and body.
Chef Vivian Howard of Lenoir and Handy & Hot, for example, cooks a simple chicken and rice dish for comfort. Carlos Parades of Peruvian pop-up Umay makes a Peruvian chicken stew that reminds him of his late mother. And Nico Quintero, former FIG chef, cooks Colombian chicken soup to remind him and his family of their Colombian roots.
Aji de gallina by Carlos Parades
Ají de gallina – Peruvian chicken stew – is a dish that takes Parades back to his youth, reminding him of his late mother’s cooking. It’s not just a delicious meal, but a sweet reminder of the time spent with her.
“It’s one of the dishes she would always make,” Parades said. “So my memory always comes back to that.”
According to Parades, the dish is super easy to make, and if you have old bread in your kitchen, this is the perfect meal to use it up.
“It’s a very traditional Peruvian meal, and even if you’re trying to make it in the States, it’s one of the easiest things to do.”
All the ingredients are readily available, whether at a local Mexican supermarket for Peruvian peppers or at a grocery store to pick up a roast chicken and make a simple broth.
To make ají de gallina, old bread is broken down and soaked in chicken broth with Peruvian chili peppers, spices and milk to make a sauce, similar to ajoblanco, a cold Spanish soup. For parries, pecans, hard-boiled eggs, olives, and potatoes are added to the stew, then served with a side of rice. Romaine lettuce can also be added for a bit of freshness and crunch.
“This dish will always be in my heart,” Parades added. “Just thinking about it, I can smell it and taste it, and it gets more delicious every time I eat it.”
The dish is also the one his wife taught him to make when he returns from a trip or for Christmas, he says. “She just understands that it warms my heart.”
Vivian Howard’s Chicken and Rice
“It doesn’t sound like much, but it was the comfort food of my youth and it’s also the comfort food of my adult life,” Howard told the city paper.
The dish, according to Howard, requires a whole chicken “boiled to death” — in other words, falling apart — to create a broth full of chicken flavor. Remove the poultry from the water, loosen the meat from the bones, season the broth heavily with salt and pepper, then return the meat and rice to the broth.
“It sounds corny, but all that chicken fat and broth and pepper smells like home,” she added.
It’s a simple meal, but prepared at least once a week at her house during the cold winter months. The benefit of being such a simple recipe, according to Howard, is that there’s plenty of room to add more flavor and depth to the dish. Her children, she says, will eat it as it is. But for her, she occasionally skips greens or adds tomatoes or herbs to the dish.
“It can be as basic as you want or as exciting as you want.”
Caldo de Pollo by Nico Quintero
“When I’m homesick, it’s always chicken soup,” Quintero said. “But it’s not your traditional chicken noodle soup.”
It is a caldo de pollo, a traditional Latin American chicken and vegetable soup. However, the difference between traditional chicken noodle soup and Colombian chicken soup from Quintero is in the Latin ingredients.
“It’s like your traditional chicken soup you had growing up, but with a little twist with stuff I grew up with,” he said.
The dish does not require much. It’s simple, yet creates a smooth blend of different flavors and textures. When preparing the dish at home, Quintero uses a whole chicken to add some fat to the broth and adds potatoes and yuca (a root vegetable) for creaminess, cilantro and limes. for acidity, plantains – “if you can find any good ones” – for sweetness and Inca corn for a little saltiness.
“That’s how it’s always been,” he added. “When I was sick, my mum made it for me. When it’s cold outside, I make it for my family, and it’s something they sort of adapt to.
With his American-born wife and children, preparing the dish at home, for Quintero, not only serves as a reminder of his home, but also as a way to share his culture and heritage with his family.
“It’s like an ode to home.”