What is comfort food? The phrase means different things to different people but to me it simply means the aroma of home cooked food. Simple and delicious, food I’ve grown up eating and crave from time to time. After a bad or good day, its the longing for something familiar, craving for something nostalgic.
I left home a while ago and though I go back at least twice in a year, the days I crave for comfort food most are when I’m ill. When I’m lying in bed sipping warm tea with honey, my mind searches for childhood memories, tastes I imbibed during my younger days, the tastes I long for…
The past week I had a long phone conversation with my mother. We discussed everything under the sun. From films to posters, music to theater, Bengali food to Kerala’s famous beef curry. I kept telling her how much I was missing home food. I guess it was one of those days when I wasn’t well and things weren’t going the way I had planned. So she told me, “Make something you like.” That’s when the idea struck.
So for the past few days I’ve been cooking my comfort food. I was surprised to find that though I love experimenting with every cuisine I can lay my hands on, what I end up cooking when I’m low is Indian food from various parts of the country but with a twist conceptualised by my mother.
Bread Upma from school
A very close friend used to bring this concoction to school almost thrice a week for tiffin. The aroma of the spices mixed with bread pieces left us wanting more every time. I remember I asked my mother to ask T’s mother how to make it. And since that day in class 3, my mother makes it when I’m home and hungry! The flavour combination is so delicious that when its being cooked, you can smell it from the other room. Tangy and crisp, spicy and yet subtle the textures just leaves you wanting more. It’s so simple to recreate that the whole process barely takes 15 minutes!
Chirer pulao, Bong style
In English we would call it fried flaked rice stirred in with vegetables and spices. Chire (poha) is eaten all over India but every region uses it differently. My mom makes it the way her mother used to. It has little pieces of potato and onion and tomato softened to perfection with whole spices (cinnamon, cloves and cardamom). It’s slightly sweet and you serve it hot with a good scattering of chopped coriander. I love this. It gives me a feeling of home every time I make it. It light, delicate and filling, a perfect breakfast dish.
The quintessential Bengali lunch
I’ve said before that we didn’t eat a lot of Bengali food on a regular basis growing up but on occasions just some fluffy rice, potato fry and yellow dal is all you needed to have a great day. I just added my version of an egg curry along with it made with tomatoes and yoghurt. On occasions when I really crave comfort food, I turn to this simple home-style lunch to get me through the day.
What do you eat when you crave something comforting?
My first taste of Lebanon came at an early age. My parents had taken me to their foodie friend’s house when I was about 10 years old. Though dinner was late (by my standards), his table was a visual treat. Vibrant greens, red and yellow playing peek-a-boo while the aroma was unusual to my senses. I remember wanting to breathe in every smell and of course, take a mental picture. Unaware of the names, I remember almost inhaling all the flavours and my mother scolding me, asking me to eat slowly.
After that scrumptious treat, images of Lebanese food slowly faded away, replaced by other exciting cuisines, till about my late teenage years. My sister’s best friend’s mother (yes, a long connection) invited us for dinner. And my taste buds were re-introduced to Hummus, Baba Ghanoush, Falafel and of course Baklava. From that moment on, it’s been a constant love affair.
I started researching, finding out about eating joints and of course tried my hand at making the world-famous dips at almost every party I threw. Lebanon’s geographical position and historical background makes its cuisine a perfect balance for all taste buds. The wide use of olive oil, lemon, garlic, fruits, vegetables and seafood gives Lebanese cuisine a global appeal and not to mention, is considered healthy by critics.
On a recent lazy Sunday afternoon I craved simple food. Something like hummus and a plate of raw vegetables. But, as I took out the trusty chopping board, things obviously didn’t go to plan. Further fridge hunting threw up a packet of flat bread I had bought the day before. Similar to Pita but found in local supermarkets packaged as ‘Lebanese bread’. (Maybe that’s why I had the craving?)
In the freezer I found about 250 grams of chicken which of course let my mind think of Shawarma. Without a grill, I decided to put a spin on it. And let me tell you, before I could even have a second helping, my sister had polished of the full plate!
Here goes the recipe (for 2):
250 grams of chicken (diced to bite sized pieces), 1 small onion, 4 cloves of garlic, 1 small tomato, 2 chillies, half a red bell pepper, 1 teaspoon cumin, salt and pepper to taste, 4 teaspoons of vegetable oil.
(A useful tip: When trying this recipe is if you like it spicy, add a dollop of the fiery hot momo sauce available with every dumpling vendor. I used some and that’s what gave the chicken a wonderful flavour)
First blitz the onion, garlic cloves and chillies. In a nonstick pan, heat the oil and add the mixture. Once it’s slightly browned, add the cumin and the pieces of chicken. Seal the meat. Then add the tomato (after blitzing it), sliced bell pepper, salt and pepper. At this stage I added the momo sauce which gave the chicken it’s wonderful deep red colour. Let it all cook with the lid on till the meat is perfectly tender. It shouldn’t take you more than 20 minutes. Chopped coriander will act as a wonderful garnish but unfortunately, I didn’t have any that day.
So, my version of a mezze on the lazy Sunday included juicy bite-sized pieces of chicken, served with Lebanese bread and of course Hummus and mayonnaise as accompaniments. Try it once and you’ll be hooked on.