These comfort food favorites are perfect for the occasional cheat day.

“First, you’ve got to make a roux!” My good friend and podcast partner, Brad Jones, immediately uttered these words when he learned comfort food is the topic of this issue’s column. 

Keith Enloe

Why comfort food? Well, the dreary days of winter are upon us, and sometimes we need something in our lives to make us feel a sense of warmth and security, something that touches a place inside our souls and reminds us of special people and places. We need a good serving of comfort and joy. That’s exactly why comfort food is one of our favorites for this time of year.

What is comfort food? Ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 different answers, but there are certain characteristics of comfort food most people agree upon. The term itself brings to mind a sense of nostalgia, home, aromas, flavors, and even emotions often linked to family traditions passed down through generations.

“It can be found anywhere, coast to coast,” says Michael Ferguson, local chef and caterer of Michael’s Unforgettable BBQ. 

Michael says some traditional soul food dishes include barbecued pork steak, Virginia-baked ham, and oxtail soup with standard sides like candied yams, collard greens, succotash, and cornbread — just to name a few.

“These meals always remind me of family get-togethers,” he says. “Grandmas, granddads, aunts, and uncles who helped strengthen me and remind me that if people before me made it through some of the tough times in our history . . . I’ll be able to make it also, and we are OK.”

Labeling certain meals, dishes, or ingredients comfort food is something that transcends geography and ethnicity. With Jefferson City’s rich German heritage, dishes like pork roast, braised cabbage, schnitzels, and spaetzle are familiar favorites. But every culture has certain dishes they consider comfort food. In that sense, it is something we all have in common. It’s true. Comfort food has a unifying property that helps us connect with one another regardless of family origins.

Local physician Dr. Sangeeta Jain-Roberts is a first-generation Indian American whose family immigrated to the U.S. in 1959. “My parents held to their Indian traditions while raising their children,” Sangeeta says. “My mother is an excellent cook and shows her love of her family through cooking.”

Indian Favorites

  • Samosas — fried pastry filled with spiced potatoes, peas, and onions and served with mint chutney, spicy mustard chutney, or tamarind chutney.
  • Idli sambar — south Indian lentil-based spicy soup.
  • Mutter paneer — potatoes and peas in tomato-based spiced sauce.
  • Tandori chicken or tikka masala — Chicken with spiced yogurt with cucumber, mint, and masala, accompanied by raita.
  • Rice kheer — rice pudding.

As Sangeeta describes some traditional Indian comfort foods, she often includes the word “spicy” — that aromatic, flavorful, and warm culinary sensation. When cooked by loving hands, that’s what comfort food is all about.

Jenny Song Davidson provides a look at comfort food from another cultural perspective. She is a second-generation Korean American whose family came here shortly before she was born.

“Korean comfort food is something that brings back fond childhood memories,” Jenny says. “Korean food is mostly communal, with each person having their own bowl of rice, but sharing a lot of banchan, or side dishes, scattered around the table.

“One of my favorite Korean meals is samgyeopsal, or grilled pork belly,” she adds. “A grill is set in the middle of the table, and we would all grab at the pieces of meat as they cook, then wrap the samgyeopsal and banchan and rice in a perilla leaf or lettuce. There is nothing better than a warm and fiery belly to comfort the soul.”

One of her mother’s specialties is samgyetang, which is a ginseng chicken soup. A whole chicken is stuffed with ginseng, jujubes, garlic, and sweet glutinous rice, then stewed for hours.

Other Korean Favorites 

  • Jjigae — any kind of spicy stew. 
  • Kimchi jjigae — kimchi stew.
  • Soondubu jjigae — soft tofu stew. 
  • Haemul jjigae — seafood stew.

“I also think of comfort food as something painstakingly made from scratch, with harder to procure ingredients,” Jenny says. “My mom’s love language is food — from the procuring of ingredients, preparation, cooking and serving, to the satisfaction of watching her children enjoy it.”

No doubt, comfort food holds a place in our hearts (and stomachs). With the convenience of so many dining options available to us, it may take some extra effort, but passing down these time-honored recipes to the next generation will ensure they’re guaranteed a taste of The Good Life for years to come. 

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