SEATTLE — It took me a long time to realize it, but every time I seek comfort, or even connection, I reach for the same thing to eat — angel hair pasta and tomato sauce.
I’ve never been picky about the sauce. It could be jarred or a long-simmered pot of canned tomatoes, a bay leaf or two bobbing in the depths. I’m also a big fan of Marcella Hazan’s iconic 45-minute magic sauce, flavored with a halved onion and half a stick of butter, or in a pinch, I sometimes turn a squirt of tomato paste, some pasta water, Parmesan and a splash of whole milk into sauce.
What I wouldn’t compromise on are noodles. I’ve cooked in dozens of kitchens all around the world — when I was too broke to drive home for holidays in college, on first nights in new apartments and new cities, on quiet nights in strange kitchens surrounded by dogs I was housesitting, or on hectic evenings with a baby balanced on my hip while I stirred — the act of twirling those long, thin noodles around the tines of my fork just as my grandpa taught me 35 years ago is instant comfort, instant calm.
I’ve compromised as of late: gluten-free fettuccine to accommodate our older daughter since she was diagnosed with celiac disease (although Rummo makes an excellent GF spaghetti). That same daughter is just as likely to ask for her training chopsticks as she is to ask me to twirl the noodles for her, while our younger is content shoving noodles in her mouth with both hands. Meatballs are more likely to make an appearance in the long-simmered sauce. If it’s Christmas I’ll sneak in some short ribs or even braciole.
But no matter the changes in circumstance or location over the years, pasta with red sauce is my touchstone, my fallback, my version of a food hug.
So what does comfort food mean to you? And what’s your go-to in times of stress, sadness or when you just need a little pick-me-up? Everyone has one — and as Frankie Gaw, author of the deeply personal Taiwanese American cookbook “First Generation” says: “It’s not salad.”
Gaw is one of seven Seattle-area cookbook authors whom I asked to name their comfort food touchstones and how they may have changed over the years. Here’s what they said.
J. Kenji López-Alt
- “The Food Lab,” W.W. Norton & Company, 2015
- “Every Night is Pizza Night,” Norton Young Readers, 2020
- “The Wok, Recipes and Techniques,” W.W. Norton & Company, 2022
“No. 1 for me would be Japanese-style mapo tofu, which my mom made growing up. It was my favorite meal then and it’s my daughter’s favorite meal now. I find tofu to be very comforting because it’s warm and it stays warm and if you grew up eating it, it’s not a challenging meal [to make]. There’s something about the texture; soft tofu melts in your mouth and when I was little, I used to take the tofu and squish it between my teeth and make a tofu milkshake in my mouth and I find my daughter does that now.
“I’ll make it if I know my daughter has had a challenging day or I’ve had a challenging day. It’s reliable, it’s easy to make and it’s something you don’t have to worry about in any way. Which is often.
“In that same way I find there’s nothing more satisfying, nothing I want more when I’m flying than a McDonald’s breakfast sandwich. It’s exactly the same everywhere.”
- “Chinese Soul Food,” Sasquatch Books, 2018
- “Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food,” Sasquatch Books, 2021
“I find as I get older I tend to lean toward some of these types of comfort food that you just make up in your kitchen. It’s not really a recipe per se, it’s just a way of simplifying and grounding yourself in the food that you eat. It’s about warming, warming yourself up and balancing out whatever is going on in the world. It’s a tonic.
“It’s usually a steaming bowl of noodle soup and it could be from any Asian cuisine, but my go-to when I think about a huge bowl of noodle soup I think of the red braised beef noodle soup. I don’t make it often but when I do, it just perfumes the whole house with wonderful aromas and depending on how much effort I want to put into it, I might make handmade noodles because that adds just a whole other textural experience to the soup.
“The other thing that’s not so common, is not something you’d ever find in a restaurant — dumpling knots soup, mian ge da tang. You take broth and then whatever vegetables you want in there and then you take flour and add water to make these little flakes of dough and then you put those flakes of dough into the broth and it’s thick and very filling and delicious and comforting. You talk to any Chinese person and they’ll immediately know what that is.”
- “I Heart Soul Food: 100 Southern Comfort Food Classics,” Sasquatch Books, 2020
“Comfort food for me is basically a bunch of comfort in one dish to sum it up! It’s going to be a dish that’s going to trigger childhood memories, make you feel good when you’re eating — not always after — but something that’s full of flavor and, of course, calories because that’s why it tastes so good. It’s one that speaks to you.
“My soul food is macaroni and cheese. I make a homemade cheese sauce with six different cheeses. I sneak some cream cheese into the sauce, havarti, sharp cheddar, Gouda, mozzarella and colby jack. That’s one of my favorites. It’s packed in calories, evaporated milk, and half-and-half.
“We always had basic macaroni through the year but around the holidays is when it got amped up, spending more money on cheese from the deli. This one reminds me of Christmas particularly. It has always been one of my favorite comfort dishes and my son loves it so much. He has my palate all the way.
“I’m a picky person when it comes to food, but if I want something [that I don’t make] it’s going to be IHOP pancakes. That’s because as a treat when I was younger my mom would take me to IHOP for special days for breakfast. So it’s a treat for myself. “
- “First Generation: Recipes From my Taiwanese-American Home,” Clarkson Potter/Ten Speed Press, 2022
“I have different comfort foods for different contexts but generally for me it’s something nostalgic. It has to be something I used to have as a kid. Something about eating food that brings you back to childhood. That period of life was very stress-free, no baggage.
“If I’m really sad, like sad and depressed, my go-tos are McDonald’s and ice cream. I’m going to order all my favorites from the drive-thru and get two pints of ice cream and eat a little of everything. But if I’m really craving food from my family or missing my family for whatever reason, I’ll for sure go to something attributed to my culture. I’ll Uber Eats a bunch of Ding Tai Fung dumplings, get two or three people’s worth just for myself. Anything that’s a meat wrapped in a carb.
“I feel like comfort food is also the efficiency and accessibility of being able to eat it without having to do a lot of effort, which is why I’m always ordering it. The last thing I want to do is roll out my own dough and make a bunch of dumplings. If I can get it without having to be a human being and just be a blob, I’ll do that.
“But if I’m doing it for someone else, I’m doing the opposite. I want to cook them something that has a lot of love in it so that person feels cared for and they didn’t have to put any effort into it. When someone is like, ‘I made this chicken soup for you because you were sick and it’s been simmering at my house for two hours’ — it’s the delta of me not having to do anything relative to someone spending all their time making sure you’re cared for, that’s the ultimate. That’s total heaven.”
- “Cannelle et Vanille,” Sasquatch Books, 2019
- “Cannelle et Vanille Bakes Simple,” Sasquatch Books, 2021
“For me, definitely I think it’s very related to childhood. I’m from the Basque country and we have a saying; ‘comer de cuchara,’ it translates to ‘eat things that require a spoon.’ It’s almost a saying when you have a conversation with someone who’s not healthy or grounded — you need to eat with a spoon. Soups and stews and beans and things that are wholesome and nourishing. To me it’s always been associated with that.
“I always go back to that saying — you have a bowl and you have a spoon and it gives you everything you need. Chicken noodle soup, it’s so simple. I don’t make it so much in the warmer months but once it starts to get colder, it’s something I make at least once a week. And I make a lot of lentil soup with root vegetables and chorizo. Or I’ll cook vegetables and I’ll make a daal and just mix it all. I don’t follow any rules. I just cook down red lentils and roast or sauté some vegetables in olive oil. Anything mushy and soft and brothy.”
- “Milk, Spice and Curry Leaves: Hill Country Recipes from the Heart of Sri Lanka,” TouchWood Editions, 2020
“[In November], my father passed away and I was thinking of comfort food and what does it mean to people this time of year. For some, it’s not the best time of year. But for most of us it’s a wonderful time of year and when I think of comfort food I think of what makes us feel good. It has a lot to do with memory. It’s not just about the nourishment of the food.
“One of my favorite recipes is rice and curries packed in banana leaves. It’s so special because the rice is made in a way that takes a special amount of attention and time and deliciously flavored with spices and broth and the curries are very special too, a fried plantain curry, coconut sambal, usually a cutlet like a fish curry and packed in these aromatic banana leaves.
“Usually with my father we’d go on a road trip to parks and scenic places and take these. Once we got there we’d unfold these beautiful packets and you’d be absorbed in the food and the scenery. When you open it up, it does feel like a major comfort.
“The best meals are always the ones cooked with love. It’s cliché but I remember having conversations with my dad about how you can tell someone loved the food they gave you. So different than eating something quickly or eating something made quickly. You transfer the energy you spend cooking to the person. You can add a little bit of extra time and spice.”
- “Mamacita: Recipes Celebrating Life as a Mexican Immigrant in America,” Princeton Architectural Press, 2022
“Comfort food has always resonated with the words ‘ease’ or ‘at peace’ with me. The comfort foods that I have eaten throughout my life bring a sense of healing to my being. I believe that during the pandemic, as we were all placed in uncomfortable states, cooking and food became a necessary way of redefining and creating comfort. To me, the experience of the pandemic transformed what I used to think of as ‘comfort food’ and for me that definition has now transcended into a meaning of ‘belonging.’
“I’ve always been a big fan of soups and have found rich broths in various foods comforting. Nowadays when I am looking to create a comforting dish, I go back to simple ingredients and simple recipes. One of those is my mama’s sopa Azteca which is one of my favorite recipes inside ‘Mamacita.’ The broth is rich, savory and a little spicy, giving the eater a sense of complexity, but the recipe is really quite simple and fun to make! To me the entire process of making this soup from sourcing the ingredients, to cooking it and sharing it with my guests or family is what makes it ‘comfort food.’
“There is a great gratification that comes from cooking something that I know is going to make the person I am cooking for feel loved. My partner is Korean and throughout our relationship we’ve both been able to learn and enjoy each other’s cultures and dishes. One of my favorite Korean traditions is eating miyeok-guk [seaweed soup] on your birthday. I first learned about this tradition a few years ago and decided to learn how to make the soup for his birthday. It quickly became one of our favorite comfort foods to enjoy together, and since he travels a lot for work I try to make it the day he comes home so he is welcomed by something delicious, comforting and close to home.”