While it’s fine to eat healthy and to be conscious about caloric and fat contents of what we consume, those foods are not usually the ones we dream about. No, it’s comfort food that not only makes us happy, but when we travel they become some of our favorite snacks to eat and share. I’ve had a lot of practice with these foods, all in the name of research of course, and here are a few of my favorites. I’d love to hear what you love!
Poutine – When it comes to comfort food, poutine is royalty. Originally a French-Canadian concoction, poutine has been adopted nationally and can be found from Vancouver to the Maritimes. It’s a simple concept really, French fries are baked with cheese curds and rich brown gravy. The result is gooey perfection, perfect on a cold Canadian winter’s night. Some of the best poutine can be found naturally in Quebec, and at La Banquise in Montreal you can find everything from the classic dish to poutine topped with BBQ or even lobster.
Bunnychow – South Africans enjoy their food and thanks to a very unique history, they have created a curious culinary set of traditions that draw on many different cultures. One of the best examples of this foodie melange is bunnychow. A working person’s food, bunny chow is a rich curry of one’s choosing that is served inside a hollowed out loaf of bread. Meant to be cheap and hearty, bunnychow isn’t for the faint of heart but this spicy goodness is one of the keystones of South African comfort food.
Macarons – If melted cheese and gigantic loaves of curry bread are too messy for you, then the light and delicate French macaron is the obvious choice. This light-as-air cookie is notoriously hard to make, but admirers of the dessert can attest to the power of the burst of flavor that rewards the consumer. Once only found in Paris at the famous Ladurée shop, macarons are now a global trend and I’ve found them everywhere from New York to Melbourne and even Taipei. Don’t confuse them with macaroons though, which are heavier cookies made with coconuts and almonds.
Scotch egg – Unless you’ve spent time in the UK or at a Renaissance Festival, then this may be a new food for you. It’s a recipe that could only have been created in Britain; a Scotch egg is a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage meat, coated in breadcrumbs and baked. Before you start shaking your head, trust me, these are delicious little bites of comforting goodness. Like most comfort foods, Scotch eggs aren’t an every day treat, but when done well definitely satisfy the need for something delicious and filling.
Gelato – Another fine example of comfort food royalty is Italian gelato. Don’t get it confused with ice cream though, gelato has a higher milk-cream ratio, which means it’s creamier and the flavors are more pronounced than in ice cream. There’s also less air in gelato, which creates a dessert that is denser than ice cream. Gelato is also traditionally made fresh, which means that seasonal and fresh ingredients are easy to incorporate further setting it apart from its chilly cousin. Not all gelato is made the same though and there are plenty of fake gelato shops around the world. Real gelato should have a matte finish, not shiny and it shouldn’t be pilled up high screaming, “Look at me! I’m not quality gelato!” Color is also a good hallmark of real gelato. The colors of the flavors should be natural and not embellished. But nothing beats the taste of real gelato. It’s not frozen so the huge scoops should already be gently melting by the time you take your first bite. Pure perfection.
Giant Bavarian pretzels – Pretzels have been around in one form or another for centuries, but in Germany they only became popular in the 16th century. Since they were made using only flour and water, they made for a perfect food during Lent and quickly became associated with Easter. Of course the traditional pretzel looks as if a person is in prayer, adding to the faux religious significance. Since then pretzels have come into their own, now consumed in a variety of forms all throughout the year. I was particularly surprised though to find in Germany and Austria giant pretzels topped with a variety of add-ons, including my favorite – cheese.
Crepes – This may be a personal thing, but there’s nothing I like more than enjoying a fresh, hot crepe. Add in the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower or a Christmas Market in Europe and you have perfection. Crepes are just very thin pancakes; it’s the filling that makes them extra special. While many people enjoy savory crepes, there is noting better in my mind than a sweet Nutella crepe, oozing with choco-hazlenut perfection. Since I’m usually in Europe when it’s freezing outside, it’s also a nice way to warm up on a busy day of sightseeing.
Fried dough – Around the world, many countries have their own unique variations of sweet, fried dough. In the U.S. we have doughnuts and beignets, there are fritule in Croatia, zeppole in Italy and pączki in Poland. They seem to be everywhere and sampling the variants around the world has become a minor obsession of mine. Like most comfort foods, they’re pretty easy to make, they taste great and they’re filling. Fried dough treats especially I think hold firm real estate in our culinary hearts because they’re so often consumed either at special occasions or around the holidays. Like most foods, they immediately conjure up happy memories and eating a simple snack I think makes us all feel like kids again.
Anything with noodles and broth in Asia – One of the fastest and cheapest meals to buy in most Asian countries is a variant on what is essentially just noodles and a delicious broth. The bowl of savory goodness is embellished depending on where you are, from leafy greens to meats and who knows what kind of seasoning. In Vietnam phở is the popular choice, but I’ve found similar dishes in Thailand, Laos and Taiwan. The good thing about this meal is that you can buy it from a street vendor and consume it on site – so it’s fast. It’s also almost always delicious; simplicity doesn’t mean it lacks complex flavors and these national dishes have been honed through generations into what they are today. It’s also a lot of fun to get to know people who also enjoy slurping down their lunch, an immediate bond and a great way to get to know the country.
Knafeh – This list seemed a little Euro-centric to me, so I thought I’d add one of my favorite snacks from Jordan. A Levantine pastry, knafeh is one of the few examples of a sweet and immediately enjoyable dessert found in the Middle East. At first the ingredients sound a bit bizarre; long thin noodle threads, semolina dough, soft white cheese, pistachios and syrup are the main ingredients. But the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts and there is nothing better than grabbing a slice of knafeh from a neighborhood vendor and enjoying it there on the street, the warmth from the dessert helping to fight back the chilly night. Knafeh is very hard to find though outside of certain Middle Eastern countries like Jordan, although I have had great success in asking for it at some U.S. restaurants where it is usually prepared, but kept off of the main menu.
Belgian Fries – While we in the United States may call them French fries, delicately fried potatoes are a snack of great Belgian pride with a history to back it up. It’s not just for tourists either, Belgian fries are found everywhere and there is an art form not only in their creation, but ingestion as well. What sets Belgian fried potatoes apart is that they are usually twice fried. This results in a firm and crunchy fry that is never soggy. That’s why they’re such a great match for sauces, and the Belgians have developed hundreds of different toppings to add to one of their favorite comfort foods.
I could go on for a long time, but these are a few of my favorites. What are your top comfort food picks?