In my field of work, where we talk about cultural competency ad nauseam you would be amazed at the stereotypes that arise. I recall observing a training whereby the trainers noted that if you wanted to reach Hispanic women/ Latinas you should do the meetings in the kitchen as Latinas like food a lot. What?! Really? This was the trainer stating this. I was furious. First off, what group of individuals doesn’t like to eat? I mean, food is the sustenance of life. Second, I am not such a woman that spends much time in the kitchen and I am Hispanic. I always state I know how to pick up the phone and order really well. However, I am a foodie. I look forward to all my travels business and personal alike, in part due to the ability to try new cuisines. One indicator of openness is willingness to try new foods. As long, as there is no shellfish (due to my severe allergy) I am willing to try it. Well, more or less.
For a business lunch yesterday, besides the mojitos, I had some ricotta meatballs and fried chicken. Both of the foods I enjoyed are part of the American comfort food consciousness. Said lunch got me thinking about comfort foods around the world. On a cold, rainy day what digestible items comfort the soul of millions? One of the best things about travel is trying out the local comfort food. And when you are going through a week of polar vortex conditions, comfort is sorely needed.
When I was in Italy last year during holy week, it often rained, was packed and was a bit grayer and colder than what I had hoped for. On one of those cold days, where we had walked for about four hours straight, we came across this less-crowded side street and entered a hole in the wall establishment. I ordered gnocchi, although I had been told beforehand back home that would not necessarily be the best dish to get while in Rome. I was feeling cold and gray. I had just thoroughly enjoyed my tour of the Colosseum but I needed something comforting. The gnocchi came and it was heavenly. Absolutely the best I had ever had. For some reason (maybe I was also craving a familiar cocktail) I also ordered a Caipirinha (which is Brazil’s national cocktail), and it was fabulous. Oh, the warmth that filled my belly upon ingesting that comfort food was tingly in a good way.
A few years back, I spent a week in Austria for the International AIDS Conference. Vienna is truly a beautiful and well-laid out city. However, we were definitely wishing for a set of more comforting interactions. I thought New York City lines were tough; they are nothing like what we experienced in Austria. We made it out to a small town called Eisenstadt where we got a banquet-sized meal of sausages. They were absolutely delicious; especially accompanied by the Reislings they specialized in. I must say Austria has some delicious white wines. I couldn’t get enough of them. However, what was most comforting in Austria was a bowl of Goulash I devoured near the prater. I readily admit that whenever I heard of goulash before Vienna, I had images of prison food. I know, I know. Not very nice image. I was beyond pleasantly surprised when I finally got to taste it. We were seated outdoors after a long day of attending scientific talks. My brain was tired and I needed something that would comfort my body. Based on the waiter’s recommendation I ordered the goulash, and I tasted one of the best soups I have ever had. The paprika was just the right amount of comfort kick I needed.
Soups appear to universally be part of the comfort food staple. Whenever I am in Puerto Rico for a trip -personal or business- I most definitely need some soul comforting. For it is always hard returning to Puerto Rico as the prodigal daughter. My go-to comfort food? That would hands down be the asopao. There are a couple of places in Mayaguez that make the best asopao that I would readily welcome you all to try when in Puerto Rico. Asopao is a stew with chicken thighs and flavorful green olives, local seasoning, garlic, cilantro, onions, and rice. I can be in the worse mood ever and you put a bowl of asopao in front of me, I can assure you 30 minutes later I am feeling happy and that all is right with the world.
A little bit further down in the Caribbean lies the awesome country of Curacao. We randomly decided to go there for my son’s fourth birthday and what a wonderful trip it turned out to be. We actually had to stay a few extra days as a hurricane was battering the United States and all flights out of the Island back to the United States were grounded. Really, there are worse ways to be stranded. We rented a car and went on an island-wide search for a lighthouse.. In an extremely remote part of Curacao, we came across this restaurant that specialized in a fusion of Hispanic and Dutch food. I was in state of pure delight. I ordered the goat stew with funchi which is basically corn meal mush. The funchi reminded me of my youth where on Saturdays we would have a bowl of hot corn meal. The goat stew spices were so rich and worldly. My mouth waters at the thought of it.
Speaking of mush and spices, there is a dish in Egypt that is universally seen as comfort food. That dish would be fuul. It is basically mashed fava beans served with vegetable oil and cumin. As a Puerto Rican I am very partial to cumin. So, I gave it a good old try when in Egypt. However, there is an even more interesting comfort dish called Koshary that kind of reminds me of a casserole. It has everything but the kitchen sink in it. It has twenty versions of carb (slight exaggeration) including rice, spaghetti, plus tomato sauce plus chick peas. An interesting dish I must say, but my stomach doesn’t care too much for solid chick peas. Hummus yes, chick peas themselves, not so much.
Speaking of dishes with everything in them. One of my all-time favorite comfort dish is that of the mixed plate in Hawaii. It is literally a plate that has macaroni, rice, pork and so on reflecting the diverse population of Hawaii. How wonderful it was to sit and enjoy a mixed plate with a Mai Tai watching the glorious sun set over the beach.
In both Spain and England, my comfort foods there were basically sandwiches. I was intrigued by the Bocadillo in Spain, whereby there were no real tomatoes just tomato paste. In England, I just loved the pastie (or pasty). It is made by placing meat and vegetable on a flat pastry circle and folding it to wrap the filling, crimping the edge to form a seal. It very much reminds me of empanadas-typical of Argentina. There is really something truly comforting about meat in a pie. It warms the cold right out of ya.
Speaking of warming up. While in Cuba I had a wonderful time getting to explore the island as an American. As you may know, American’s are sadly not readily allowed to go to Cuba. I went as part of a public health delegation whereby I got to see how their public health system works. A lot of Cuban food is fairly similar to Puerto Rican food. Thus, I had a sense of familiarity. What intrigued me most was the rum. There were all types of rum I had never seen or experienced before. It was phenomenal to drink that molasses liquid that we can’t readily get in the US!
While in Japan, there were many experiences that were truly foreign to me unlike Cuba. One such was grilling my own Okonomiyaki which is a savoury pancake containing a variety of ingredients that you throw in. My son had a great time watching mommy finally cook something! Talk about a different type of comfort food.
Lastly, while doing a cross-country trip in Canada, I got my fill of Poutine which basically includes one of the comfort foods from the US. Poutine consists of French Fries topped with a light brown gravy-like sauce and cheese curds. There is nothing more comforting than eating gravy-soaked French Fries in the front seat of a car in the absolute middle of nowhere.
Now that I have walked you through my comfort food nostalgia, I am dying of hunger. Oh my what in the world should I eat?