Like a hug for your tastebuds, comfort food always seems to be there when you need it. It’s a dietary bandage we’ve all used, especially when the only answer to our problems seems to be copious amounts of salt or sugar. (Or, if you’re feeling particularly challenged, both.)
While in the U.S. we understand that when someone is stuffing their face with French fries and doughnuts it’s a signifier for, “I’m overwhelmed, please avoid eye contact,” other countries have developed their own favorite meals and snacks for when the pressure is on. But the stressed seem to speak a common culinary language, as the presence of cheese, bread, potatoes and pasta in most of the world’s favorite foods prove that we’re more alike than different.
Need to remind your stomach that it’s all going to be OK? Take a trip through nine of the most compelling, carb-laced global comfort foods.
Canada is so riddled with shops willing to put gravy and cheese curds on French fries, sometimes it can be hard to believe that poutine was only popularized in the late 1950s. The Quebec-area staple (rightfully adopted by the rest of the country) is the perfect date, able to slum it in a greasy spoon or go high end with the addition of premium toppings like meat, eggs or veggies.
Poutine is a dream for anyone who has ever argued that French fries are the perfect meal. Given the extreme levels of carbs and fat it contains, it’s little wonder that after a night of drinking, hitting a poutinerie to stave off a hangover is a required final stop. A 2004 study out of Princeton University showed that drinking alcohol produces the neurochemical galanin, which stokes hunger for food and fat … and poutine solves that equation perfectly.
Colombia: Arepa with Cheese
Made with ground maze and boasting a slightly sweet flavor, arepas are a regular Colombian go-to for breakfast, afternoon snacks or any time stress requires a bit of carb-laced pick-me-up. The small corn cakes taste great alone, but usually act as a socially acceptable transport system for toppings, including bread and jam, scrambled eggs, chocolate, or — as Liliana Lopez, editor of Food & Wine Latin America, prefers — with as much cheese as possible.
“I find it comforting because it tastes like Colombia, like home,” she told HuffPost. “Arepas are the food that I miss the most while I am away for too long.”
Finland: Karelian Pie
“Egg butter” may sound like a Lipitor-induced nightmare, but in Finland it’s a topping fit for “karelian pie,” the country’s favorite savory breakfast pastry. Like many morning foods, it’s been known to slip into Finns’ diet throughout the day, providing an energy kick in times of emotional need. And yes, the hot pastry is often topped with a spread made of butter and chopped-up boiled eggs.
“It’s originally baked with rye flour and filled with barley,” said executive chef Richard McCormick, founder of several high-end Helsinki restaurants, including Yes Yes Yes, Holiday, and The Cock. According to him, the scalloped-edged pastry is the great equalizer. “Not long ago, when rice became available to all Finns, the barley-filling was substituted for a creamy porridge made from thicker rice grains similar to sushi rice.”
Many countries’ cuisines rely on fat, sugar or excess carbs for comfort food. But in Iran, the go-to indulgence is a celebratory vegetable soup. Ash-e-reshteh is thickened with flour, beans and sour cream, and features a dash of noodles, generally considered to be good luck. Although as Sarra Sedghi, assistant editor at MyRecipes, told HuffPost, in her house the dish serves multiple uses.
“It’s used to celebrate the Persian new year, which occurs on the same day as the vernal equinox, but I mostly recall having it when it’s cold or someone was sick,” she said. “You think the next day, ‘Oh this would be great for lunch,’ and you open the fridge and it’s already gone because someone ate two bowls for dinner.”
Israel: Well, it depends
As explained by Debra Kamin who has covered food and travel for Variety, The Atlantic and The New York Times, Israel’s complex history as a melting pot of Jews from around the world means it’s difficult to pinpoint one monolithic comfort food. Sephardic Jews (who trace their roots to Africa, Spain and the Middle East) and Ashkenazi Jews (whose families come from Eastern Europe), carry with them a culinary tradition that can be wildly different from their neighbors.
“For comfort food, we all go back to our mothers and grandmothers, right?” said Kamin. “So an Israeli with roots in Iran might reach for gondi, which is a wonderful chickpea soup that’s sort of like matzo ball. But an Israeli whose family comes from Yemen would probably crave kubaneh, which is a sweet Yemenite bread.”
She points toward the traditional Israeli breakfast, full of hummus, spreads, bread and veggies, as a personal favorite. “Whenever we went back to Israel to visit, that’s how I knew I was home,” she said. “Salad for breakfast! So, healthy and fresh! It always made me feel great.”
Poland: Leniwe aka “Lazy Dumplings”
Poland has done an excellent job of exporting pierogi, ravioli-like pasta pockets filled with cheese or meat and served with a side of sour cream or melted butter. But those looking for a little extra comfort reach for leniwe, or the “lazy dumpling.” Rather than relying on filling, the quark cheese is folded directly into the pasta itself, to create a chewy dumpling just sweet enough to feel subversive.
“In Poland, you’re never more than three hours away from your next portion of gluten,” said Anna Mejer, who teaches pierogi-making classes with the food tourism company, Eat Polska. “Leniwe are the ultimate comfort food. They’re super easy to make, the ingredients are usually in everyone’s fridge, and they’re sweet. We like sweet dinners.”
For the Dutch, sprinkles aren’t a sometimes food, but rather an important breakfast staple. Hagelslag ― crunchy sugary sprinkles (think Rice Krispies with Leslie Knope-levels of enthusiasm) ― are sold in grocery stores across the country, their brightly colored boxes decked with swirling letters and cartoon characters. It’s a powerful suggestion: that happiness can be purchased and tastes like either chocolate, vanilla and fruit. Kids love them, but it’s not unusual for adults to indulge as well. In a tradition that dates back to 1919, they’re served on top of bread, covered in unsalted butter with a heavy helping of nostalgia.
“We use our sense of smell when we eat and many of our oldest memories are linked to our olfactory senses,” Shaffer told HuffPost. “This is why eating food from our childhood can make us feel so comfortable as it is often linked to some of our earlier preverbal memories of being cared for and nourished.”
If there’s an unofficial arms race for the heaviest comfort food, Morocco might have claimed it with pastilla, a savory meat pie. The Arabic delicacy often features either fish or shredded chicken, alongside eggs beaten to a custardy fluff. But it’s the complex sweet/salty flavor profile, said McCormick, who owns Sandro, a string of restaurants known for their modern Moroccan and North African offerings, that keeps him coming back for more.
“You will experience a taste very hard to ever forget,” he said. “Particularly when it’s combined with almonds, ginger, saffron, cinnamon, parsley and sugar.”
Taiwan: Beef noodle soup
Soup: healer of sick, warmer of cold, and — in the case of Taiwan — definer of cultural cuisine. As described by Jon Yao, head chief at Kato restaurant in Santa Monica and nominee of the Rising Star award from the James Beard Foundation, there’s a familiarity and comfort in foods like traditional beef noodle soup that contains all the flavors of home.
“Beef noodle soup is the unofficial national dish of Taiwan, so I’d say a lot of people might consider that their go-to,” he said. “Beef noodle soup is this hot broth that’s scented with flavors like star anise, clove and cinnamon. It’s really rich with beef fat but at the same time light since it’s not a murky broth.”