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International Comfort Foods

© Kang Kim International Comfort Foods

Photo: Kang Kim

How much coddling does one nation need?Surely this can’t be good for us.

It’s not as if we lack for exciting alternatives. Provocateurs like Wylie Dufresne (of New York’s wd~50) and Grant Achatz (of Chicago’s Alinea) dazzle with their alchemy, their caviars made of smoke. But for every lonely practitioner of space-age cuisine, a hundred chefs remain stuck in the Eisenhower era. Why?Because as revelatory as experimentation might be, it doesn’t soothe, swaddle, or help us relax—on the contrary, it forces us to think about what we’re eating. No thanks, we say. We’ll just have the meatloaf.

Perhaps these shopworn dishes represent some lost notion of purity, honesty, and authenticity. Or maybe we’re just retreating to the womb. Whatever the reason, our hunger for comfort is unlikely to subside anytime soon—not in these times, not in our current headspace. Still, does it have to be so damn predictable?

Well, no. In fact, there’s been a welcome development. The traditional American definition of comfort food—which had been limited to homegrown or European cooking—has broadened to include more exotic incarnations. Whether through our own travels or simply from watching Anthony Bourdain, we’ve become increasingly familiar—and comfortable—with a wide range of foreign dishes, and have come to crave them as we do our own. Call it the globalization of comfort food.

And in this new vernacular, it’s Asian flavors that predominate. For a new generation of Americans—raised on manga comics,  Jet Li movies, and spicy tuna rolls—hearty, soul-nourishing Asian treats like pad thai, Korean bibimbap, and South Indian dosas are now everyday foods, as "American" as nachos and mozza sticks.

"If you look at the evolution of bar snacks in this country—we’ve gone from pigs-in-a-blanket to pot stickers," says Ed Levine, founder of SeriousEats.com. "And it’s not just happening in cities. Look at the Cheesecake Factory. You couldn’t find a more mainstream concept—and yet half of that menu is Asian comfort foods." It’s true: at suburban America’s favorite feeding trough, quesadillas and fried macaroni-and-cheese share the page with crispy crab wontons, Vietnamese summer rolls, and pan-fried pot stickers (which they still call "Oriental" dumplings).

Why the enthusiasm for Asian food?"First of all, it’s both exotic and familiar," notes Levine. "Along with Italian, Chinese was really the first ethnic food that Americans were exposed to. We all know what an egg roll is. From there it’s not much of a leap to a spring roll. Second, it’s convenient—it’s fried, it’s barbecued, it’s easy finger food. Finally, chefs love to cook Asian dishes, no matter what their background."

Eastern comfort foods are not just refreshingly novel; in many cases they’re simply better than their Western analogs. Take pho, the beloved Vietnamese soup, whose deep, earthy oxtail broth (infused with clove and anise) is perfectly balanced by the lightness of fresh basil, lime juice, and mung-bean sprouts, all laced together with toothsome tangles of rice vermicelli. Your mom’s chicken soup has nothing on this. Then there’s the Korean version of fried chicken, wherein wings and drumsticks are deep-fried to seal in the juice, then quickly fried again to lend a pleasant crunch, and painted with a fiery chile glaze or garlic-soy sauce. The result is remarkably light and clean-tasting, and far superior to that other KFC.

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