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International Comfort Foods

© Kang Kim International Comfort Foods

Photo: Kang Kim

Few restaurants exemplify the current comfort zeitgeist better than Momofuku Ssäm Bar, which in barely five months has become Manhattan’s most celebrated restaurant. (A Las Vegas outpost is rumored to be in the works.) It’s a noisy room, with big communal tables and a perpetual line out the door. The wine, sake, and beer flow liberally, and the food redefines indulgent. (The infamous bo ssäm, a heaping splurgefest of slow-roasted pork butt with rice, oysters, lettuce, and kimchi, requires a party of eight but could easily feed 20.) Rivaling cheeseburgers as the perfect comfort food are Momofuku’s steamed pork buns: billowy wheat-flour wrappers encasing a delectable parcel of pork belly, cool cucumber and scallion, and piquant hoisin sauce. Then there’s the eponymous ssäm, a vaguely Asian burrito: Berkshire pork, kimchi, and rice, swaddled in a delicate flour pancake.

How to describe this strange yet familiar cooking?It’s not strictly Korean. It’s not fusion, in the derogatory 80’s sense. Is it Pan-Asian soul food?("Seoul food"?)

"Actually, I’d just call it ’American food,’ " says chef-owner David Chang, a Virginia native born to Korean parents. "Because what the hell is American cuisine?Really, our food is a representation of the people in the kitchen, who are from Mexico and China and Korea and all these other places. The real question shouldn’t be, What is this?It should be, How delicious is this?"

I asked Chang if he’d consider his cooking "comfort food." "It’s funny, a lot of cooks don’t like that term—at least not the ones who work in fine-dining restaurants," he told me. "But isn’t comfort food just the stuff that people want to eat?The American connotation is that it has to be bad for you: deep-fried or full of butter or whatever. Yet there’s an honesty and a directness to it as well, whether you mean fried chicken and mashed potatoes, or Vietnamese pho, or Shanghainese soup dumplings. Those foods seem so simple, though they’re actually not simple at all. Pho, for example, is exceedingly complex and time-consuming. And soup dumplings require a great deal of skill to make."

Chang grew up with Korean foods in his family’s kitchen. But non-Asian chefs are increasingly confident working with Eastern techniques and ingredients. Hence the current obsession with tempura batter and panko crusts in nominally "American" restaurants. And the sudden ubiquity of sambal, the spicy Malaysian chile paste: some restaurants in New York even lay a dish of it on each table along with bread. (Is chile the new butter?) Aria, the formal dining room at Chicago’s Fairmont hotel, serves what it calls "culturally inspired, comfortably American" cuisine, which apparently means lobster risotto, roasted rack of lamb, and a $26 pad thai. And back in L.A., Suzanne Tracht of Jar will soon open a "contemporary noodle house" called Suzpree with her Thai kitchen partner, Preech Narkthong.

Some of us are even cooking this way at home. A friend in Minneapolis recently attended a housewarming where the hosts—Norwegian-Americans—served their own goi cuon (Vietnamese rice-paper rolls) and Japanese gyoza. Where were the cocktail franks?The fondue?The lutefisk and gravlax?

The reigning king of this Westerner-goes-East trend is Zak Pelaccio, an American who spent several years in Kuala Lumpur soaking up the intense and varied flavors of Malaysian cooking. In 2005, he opened Fatty Crab, in New York’s West Village, which, like Momofuku, draws a devoted and ravenous crowd. Pelaccio’s renditions of Malay comfort foods—an uncannily assured laksa soup, a sumptuous nasi lemak—are more faithful than fusiony. Why bother changing them?Lusty Malaysian cuisine requires no translation to appeal to American palates, exotic as it seems on paper: if our eyes don’t recognize the strange menu terms, our palates certainly will. Take, for instance, Fatty Crab’s "Jalan Alor chicken wings"—the skin lacquered and caramelized; the cumin-spiked marinade reminiscent of Mexican mole; the meat smoky and juicy and unfathomably tender. They put buffalo wings to shame, and would disappear instantly if served at any Super Bowl party.

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