As the mercury drops to a sometimes depressing, sub-Siberian level, it’s easy to fall into the trap of eating easy (often caloric) foods like creamy soups, macaroni and cheese, or maybe a lovely pizza, just for you. These are the comfort foods we know, love, and indulge in over the holidays, and beyond (perhaps a bit too much). But why not investigate something off the beaten path and take an Epicurean tip from some other cultures with some of their tried-and-true (and sometimes outlandish) dishes, from rich, hearty stews like the hot pot to the very French Bouillabaisse, and everything in between.
1. East Asian countries — Winter Hot Pot
While hot pots have many incarnations spattered throughout Asia, the gist of the dish remains the same; a stew with various tasty things — depending on the country, that could be bok choy, shallots, bean sprouts, mushrooms, seafood, shellfish, beef, and lamb — is put in a clay pot and simmered at the table, like hibachi. So, if you’re fed up with Hallmark Christmas films and watching Home Alone for the seventh time running, you’re in luck; the entertainment’s included in this one.
2. Norway — Lutefisk
For those of you wondering how to combine your love of cleaning products with your love of Nordic fish, fear no more, lutefisk is here to quell your worries! This traditional Scandinavian whitefish dish is incredibly labor intensive; it involves submerging dried cod into a lye solution for several days (just be careful not to soak too long, or improperly or it could become a corrosive substance a la Fight Club). Much like fruit cake or that dubious roast that rears its ugly head every Christmas, the tradition of eating lutefisk is highly debated within some Scandinavian communities. A popular saying about the gelatinous seasonal treat? “About half the Norwegians who immigrated to America came in order to escape the hated lutefisk, and the other half came to spread the gospel of lutefisk’s wonderfulness.”
3. Puerto Rico — Pernil
Nothing quite says the holidays like some good old-fashioned pork. In Puerto Rico, the roasted pork shoulder dish is one of their national specialties, and ridiculously easy to make. Rub on some garlic, cumin, vinegar, and a bit of oregano, and you’re off the hook for the several hours it takes to tenderize and cook. Kind of makes you rethink that whole burger and fries thing…
4. Trứng Vịt Lộn (Balut), Vietnam
This is not a good dish for those who like ducks, members of the ASPCA, or aficionados of Disney movies about furry woodland creatures. A fertilized duck egg, right on the verge of hatching, is boiled and eaten straight out of the shell. This dish, much like hot dogs in New York, is popularly sold by street vendors in countries like the Philippines. And if the whole eating a baby animal thing is a little hard to stomach, there is good news — ladies, balut is an aphrodisiac!
5. Bouillabaisse — France
This French peasant dish is enjoyed as a hearty and often high-brow staple for those chilly days walking Parisian streets, and Julia Child did it best. What’s in it, you ask? Any sort of fish, “ideally you would have six or eight varieties,” Child says, “and you could have something like hake, but you want them to be extremely fresh.” Though it’s an anxious job of timing when to put in what fish, the effect is well worth it. “It really literally does have a fresh sweet smell, and that’s terribly important in something like a bouillabaisse,” says Child. Nothing says comfort like fishy, aromatic peasant soup!
6. Boshintang, North and South Korea
Man’s best friend becomes man’s best snack. In parts of the Korean peninsula, noranke (or “yellow dog”) is bred for the very purpose of consumption, most popularly in a dish called boshintang, a hearty soup with perilla leaves, dropwort, and green onion. While this isn’t a viable option for most of us stateside, according to Travel + Leisure, the dish is still served in over 6,000 restaurants in South Korea. We really, really hope this wasn’t the fate of Vincent, the beloved yellow dog from Lost, after the show ended. It really is a thankless job, acting.
7. Everywhere — Some Incarnation of Dumplings
As ubiquitous as the Golden Arches in even the most remote location, every culture seems to have an answer to what is most comforting — little doughy pastries filled with meat, cheese, fruit, or any combination thereof. In Italy, it’s tortellinis. In Sweden, it’s a kroppkaka, a fried dumpling filled with onions and pork or bacon. And from soy sauce to sour cream, from applesauce to butter and lingonberry jam, there’s no wrong answer as to what can serve as a dipping sauce. An added bonus: dumplings are famously cheap, making them comforting to both yourself and your wallet.
8. Refah or Konfor — Turkish
Turkish comfort food — sometimes called refah or konfor — is a tasty hybrid of sorts, combining the flavors of Eastern European cooking (many dishes involve yogurt and meat) with more Middle-Eastern dishes (think eggplant puree, stews, and different roasts). What could be more comforting than a piping bowl-full of Yayla Çorbası (recipe here), a winter soup with yogurt and rice popular both in rural areas and the bustling cities? We’ll take two, please.
9. Tiffins — India
The Indian answer to a combo meal, tiffins are tins of different Indian foods, conveniently packaged and delivered by tiffin-wallas. Ranging from paneers (cheese dishes) and curries, shak (veggies) and rotis (flatbreads), everything comes conveniently in tiffin. The history goes back over 100 years, when servants and sometimes wives would send a hot lunch to the dutiful workers and naan-winners. Bonus points because this is most likely the healthiest comfort food yet, with complete servings of all major food groups, and no need for dangerous chemicals or an ocean’s worth of lobster and fish.
10. Cheeseburger a la Bourdain – America
Fine, fine. Some of these foods may be a bit more exotic, but sometimes there’s nothing you want more than a greasy burger and a thicker-than-life milkshake. Celeb chef-cum-author-cum-television-host Anthony Bourdain seems to be nothing if not a beacon for all things tasty, meaty, and, at the end of the day, wildly unhealthy (in his first book, Kitchen Confidential, he called vegetarians “the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.”). This recipe for the perfect medium rare bacon cheeseburger puts other, lowlier burgers to a point of extreme shame. “Your body is not a temple,” Bourdain says, “it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”