One Carlo Diaz
Food can evoke powerful memories, with many dishes packing both flavours and stories.
Whether it’s a dish cooked during family celebrations or one ordered as a much-needed pick-me-up, hearty and homely foods have imprinted on our palates with one overarching criteria: they need to be comforting.
Given the UAE’s melting pot of nationalities, The National asked residents from various backgrounds to share their favourite comfort foods — from the dishes they would eat when they fell ill as children, timely as flu cases are on the rise, to the timeless meals that hold a special place in their hearts.
For Emirati civil engineer Hassan Al Marashi, ultimate comfort food to him means harees, which he describes as “easy to eat, hot and comforting”.
A popular dish in the Arab world, harees is a porridge-like meal with boiled, cracked or coarsely ground wheat. It is mixed with meat and sometimes garnished with sugar, cinnamon or clarified butter. It is often served during Ramadan.
“I have happy memories enjoying harees with my family and with my son, who loved it as a baby. I don’t know how to make it but my dad does so maybe I’ll have to get him to teach me,” says Al Marashi, from Dubai.
Korean national Yoon Kang, a social media manager in Dubai, says it’s juk (Korean rice porridge) for her. The popular dish is usually served to the elderly and babies because it’s easy to digest.
“You could compare juk to chicken noodle soup. It’s made by slow-boiling rice that’s been left out to soak in water for many hours,” Kang says.
“The soft, moist texture of the porridge is easily swallowed and digested. It’s perfect when I couldn’t keep other foods down.”
The savoury rice porridge can come with chicken or beef, as well as other add-ons like nuts and pumpkin. Perhaps more famously, the porridge is mixed with abalone, which are marine snails that are highly regarded in Korean cuisine.
Saffiya Ansari has fond memories of aloo sabzi, a traditional Indian potato curry.
“My mum hardly ever cooks, but there was one summer when it became an inside family joke because she made it so much,” she says. “Now it reminds me of summers spent with my extended family in London.”
The dish is made with mashed boiled potatoes, cooked in a spicy tomato and onion base. It requires minimal ingredients and does not take a lot of time to prepare.
“It’s slightly soupy and very flavourful despite the simplicity of the ingredients. I prefer it with chapati but it’s also perfect with paratha or rice,” says Ansari, who works as an editor.
Although she knows how to make it, the British-Indian Dubai resident says it “never hits the spot” when compared to her mother’s.
The Filipino rice and chicken congee is the ultimate comfort food of Sunshine Mendoza, a marketing professional, who said she can eat it for three days straight.
A popular street food in Manila, arroz caldo has a strong ginger flavour and is garnished with garlic, spring onions and pepper. It is served with a dash of lime juice and fish sauce.
Although it can be made with regular rice, many Filipinos prefer using glutinous rice to elevate the dish. Typically grown in South-East Asia, glutinous rice is sticky and waxy, and is a common ingredient in Filipino cuisine, especially in desserts.
It is the perfect comfort food for Mendoza. “It’s easy to make, the ingredients are easily available,” she says. “It’s a dish that gets better with time. I can make a whole pot and eat it for three days.”
For British-Yemeni journalist Rua’a Al Ameri, a traditional Yemeni maraq is a dish she reaches for when ill.
Maraq is a soup with vegetables and a choice of meat, typically chicken. It is served with fresh slices of lemon or lime that are squeezed in for added flavour.
“It is really comforting and warm for when you are sick and lacking appetite. Because it is made with fresh ingredients, it is tasty and it gives your body strength when you are sick,” says Al Ameri.
The dish can also be made with beef or lamb. Whatever the meat of choice, the secret to a good maraq is to use bone broth, Al Maeri says. It has potatoes, carrots and cauliflower, and is spiced with cinnamon, coriander, cumin, salt and black pepper.
Pastina in brodo
Pastina refers to tiny pasta, while brodo is stock. Italian flight attendant in Dubai Filippo Battocchio says “it is comforting because it is made with love”.
Many Italians will describe the dish as one that evokes childhood memories. What makes the dish unique is the use of tiny star-shaped noodles, because it is usually served to children.
Battocchio recommends it be homemade. “If you make a homemade chicken broth from scratch, it’s a labour of love and a snap to put together with the teeny, tiny pastina,” he says.
It can be made with store-bought chicken broth, but “there is absolutely nothing compared” to one that’s made at home, he says.
Sunday roast chicken
For British marketing manager Catherine Dyer, comfort food reminds her of Sundays at home in Devonwith her parents and brothers.
“A simple whole roast chicken served with stuffing, roast potatoes, carrot and swede mash, gardens peas and gravy. Maybe a Yorkshire pudding too if you’re lucky,” she says.
Dyer, who lives in Dubai, has special childhood memories of the roast. “I would help my dad prepare the vegetables and the whole house would smell of perfectly roast chicken,” she adds.
“Whenever I visit home now, my parents, brothers and my nieces will all get together and we’ll have at least one roast dinner together — it’s tradition.”
Spaghetti bolognese with a South African twist
Although Graeme Smit is not Italian, he considers his mother’s spaghetti bolognese recipe his comfort food.
To add a South African twist to it, his mother uses Mrs Balls Chutney, an ingredient “we can’t live without”, says Smit. The chutney, which is also available in some supermarkets in the UAE including Waitrose, is made with cane sugar, vinegar and dried fruit.
“Like with anything my mum cooks, she will never leave it just to the recipe, she will add her unique twist to it,” he recalls. His mother’s spaghetti bolognese usually includes brown lentils that “completely change the texture and flavour of the dish”. Smit works in public relations in Dubai.
“It’s the perfect comfort food because I grew up with it. It was definitely a go-to dish for my mom to make because she loved it too and it was super simple to make,” he adds.