The phrase “comfort food” was added to the Oxford-English Dictionary in 1997, but an original use can be found in a 1966 Palm Beach Post article, according to the Atlantic, where the writer describes comfort food as dishes associated with childhood security. Comfort foods vary from country to country and region to region. What’s considered comfort food in the southern United States, for example — think fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and collard greens — may not be the go-to in New England — try seafood favorites like clambakes, clam chowder, and lobster rolls.
While it’s a fact that most comfort foods smell and taste delicious, their comforting effect isn’t only via taste. Psychologically, these dishes tend to pique our positive emotions and relieve negative psychological effects — our minds draw the connection between the food and the positive associations we have with certain memories, feelings, places, and people that make us feel better.
That said, no matter how comforting they may be, many of the most popular comfort food dishes are still high in fat and low in nutrition. Using them as emotional stress relief is believed to be one of the key contributors of obesity in the United States. The key is to enjoy your comfort foods, like most great things, in moderation. And according to Psychology Today, the more balanced your meals are, the more balanced your brain function will be. If you’re struggling with loneliness or depression, a balanced diet is important to follow.
Some comfort foods are a favorite in many cultures, like cheese pizza (enjoyed all over the world, like in Australia, the United States, and Italy, its country of origin). Others are local specialties or national dishes, such as Egyptian koshary and Russian golubtsy. Some, like butter chicken from India, are rich and spicy treats that retain the tastes of their original country’s cuisine even as they’re enjoyed across the world.
Read on for 15 comfort foods across the world, and consider paying homage to another culture with a dish at your next big dinner.
Additional reporting by Sevusha Govender.
Also known as murgh makhani, butter chicken is a classic north Indian dish which combines pieces of cooked chicken in a rich and creamy tomato sauce. Butter chicken is widely believed to have been created for the first time by New Delhi restaurant Moti Mahal, located in Daryaganj. Spicy, creamy, flavorful, and slightly tangy and sweet, it’s the perfect food to eat after a long day or on a cold night, usually with naan, roti, parathas, or steamed rice.
A popular comfort food in China, these barbecue pork buns are made with soft dough and slow-roasted pork tenderloin. They’re marinated in a mixture of sauces like sesame and soy. This dish is often part of the Cantonese dim sum menu.
Usually eaten as a hearty and comforting breakfast, chilaquiles are tortilla chips, tomato salsa, and cheese. Eggs are often added to make this dish a lot heartier and the ideal go-to-breakfast snack. Ideally, the corn chips should be a day or two old (not completely fresh, drier tortilla chip work better for this), the tomato salsa should have a spicy bite, and the dish is topped with epazote, a strongly flavored Mexican herb which has been used in Mexican cooking since the days of the Aztecs. It’s similar to migas, a dish which is popular in Tex-Mex cuisine.
Whether eaten together, enjoyed solo, or even with waffles and bacon bits respectively, both fried chicken and creamy mashed potatoes are hearty Southern U.S. comfort foods. Fried chicken is juicy, crunchy, and salty, and tends to remind us of our childhoods, which can be instantly comforting. Mashed potatoes tend to do the same, though the added warmth and creaminess of the starch adds another layer of comfort to the dish.
This is not only most Russians’ favorite comfort food, it’s also considered its national dish. Golubtsy (or golubtsi) is hearty and loved for its close resemblance to your Russian mother’s best home cooking: boiled cabbage stuffed with ground beef, pork, onions, carrots, garlic, and tomatoes. The idea is that eating a plate of this should leave you feeling completely stuffed and satisfied like a bird (the word “golub” in Russian actually means “pigeon”).
Whether it’s the deluxe, rich Italian gelato variety, or just a generic store-bought tub, ice cream is perhaps one of the greatest comfort foods around the world. No matter what your culture or age, a big glorious bowl of ice cream will comfort almost anyone. The origins of ice cream go back all the way to the second century B.C., though no-one is entirely sure who ate it first. Alexander the Great was known to enjoy snow and ice flavored with honey and nectar and even King Solomon was fond of drinking flavored iced drinks during the harvest time. With an endless variety of flavors (from the simple vanilla or chocolate to the more adventurous green tea and jalapeño), there are countless options for you to personalize your dessert.
Kartoffelpuffer is the ultimate potato comfort food for most Germans (and Austrians) and is a lot like Eastern European pierogis. The dish consists of fried potato pancakes topped with applesauce that is equal parts substantial and delicious. Sometimes it’s also eaten with a dollop of sour cream, but if you really want to take it up a notch throw in some lox and pieces of bacon.
It seems like such a simple dish — rice, brown lentils, chickpeas, and pasta topped off with tangy tomato sauce and caramelized onions — but koshary (or koshari) is packed full of rich flavors. While it is really a derivative of the older Indian dish kitchiri (meaning rice and lentils), this is considered to be the national dish of Egypt and is easy to find, from restaurants to food stalls to household kitchens.
This winter favorite in Japan is a hot-pot, or a soup with a soy sauce base and a variety of ingredients meant to share amongst friends and family. Ingredients often include broth, fish cakes, radish, and boiled eggs, although the actual recipe varies between families.
This pork shoulder dish has all the traditional flavors and spices of Brazil — with cumin, vinegar, garlic, and oregano — and is slow-roasted until the pork is juicy and tender enough to melt off the bone. The meat is then usually shredded and served stewed in its juices with plantains and vegetables.
These pan-fried Polish dumplings are stuffed with mashed potatoes, onions, ground meat, or aged cheese, but the filling also includes egg, salt, and pepper. They’re fried and often incorporate cheese and mashed potatoes — sounds like comfort food to us.
Dating back to the 1800s, pizza was first eaten in Naples along the thriving waterfront as a quick and easy meal for poor sailors and deckhands. Today it’s the go-to-food for most western cultures. The combination of gooey cheese with basil and tomato sauce on a crunchy base (or doughy base, or gluten-free base, depending on your preference) is the perfect blend of rich flavors and cheesy comfort. And the best part is that there are endless varieties — there’s pepperoni, anchovies, artichoke, or even just seven cheeses.
This may be a Quebec specialty, but poutine is a beloved comfort food for many Canadians who affectionately refer to it as a “heart attack in a bowl.” It’s really a huge plate of French fries smothered in cheese curds (the solid parts of curdled milk) and drowned in steaming hot gravy. Sometimes some extra cheese is melted over the top (depending, probably, on how much comfort you really need.) Not only is it warm and heartening, but some claim it can prevent hangovers.