12 wintry comfort food dishes from around the world

Winter is the ideal season for comfort food, but don’t just rely on pies, stews and curries to get you through to spring. Check out our selection of some of the world’s best-loved dishes.

This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Memory, nostalgia, tradition, belonging: a few of the feelings and emotions evoked when we eat — or sometimes think about — comfort food. When we yearn for these dishes on long, dark, cold nights, it’s not just the feel-good factor we crave; comfort food also instils in us a sense of connectedness, of belonging, of home.

And yes, comfort food is often high in carbohydrates, fat and sugar, but that’s what we often crave when we’re stressed, when we need to be soothed: a sense of warmth and love before us on a plate.

These special dishes are a feature of culinary cultures from across the globe, from Hungary’s beloved goulash and South African bobotie to ramen noodles in Japan. Here are 12 of the world’s most treasured examples.

1. Switzerland: fondue

Sharing a bubbling pot of cheese is the very essence of togetherness, which might explain why fondue is a Valentine’s day favourite. In Switzerland, a caquelon (fondue pot) is kept warm at the table with a candle or spirit lamp. Traditionally, the caquelon is rubbed with garlic and the cheese-and-wine mixture is topped up with a glug of kirsch. Small pieces of bread (and sometimes meat or vegetables) are then dipped into the lava-like mix using long-stemmed forks.

2. Portugal: bacalhau à brás

Revered as an ingredient throughout Portugal, salt cod features in hundreds of traditional dishes, but the most treasured is arguably bacalhau à brás, in which strips of rehydrated cod are mixed with gently fried onions, garlic, fresh parsley, scrambled eggs and matchstick-thin fried potatoes. A common staple of Portuguese tasca restaurants, this is a waste-not-want-not dish that uses just a small quantity of fish. It’s also a favourite among children and is regularly cooked in many Portuguese households.

3. Poland: pierogi

Pierogi, Poland’s national dish, are stuffed, boiled and fried dumplings that can be sweet or savoury. Made from the dough of unleavened wheat, they’re often filled only with potato, although other common options include potato-and-cheese, meat, vegetables and fruit. Popular accompaniments include sour cream and crisp-fried bacon lardons. And because they’re slightly complicated to put together, the homemade versions are associated with holidays — on Christmas Eve, most Polish families enjoy cabbage, sauerkraut and mushroom pierogi.

4. Hungary: goulash

A melt-in-the-mouth beef dish flavoured with paprika, garlic and caraway seeds, gulyás (or goulash) came into being as a simple shepherd’s stew in the ninth century. But it was the arrival of peppers — roasted and ground into paprika — six centuries later that really paved the way for glory, with the spice adding that distinct smoky flavour. More a rich soup than a stew, goulash is traditionally served with csipetke (a sort of cross between a noodle and a dumpling).

5. China: congee

A classic Chinese breakfast dish, congee (rice porridge) has two key comfort food qualifications: it’s a staple of childhood diets and it’s given to the sick when they’re convalescing. It’s also extremely cheap to produce, although it does require some patience as it involves rice being boiled in water until the grains begin to fall apart and create a thick soup. If this sounds a bit bland to the uninitiated, congee can also be switched up by using stock instead of water or topping with garlic, ginger or sliced spring onions. It’s often served with airy, fried dough sticks (youtiao) that are used for dunking.

6. India: khichdi

‘A hug in a bowl’ is how British-Indian cook Maunika Gowardhan describes khichdi, a simple one-pot dish eaten in India from early childhood. It’s cheap and easy to make, and is relished by people of all caste, creed or wealth. The melding of rice, lentils and spices is a centuries-old practice, and the final result provides particular comfort during the colder, wetter days of the monsoon.

7. South Africa: bobotie

Pronounced ba-boor-tea, bobotie originated among South Africa’s Cape Malay communities and has grown into something of a national obsession. There are many ways to cook it, but it’s fundamentally a base of curry-spiced minced meat and bay leaves, often with dried fruits added, topped with an egg and milk custard. It’s then baked in the oven until crisp and bubbling; the end result is a dish as homely and comforting as shepherd’s pie.

8. Japan: ramen

A soup noisily slurped not just across Japan, but across the world. Originally imported from China, this thick, unctuous, porky broth is usually so gelatinous it makes the lips stick. Ramen-ya (restaurants) are everywhere, ranging from standard affairs offering cheap-yet-delicious bowls to those that have achieved Michelin star status. The noodles are long and elastic, and toppings can include roasted pork, chicken, boiled egg and dried seaweed. Even pots of instant ramen noodles can evoke that comfort food ‘sigh’.

9. Vietnam: phó

Another noodle soup, phó is a nutritious broth served with vegetables (often beansprouts) and, sometimes, beef or chicken. Crucially, it’s always topped with handfuls of pungent, fresh herbs, such as coriander, Thai basil and mint, ensuring it smells as incredible as it tastes. Originally sold at dawn and dusk by street hawkers in North Vietnam, the traditional breakfast dish is now eaten the world over, having travelled with refugees from the Vietnam War.

10. Quebec: poutine

First appearing in snack bars in Quebec in the 1950s, this dish is a comfort food favourite: fat, hand-cut chips, topped with rich gravy and cheese curds. It’s no longer simply a Canadian obsession, of course, and now crops up everywhere from street food stalls to classy restaurants. What’s more, it’s said to be a brilliant hangover cure.

11. Greece: moussaka

Turkey, Egypt and Romania are among the places that lay claim to versions of this oven-baked aubergine and meat concoction, but it was the addition of a béchamel sauce by a Greek chef that led to it becoming Greece’s national dish. The choice of meat varies — it can often be minced veal — but aubergines play the starring role. 

12. West Africa: jollof rice

This one-pot dish is popular across much of West Africa, including in Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and Sierra Leone — so it’s little surprise there’s plenty of debate throughout the region as to what constitutes the best jollof, with opinions varying from country to country. In essence, it comprises rice, tomatoes, tomato paste, meats, spices and vegetables, traditionally cooked over an open fire. As well as being a beloved comfort food, jollof is often served on special occasions.

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