Melissa runs the food and recipe project Fowl Mouths. In 2014, she started a supper club, serving Japanese comfort food that grew into a successful pop-up, which only ended after the birth of her daughter in 2018. She’s been a vocal advocate for the promotion of black and minority ethnic people in food, and now provides advice on all aspects of the industry. @fowlmouthsfood.
Time for comfort
February is always tough. Maybe it’s because spring is frustratingly close, or perhaps it’s just because it’s the final throes of a long, cold winter, but it’s always the month when I’m most impatient for brighter, warmer days. But if there’s one thing that last year taught me, it’s that we must find pleasure wherever we can find it. For me, and presumably many of you, that is often in food. The flavours, memories and comfort found in a bowl of stew, pasta or curry can be as special as a hug from a loved one. So, what dish do chefs, cooks and foodies turn to when they’re looking for comfort? Here are just a few suggestions.
1. Warak i'nab
‘If I were to die tomorrow, the dish I would want to eat today is warak i’nab. The dish is vine leaves stuffed with minced lamb and Egyptian rice, which is quite sticky, almost like Japanese rice. It comes with lamb cutlets and Middle Eastern courgettes that are also stuffed with rice and meat, and cooked in a lemon and olive oil broth for hours.
‘We eat this for Christmas, for Eid, for birthdays, for any celebration. Whenever our family comes to London from the Middle East there’s always a massive pot of it. Every time I think of it, I feel good, happy and remember my family.’
2. Braised ox cheeks
John Chomba is chef-patron at The Falls of Feugh in Banchory, Aberdeenshire. Its menus pair the best of Scotland’s produce with John’s refined cooking techniques. The chef trained in his native Kenya before moving to Scotland 17 years ago.
‘My favourite dish has to be braised ox cheeks. At Falls of Feugh we soak them for 24 hours in red wine before cooking them, and serve them with creamed potatoes. It’s the sort of food we would eat at home when I was growing up. Both my mum and dad worked so ingredients would be put in the slow-cooker to cook all afternoon and that’s what we would eat in the evening. The leftovers would be turned into something else the next day.
‘We didn’t have ox cheeks when I was younger – it was likely to be featherblade or silverside – but it was food cooked in that same way, slowly and with loads of flavour. And making the best out of cheaper cuts of meat. It’s the sort of dish that gives you a hug.'
3. Hand-pulled beef cumin noodles
Elliot Cunningham runs Lagom, a Swedish-inspired live-fire restaurant based at the Hackney Church Brewery Co in Hackney, London.
‘Packet noodles was a big comfort food for me growing up. Not Super Noodles but the Korean, Chinese or Malay ones. I’d come back from school and have packets customised with things like spring onions.
‘Now, that comfort comes from Dumpling Shack, who serve dumplings and noodles in Spitalfields Market. My favourite is the hand-pulled beef cumin noodles. The noodles have this incredible chew to them and the spice level is super intense, with szechuan spice giving that mouth-numbing feeling.
‘It’s reminiscent of the food we ate at home when I was growing up. My dad is British-Chinese and mum is Swedish, and we would rarely have British comfort food such as roasts. That intense flavour and the chew of the noodles is really familiar to me, and makes me happy.'
4. Steak & kidney pudding
Helen Graves is a barbecue expert and award-winning recipe writer. She is the co-founder of Pit, a magazine dedicated to live-fire cooking. She lives in south London.
‘Mine is steak and kidney pudding. I made it for the first time recently and it wasn’t until I tasted it that I realised how much it reminded me of my childhood. Mum used to cook it all the time. It’s so comforting and different to food I usually cook as I tend to add a lot of flavour. But this pudding has such a simple flavour. It’s really nostalgic. Mine didn’t taste as good as Mum’s. They never do, do they?
Sonali Tailor-Greenall is a pop-up cook and caterer who serves food from around the world to people in Exeter, Devon.
‘My mum was known to make the best tiramisu, though when I first had it at seven years old, I hated it. But once I was about 20 I started enjoying it and making it myself. I used to work in the coffee world and got more into tiramisu – good coffee makes a big difference.
‘Now, when I’m sad, I make a tray of tiramisu. It brings together things I love – sharing, biscuits, chocolate and alcohol.'
6. Matoke with spinach and peanut stew
Shebah Mimano runs Inyamat, a pop-up restaurant and caterers based in Aberdare, South Wales. She also blends and sells spice mixes.
Inyamat means ‘food’ in Ateso, a dialect of Uganda, where her mother is from. It’s a country that inspires the food Shebah serves – as well as Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. ‘A food that makes me really happy is matoke with spinach and peanut stew. Matoke is a green banana you boil and mash – taste-wise, it’s somewhere between a banana and plantain. It’s what Mum cooks when we’re feeling celebratory, and is one of those dishes you only have at certain times of the year, so for me, it brings back better times in life. It’s also expensive, so we only have it every so often. I love it.’
7. West Indian curry & rotis
John Lashley runs Brooklyn Brownie Co with his son Leo, 12. Born in the US, John moved to the UK in 2004 and lives in Northampton. They set up the company in July 2019, and now send their New York-inspired brownies around the UK.
‘For me it would be West Indian curry and roti. My mum is from Guyana and I was taught to make it by my grandmother. The flavour is different to a traditional Indian curry, richer and almost like a stew. The base is a madras spice mix but then it’s got thyme and allspice added to it. The roti are also different to South Asian roti – these are made with oil and are flaky, like paratha. Whenever I eat it, I’m taken back to my grandmother’s kitchen in New York.’
More from Melissa...
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This article was published on 3 February, 2021.
Portrait shot Samer Moukarzel, iStock/Getty Images Plus, Ryouchin, Sergio Amiti/Getty Images, Chris Keeling