Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Mixed Plate: Comfort Foods and What the Heart and Stomach Desires

People have different ideas behind the meaning of comfort food, as the answer varies with every person. When I return from a visit with my parents, I stay within that place of comfort for weeks, sticking with the familiar flavors and foods. It may have been weeks since I last saw family, but in a way, I still have yet to leave, as they remain with me at the most important of times -- at the table, sharing a meal.

Miso Hungry! - Photo by Wasabi Prime 

I always make a big pot of miso soup when I return from a family visit. Usually it's because I feel the need to do a self-imposed soup diet for at least a week after being fattened up like a Christmas goose on homecooked meals, three squares a day. I'm sure everyone has a different way of making miso soup, but the way I do it is simmer a pot of water, drop a big dollop of salt-a-licious miso paste in and break it up, adding cubes of tofu and dropping in a scrambled egg or two, to give it a kick of protein. I also use bonito for flavor. Bonito is just flakes of a dried mackerel-like fish that's often used in Asian soups. It's used the way anchovies are, to give a dish a depth of flavor, and as long as it's used with a light hand, it won't be too fishy. I usually get my supply from Uwajimaya, but I've also discovered it's sold as cat treats at pet stores. Not that I'm admitting I've bought bonito at Petco, but I'm just saying it's there. And were Uwajimaya to not be open or out of bonito, I'm not adverse to picking up a little something for myself in the kitty treat aisle of the pet store. Again, I'm just sayin'...

This latest comfort meal included cold tofu with soy and chili sauce, just because I love cold tofu, and a batch of pickled spicy cucumber from my mom's recipe collection. I added a little extra greenery from the garden, chopping up the baby greens of sugar peas that were thinned. I hate getting rid of the extra sprouts because I'm basically throwing away perfectly good plants. Granted, it's to ensure the remaining ones have enough space to grow, but I still hate ripping the little guys out. I was happy to discover the sugar pea sprouts are quite sweet and totally salad-friendly. I divided the culled sprout greens between a salad for Mr. Wasabi and the rest topped my bowl of miso soup. Waste not, want not.

Fried Mandu Filled With the Magical Animal - Photo by Wasabi Prime

The food from family that captured my heart and most likely clogged my arteries included a big dinner with family friends that had my mom cooking up fried pork-filled dumplings called mandu, rice flour-battered and fried mochiko chicken, and a tasty warabi salad brought by friends. Warabi is a baby fern, like fiddleheads, that are in season right now and available at the Hilo Farmer's Market. They grow wild in the rainforest-like conditions, and people gather them for selling at the markets. They're harder to find on other islands, but Hilo's rain is thankfully good for some things, and fern shoots is one of them. Warabi salad is made up of the blanched baby ferns mixed with tomato, red onion, and a salty mix of dried seaweed for flavor. Pretty simple and simply delicious, need I say more? I wouldn't be able to get warabi here, but am considering making a Mainland version with either fiddleheads or thinly-sliced asparagus, as the flavors are similar.

Warabi Greens from Hilo and Wasabi Pea Sprout Greens from the Garden - Photos by  Wasabi Prime

Throughout the visit, along with kalbi beef shortribs, somen salad and Portuguese bean soup, Mama Wasabi also made Hawaii-style cream puffs, which is to say, pastries the size of a softball and filled with vanilla pudding. They don't do it light in Da Islands, that's for sure. I don't normally crave pastries, but when I'm there, I absolutely indulge my sweet tooth. It might be because it's so easy to just take it easy there. A sugar-sprinkled malasada is perfect in the morning with coffee while you read the paper -- yes, like a for-reals newspaper -- because my parents don't have a computer and it's kind of nice that they don't. And maybe that's the secret behind why comfort foods of all kinds taste especially good -- we are most likely in a state of calm, and food will always taste better with a mind at ease.

Cream Puffs Baked by Mama Wasabi - Photo by Wasabi Prime

All these dishes are commonly served favorites, it's nothing particularly gourmet or high-end, and it's a No Food Snobs Allowed standing rule in my parents' house. I honestly wouldn't have it any other way, because it's cooking of the highest order -- honest, hearty fare that's designed to be cooked regularly for the home. Sure, I could make these foods in my own kitchen, but I never do because I know it wouldn't be the same. This food tastes better when it's being enjoyed with family, and maybe that's why I often long for these tastes and flavors, because it's less about the stomach and more about the heart that craves what it loves most dearly.

Mochiko Chicken and Meals with Family and Friends - Photos by Wasabi Prime

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  1. Comfort food- Yum!!! I really miss the warabi, you can't find much of it on Oahu. My Grandpa used to always go and pick it for us to eat! Great photos as always!

  2. I've made mochiko chicken out of a cookbook before and I love the stuff. I can only imagine how good it is when your own mother makes it! And mama wasabi's cream puffs look ridiculously awesome.

  3. looks soo ono!! only in hawaii...

  4. thanks for sharing your comfort food... it's like a look into someone's soul- the food they eat with their family. i wouldn't touch ribs of any sort outside my family's dining room. but mainly because no one makes them like my dad... and i feel comfortable gnawing on bones around those people. :) great food pics too... just like always!

  5. I've been meaning to comment on this post for a few days. I love it. I love reading about the hawaiian food you eat when you're home with your family, and the things you make when you're back in Seattle and missing them. *sigh*. I want to make that mochiko chicken. Plus the pork dumplings. Mmm.


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