Photo by Ruta Smith

Nostalgic bites

Maybe you know the feeling, the way one nostalgic bite can put you in a whole new headspace. Or you’ve at least seen 2007’s Ratatouille, when a spoonful of the title dish sends critic Anton Ego back to his carefree youth, reminding him of home.

That’s the power food can have. It can take people to another time or place — to a place of peace, comfort and warmth. And this power is universal for home cooks, professional chefs and even those who don’t cook. One bite can stir a lot of memory and emotion.

Being a home cook myself, there’s always one dish that’s my go-to when I’m feeling lazy, down or homesick: Spam, rice and over-easy eggs. A simple dish, I know, but it’s what I ate most mornings growing up and reminds me of times when I didn’t have the responsibilities I do now.

For professional cooks, simplicity is key to invoking that homey feel to warm the mind and body.

Chef Vivian Howard of Lenoir and Handy & Hot, for example, cooks a simple chicken and rice dish to find comfort. Carlos Paredes of Peruvian pop-up Umay makes a Peruvian chicken stew that reminds him of his late mother. And Nico Quintero, former chef at FIG, cooks Colombian chicken soup to remind him and his family of their Colombian roots. 

Carlos Paredes’ ají de gallina

Carlos Parades cooks around Charleston with his Peruvian pop-up, Umay

Ají de gallina — Peruvian chicken stew — is a dish that takes Paredes back to his youth, reminding him of his late mother’s cooking. It’s not only a delicious meal, but a gentle reminder of time spent with her.

“This is one of the dishes she would always make,” said Paredes. “So my memory always comes back to this.” 

According to Paredes, the dish is very easy to make, and if you have old bread sitting around your kitchen, it’s the perfect meal to use it in.

“It’s a very traditional Peruvian meal, and even if you’re trying to do it in the states, it’s one of the easiest things to do.”

All of the ingredients are easily accessible, whether through a local Mexican supermarket for Peruvian peppers or a grocery store to grab a rotisserie chicken and make a simple broth. 

To make ají de gallina, the old bread is broken down and soaked in chicken broth with the Peruvian peppers, spices and milk to make a sauce, similar to ajoblanco, a cold Spanish soup. For Paredes, pecans, hard-boiled eggs, olives and potatoes are added to the stew, then served with a side of rice. Romaine lettuce can also be added for some freshness and crunch. 

“This dish will always be in my heart,” Paredes added. “Just by thinking about it, I can smell and taste it, and it gets more delicious every time I eat it.”

The dish is also one his wife learned to make for him when he comes back from a trip or for Christmas, he said. “She just understands that it warms my heart.” 

Vivian Howard’s chicken and rice

“It doesn’t sound like much, but it was the comfort food of my youth and is the comfort food of my adult life, too,” Howard told the City Paper

The dish, according to Howard, requires a whole chicken “boiled to death” — falling apart, in other words — to create a broth full of chicken flavor. Remove the bird from the water, pull the meat off the bone, heavily season the broth with salt and pepper, then add the meat and rice back into the broth. 

The smell of chicken fat, broth and pepper reminds chef Vivian Howard of home | Photo by Rex Miller

“It sounds cheesy, but all that chicken fat, broth and pepper smells like home,” she added. 

It’s a simple meal, but made at least once a week in her home during the cold months of winter. The benefit of it being such a simple recipe, according to Howard, is that there’s plenty of room to add more flavor and depth to the dish. Her kids, she said, will eat it as is. But for her, she occasionally sautes greens or adds tomatoes or herbs to the dish.

“It can be as basic as you want or as exciting as you want.” 

Nico Quintero’s caldo de pollo

Nico Quintero’s comforting food at home blends traditional American dishes with Colombian flavors he remembers from his childhood | Photo by Ruta Smith

“When I’m feeling homesick, it’s always been chicken soup,” Quintero said. “But it’s not your traditional chicken noodle soup.”

It’s a caldo de pollo, a traditional Latin American soup with chicken and vegetables. However, the difference between the traditional chicken noodle soup and Quintero’s Colombian chicken soup is the Latin ingredients.

“It’s like your traditional chicken soup that you had growing up, but with a little twist with stuff that I’ve grown up with,” he said.

The dish doesn’t call for much. It’s simple, yet creates a smooth blend of different flavors and textures. When he makes the dish at home, Quintero uses a whole chicken to add a bit of fattiness to the broth and adds potatoes and yuca (a root vegetable) for creaminess, cilantro and limes for acidity, plantains — “if you can find good ones” — for sweetness and Inca corn for a bit of saltiness. 

“That’s what it’s always kind of been,” he added. “When I was sick, my mom made it for me. When it’s cold outside, I’ll make it for my family, and it’s something that they’re kind of adapting to.”

With his wife and children born in the states, making the dish at home, for Quintero, not only serves as a reminder of home for him, but also serves as a way to share his culture and heritage with his family.

“It’s like an ode to home.”