The hamburger has long been a staple in American cuisine. It’s a part of our national culinary identity. But what makes this, or any dish, a culture-specific comfort food? It seems to all boil down to community, simplicity, and versatility.
Consider these elements with the burger. This is a sandwich that brings people together — burgers are an indispensable element to many gatherings with friends and family from cookouts to tailgates. They start simple. All it takes is a ground beef patty nestled between two halves of a bun. But there are so many unique takes on this basic skeleton of the recipe that we have books, blogs, restaurants, and festivals dedicated to the dish’s many variations. There is endless potential for personalization; look at Ernest Hemingway’s famous hamburger recipe. The titan of American literature insisted that the burger be pan-fried with a crisp outer sear, a juicy pink center, and include ingredients like capers, India Relish, wine, and Spice Island’s Beau Monde seasoning.
You’ll find similar qualities in comfort foods around the world. For Short Grain chef Shuai Wang, it’s all about the dumpling, a staple of Chinese food culture. Wang’s memories of dumplings are imbued with the collective experience of preparing and eating them with family. “When I was growing up, we’d eat them once a week, especially on holidays,” says Wang. “Every time we’d make dumplings for dinner, it was a big family affair.” His family would create what was essentially a dumpling assembly line. “One person would make the dough, one the wrappers, another person would fill and shape the dumplings, and someone else would cook them,” he recalls. “It became a huge family thing for me. We sit at a round table, so we’re all in a circle making dumplings and talking.”
The dumpling is a simple staple in Chinese culture and, like the burger, the steaming pockets of seasoned fillings have great potential for versatility. “Everyone has their own secret recipe or their way that they like to make it with different ingredients. My mom makes a really awesome veal and pork dumpling, and my grandma makes straightforward pork and leek dumplings that are crazy good. They’re like the burger in that everyone has their own little niche.”
For Cafe Framboise chefs, Dominique and Florence Chantepie, the French parallel to the burger is the brochette. The word literally translates to skewer. Spears of grilled meat and vegetables are not unique to French cuisine. In fact, cultures across the world have their own variations from the Turkish shish kebab to the Asian satay. But brochettes, like burgers, are a dish to be enjoyed as a group. “In France, for a casual barbecue gathering between friends and family we would definitely do the brochettes,” says Dominique Chantepie. “From north to south, east to west, everybody will add his own twist, depending on where they live. If there is a way to cook that offers hundreds of possibilities and associations, this is the skewer. You do not have to be an expert in cooking to make these fabulous delicacies. Only the imagination and a good dose of originality will allow you to achieve the craziest combinations.”
Mario Obregon, co-owner of Mario’s Peruvian Chicken, has based his restaurant concept off of the simple cultural dishes that remind him of family. Rotisserie chicken takes center stage at the restaurant where whole chickens are marinated for hours and then slow-roasted over charcoal. His grandmother’s cooking remains his inspiration. “Back home, my grandmother owned a restaurant,” says Obregon. “That’s why I opened my Peruvian Chicken because my grandmother owned one.”
After moving to DC, his father, craving the comfort foods of home, would seek out Peruvian style chicken in the city. “I remember when I was a kid, my father would take us to eat chicken, and we’d go crazy just like kids do here for hamburgers,” says Obregon. But when asked which dish from home was the most comparable to the hamburger, he landed on salchipapas. The word derives from salchichas, which translates to sausages, and papas, or potatoes. Served in his restaurant street-vendor style in paper boats, the dish consists of french fries tossed with fried beef hot dogs and slathered in sauces. Mario serves his with a variety of sauce options: Aji Amarillo, a yellow pepper sauce; Rocoto, a spicy sauce; and ketchup, mustard, or mayo. Obregon says that, in Peru, salchipapas are a family favorite. They’re kid-friendly and easy to prepare for gatherings.
Each of these dishes hold an emotional connection for those who know them. They’re unpretentious, straightforward, and accessible to even the pickiest of eaters. So, what makes a dish a cultural comfort food? It’s not the ingredients alone. It’s the people and the memories that form with them.