For many, the memories of home are framed by the meals they frequently ate as a child and the foods cooked with love by family. As dining out at restaurants slows down all around the world, chefs too are taking a break from their restaurant kitchens and spending more time in their homes. Away from making the exquisite, restaurant-worthy dishes they're known for, these top chefs are making more time for cooking the three essential meals a day.
We've invited 11 of Asia's top chefs from France, Italy, Finland, Beijing, Shanghai, and more to share their favourite home cooked comfort foods. There is no need for meticulous plating when they pick up the pan for their families, but the simple manifestation of joie de vivre.
8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo-Bombana, Hong Kong
Three MICHELIN stars, MICHELIN Guide Hong Kong Macau 2020
Comfort Food: Classic Italian Pastas
Umberto Bombana, head chef of Hong Kong's three-star 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo-Bombana, hails from Bergamo, Italy, and is known for his magic touch with truffles. Like every other Italian in lockdown, he has been creating riffs on classic Italian dishes during his time at home. Incidentally, he has passed on his exceptional kitchen skills to his son, Bert.
"I've just returned from the UK and even though I've been feeling well, it is my responsibility as a citizen to take a proactive stand by going into self-isolation for two weeks, which affords me more time to cook for my family. My family's comfort food? It's none other than pasta, of course. I'm from Italy and I love the convenience and variety of pasta. Different styles of pasta with different sauces can create a wide range of flavours; I can cook 10 different pasta dishes using only the ingredients I have at home!
"In my family, each person has a favourite sauce: I like fresh tomatoes with garlic, chili, capers, and black olives; my son Bert likes meat sauce; and my daughter Emma likes tomatoes with mozzarella. There are times when my daughter doesn't like the sauce we’ve picked, so I let her select her favourite noodle style to make sure everyone feels taken care of.
"We sometimes come across interesting ingredients when we’re outside and try to create new flavours with them. There are no sophisticated tricks to cooking pasta. The most important thing is to be precise in keeping time while cooking the noodles, to ensure that they remain al dente (firm to the bite). You want to know when was the last time I ate pasta? Well, now! I’m cooking tuna spaghetti for my family. We don’t get tired of pasta despite eating it five days a week. I’m also gratified to see Bert getting better and better at making pasta each time!”
Mak Kwai Pui
Tim Ho Wan, Hong Kong
One MICHELIN Star, MICHELIN Guide Hong Kong Macau 2020
Comfort Food: Hong Kong-style steamed pork patty in a lunch box
The simplest foods are the ones you never tire of eating. Tim Ho Wan is famed for its delicious, unpretentious dim sum and was once regarded as the city’s most affordable MICHELIN-starred restaurant, which placed it on the must-visit list for countless foodies visiting from all over the world. He may be known for his varied dim sum creations, but the aroma of steamed pork patties is what carries the memories of home for its founder, Mak Kwai Pui.
"Pork patty was something my mother used to cook for me, and when I became a father to two sons, I often included pork patty in their school lunch boxes too. The pork patty I made (pictured above) is different from others’ — I like to use fattier meat and its ratio to that of lean meat is about 6:4. Everything is chopped by hand so that the steamed pork patty turns out exceptionally oily and soft. In addition to that, I have another delicious trick: after the pork patty is steamed, I add a spoonful of my homemade ginger onion oil — that’s also my secret recipe!
"My son is now in his twenties, but we still keep pork in the refrigerator for days when he spontaneously decides to drop by for a meal since it can be conveniently paired with other dishes. We don’t eat pork patty bite by bite but instead, cut it into quarters so that each person can have a piece of their own. This just shows how much we love this dish."
Arbor, Hong Kong
Two MICHELIN Stars, MICHELIN Guide Hong Kong Macau 2020
Comfort Food: Ginseng chicken soup and Finnish sweets
Finnish chef Eric Räty has a wife who loves to cook. "My wife’s Korean ginseng chicken soup is one of my favourite comfort foods. When I finally have time to sit down and enjoy a hot meal at 1 a.m. after a long day at work, it really perks me up and invigorates me. This soup is warm and fragrant. What I particularly like about it is its texture, which is naturally thickened by adding glutinous rice. The texture and flavours are well-balanced from fusing smooth whole chicken, earthy chestnuts, sweet red dates, and bitter ginseng — to name a few.
"Another type of comfort food that’s close to my heart comes from my hometown: Finnish-style dishes such as salmon soup, meatballs with mashed potatoes and lingonberries, as well as pork blood pancakes are all dishes I can count on. But I prefer to make them myself when I have the time.
"When we’re together as a family, we like to bake sweet treats together, such as Finnish Karelian pies (a type of baked wheat pie), cookies, and so on. On our day off last weekend, we set up a pop-up bakery and had a blast making pastries for our favourite people!”
The Georg, Beijing
One MICHELIN Star, MICHELIN Guide Beijing 2020
Comfort Food: Red braised pork belly
A native Beijinger, chef Wang Bin (also known as Binbin) creates sophisticated Nordic dishes like Danish open sandwiches and smoked meats at The Georg. But once he’s home, he cannot help but give in to his Chinese appetite that calls out for a piping hot bowl of red braised pork belly with rice, which he cooks for himself on his days off.
“Cooking is something I must do every day. Whenever I’m off work and resting at home, I’ll definitely have a meal of red braised pork belly. I love biting into the meat when it’s hot: from the skin to the next layer of fatty meat, then to the part where fatty and lean meat are layered on top of one another, which is great for cooking. No matter if it’s spring, summer, autumn or winter, taking a bite of it fills me with overwhelming joy.
"When preparing the meat, remember to choose streaky pork with skin that’s neither too fat nor too thin. This way, it will be tender and a little chewy when it goes into your mouth, and fatty but not greasy. Its rich roasted aroma also has a hint of sugary, barbecue-like flavour of meat while the meat itself is smooth, tender, and instantly melts in your mouth. And should you have some left over, stew them together with some cabbage and noodles.
"There’s no difference between expensive and cheap food. As long as it tastes good, it’s good. The power of food lies in its ability to bring people happiness and satisfaction! In the blink of an eye, I’ve worked for so many years. Many childhood memories, too, seem to have faded. However, the only one which has left a deep impression in my heart is the taste of this dish.”
Cai Yi Xuan, Beijing
One MICHELIN Star, MICHELIN Guide Beijing 2020
Comfort Food: A fancy breakfast
Cai Yi Xuan, a one MICHELIN star Cantonese restaurant in Beijing, offers a wide selection of northeastern cuisines in addition to the finest Cantonese dishes on its menu. Deeply influenced by the northern culinary landscape, head chef Li Qiang displays extraordinary skill in noodle-making.
There’s no denying the amount of satisfaction staple foods bring to the Chinese and Li Qiang is no exception, especially when it comes to noodles. Dumplings and traditional braised noodles are his go-to comfort foods. Li Qiang rarely orders takeaways but instead, tries his best to make everything on his own for his family, especially classic Tianjin breakfast items like youtiao (deep-fried dough sticks), guobacai (pancakes made of millet and mung bean flour), and douhua (soybean pudding).
Ultraviolet by Paul Pairet, Shanghai
Three MICHELIN Stars, MICHELIN Guide Shanghai 2020
Comfort Food: Hamburger steak and eggs
From Shanghai's famous multi-sensory restaurant Ultraviolet to Bib Gourmand establishment Polux, Pairet has displayed a clear sense of identity in his style throughout his culinary journey — a childlike and adventurous spirit. And when it comes to the celebrity chef's comfort food, it's a favourite among French kids: hamburger steak.
"There are too many things I like, so here's one: a hamburger steak without a hamburger bun. I learned how to make this with my brother when I was about 10 years old, when our parents weren't home. Personally, I like to add a sunny side up to it. On a special note, this dish is available at both Polux and Mr & Mrs Bund.
If I had to choose a favourite item, it would be eggs, which I love to eat anytime — especially sunny side ups. Brown butter in a skillet, add some soy sauce and a little vinegar, and finally, finish it all off with toasted bread!”
The Song of India, Singapore
One MICHELIN Star, MICHELIN Guide Singapore 2019
Comfort Food: Spiced chicken biryani
The Song of India restaurant in Singapore is located in a classic black and white colonial bungalow just off the city's famed Orchard Road shopping district. Its style is laid-back yet sophisticated, and a sumptuous buffet is served at lunchtime. If you’ve never had traditional Indian cuisine and are keen to try it, it's a good place to start.
"I love home-cooked Indian dishes like biryani, samosas, onion fritters and rice with dal. Dals are Indian gravies made with lentils, pulses, beans or legumes, and a simple meal of rice with dal is the ultimate Indian comfort food. I also love bhel puri which is a savoury snack made of puffed rice, vegetables and a tangy tamarind sauce. When I am home I like to cook chicken biryani with whatever spices I happen to have in my pantry. My family has very high expectations for my biryani and they especially love my dum biryani where the rice and meat is cooked in an earthen pot covered with dough. I think they enjoy it because they know it is made with a lot of love from me.
Southeast Asian-style curries hold a special place in the hearts of both chef Malcolm Lee of Peranakan restaurant Candlenut in Singapore as well as chef Eric Chen, who used to work for Garuda Indonesia and now runs ancestral cuisine restaurant Golden Formosa in Taiwan.
Lee says: "My comfort food has always been a mix of different curries with sambal and rice. There are so many different fragrances in curries that transport you. In Peranakan and Indonesian cuisine, you will find all sorts of curries and sambals from beef rendang to Nyonya chicken curry, sambal belachan (chilli with shrimp paste) to sweeter sambal nasi lemak. My favourite curry of all has to be my mum’s chicken curry. It’s something my mum would always cook for us since we were young. It brings so many memories and unlike other curries, it is simply unique and delicious. We would just eat it with rice or bread. This is my mum’s recipe which we cook for all special occasions. This is also the number one requested dish by everyone if we are hosting a dinner, and it is probably the dish that inspired me to become a chef."
Chen says: “Curry has been my favourite type of sauce since I was little. I also grow a lot of herbs at Golden Formosa and would throw large amounts of them into curry to create my very own curry recipe. I also used to work for Garuda Indonesia, which was how I got acquainted with many different aspects of Straits Chinese cuisine.
When making curry for my family outside of work, I employ a similar method influenced by the Straits Chinese people — using a large amount of fresh spices and dried seafood to temper with stewed vegetables and braised duck meat. There’s also a spicy sauce like the one we use in traditional Taiwanese barbecue, which is spread generously over meat before grilling. A big bite of charred, flavourful skewered meat is the best food to recover from a busy day.”
Jin Xuan, Shanghai
One MICHELIN Star, MICHELIN Guide Shanghai 2020
Lam Ming Kin
ONE MICHELIN Star, MICHELIN Guide Taipei 2019
Comfort Food: Cantonese double-boiled soups
For Cantonese people, no family meal is complete without a comforting bowl of soup. And though these two Cantonese chefs helm famous kitchens in Shanghai and Taipei, what they miss most when they get home after work is still a simple bowl of soup made by their mothers.
Jin Xuan's chef Huang Yingjie says: "The food that brings me the most comfort is my mother's soup: green radish and carrot pork elbow soup. Life in the culinary world is fast-paced and the hours are long, so it's often late at night by the time I get home. I rarely get the chance to eat with my family and sometimes, I don't even see them for a month. In those times, I'd describe a good bowl of soup as a form of care and connection that can be deeply felt, even in the absence of verbal communication."
Longtail chef Lam Ming Kin says: "I am from Hong Kong so naturally my comfort food is soup. For Cantonese people, soup is often the most important part of the meal. My mom makes soup everyday. It’s comforting, and also good for health and immunity. In Taiwan, I don't really always have time to make soup for myself because I am always at work. However, my mom in Hong Kong makes soup on a daily basis. I have many soup recipes that vary by seasons, but pork ribs and watercress soup is one of my all-time favourites."
This story is written by Aileen Li, Rachel Tan, Hsieh Ming-ling and Mandy Li, and translated by Tang Pin-ji. Click here to read the original article.