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Borrowed Comforts

Is comfort food necessarily bound up in the place in which we spend our developmental years? I have some quibble with that notion.

The comfort food of my people is supposed to be monochrome and starchy: bread, potatoes, beef and butter served alongside a tall glass of milk or a cup of dark coffee. I sprouted in the Upper Midwest of these United States, and that's how we rock it up there.

Yet, in times of stress, sorrow, sickness or stupor I so often find myself drawn toward the comfort foods of far-flung regions: Venezuelan arepas, Vietnamese pho, Japanese ramen, Indian curries, Israeli shakshoukas and Moroccan tagines.

Coffee at Les Enfants Terribles
Coffee and J's furry arm at Les Enfants Terribles

In the darkness, Canal street cutie, Les Enfants Terribles, is a crush of beautiful people who drink and laugh and flirt.

But on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, the place is a low-key gem, providing me with a corner table, sunny windows, a view of the international soccer matches, a hot cup of coffee, a crusty baguette and a plate of tasty tagine alongside rockin' Moroccan harissa. My tagine is hot, tender and rich in meaty chicken flavor with a hint of lemon. Slathered with a little searing harissa, it's pure comfort food.

Tagine and couscous at Les Enfants Terribles
Tagine (at front) and couscous (at rear) from Les Enfants Terribles

This is certainly not the finest tagine on the planet (that's a mystical meal I imagine as some kind of slow-cooked masterpiece I'd discover in the kitchen of a Moroccan grandmum). What it is, however, is warm, welcoming, inexpensive and... yes, comforting.

When I really think about it, is my brunch tagine so different from the cuisine of childhood? The tagine is really just a stew. Baguette in place of sliced bread, couscous for the potatoes, chicken or lamb replace the beef and the coffee... well, that's still coffee.

The arepas I love so much are simply a crispy corn shell holding a pocket of stewed meat or vegetables. Pho and Ramen are steaming bowls of veg and meat with noodles. India's curries are highly spiced stews served with basmati rice. The shakshuka is a hot tomato-pepper stew served with eggs and pita. None of these dishes are really so different from the others.

It's clear that the accents are different. One man's harissa is another man's ketchup, no? But could it be that when we speak of comfort food, the world communicates with something like a common tongue?

Three Spoons

Les Enfants Terribles
37 Canal St. (at Ludlow St.)
Lower East Side, NYC
212.777.7518

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11.18.2007

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