Nostalgic noshes: What dishes taste like ‘home’ when you’re far away?
Living in another country for an extended period of time brings your personal tastes and predilections into focus, especially when it comes to food.
We reserve a special place in our hearts and stomachs for the flavors of childhood, especially the meals cooked for us by our own mothers.
Here in Sonoma County, there is a multicultural community of people who have come to live and work in our food and wine industries. So we asked a few of them, what does home taste like to you?
Not surprisingly, dishes wrapped in fragrant dough ranked high on the list, including an Onion and Bacon Pie from southern Germany and the meat pies, pasties and sausage rolls ubiquitous in Australia.
“These are savory pastry treats that we all grew up on for lunch … if your parents could afford them,” said winemaker Daryl Groom of Healdsburg. “Their origins, I believe, are English and go back to the miners’ days of being able to eat a lunch without a mess.”
Groom and his wife Lisa, also from Australia, start searching for these pastries as soon as they land in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, for their drive to their wine community home, the Barossa Valley.
“Immediately out of the airport, we find the first gas station which has a snack shop and buy one of each,” he said. “The smell of these pastries when you walk into the shop is this warmed, baked pastry smell that gets your tummy rumbling and puts a smile on your face.”
At home, the couple has developed their own recipes that are close to the “comfort” flavor of the baked treats they grew up on, as most bakers in the U.S. try to make them too “gourmet.” It is now a Groom family tradition to bake these bites of home on Christmas Eve.
“We have almost perfected them over time, but they are not quite the same as when we are actually in Australia,” Groom said. “Most Australians enjoy these with a squirt of tomato sauce (ketchup).”
Norway native Lisbeth Holmefjord acknowledged that the food of her home country is not as refined as the Italian fare her husband, Shari Sarabi, makes at their restaurant, Baci Cafe & Wine Bar in Healdsburg.
“There’s not a lot of sophistication, and no one is going to want to eat lutefisk (salted cod cooked in lye), although I love it,” she said.
But there is one dish from Norway she carried with her to America, and everyone from her three kids to her neighbors and restaurant staff often beg her to make it: kjøttkaker, Norwegian meatballs smothered in brown gravy.
“We put it over mashed potatoes, and then we saute carrots or corn and green peas to go with it,” she said. “My mother always prepared the kjøttkaker on Saturday, so the house smelled so good.” The family enjoyed it together in long, leisurely Sunday meals. The meatballs were special because during the week, the family ate only fish they caught themselves.
“My mom would say, ‘Take the boat and fish for dinner,’” Holmefjord recalled. “After eating salted cod, smoked cod, herring, salmon and other fish dinners all week, we looked forward to Sunday dinner.”
Pork braised in a clay pot
Mei Ibach, a culinary instructor at West County High School in Sebastopol, grew up in Malaysia amid “nyonya” cooking, a fusion of the spices Chinese men introduced when they migrated to Malaysia to work as laborers and the spices used by the Malaysian women they married.
“The women were called ‘nyonya,’ the lady of the house,” she said. “Nyonya cooking is basically a hybrid cooking style that emerged from the two cultures.”
Although Ibach’s mother was not a great cook, she did make one nyonya dish that brought all the kids running to the table: Nyonya Tau Yu Bak (Braised Pork with Boiled Eggs).
“It’s so fragrant with the Chinese five spice, the star anise and the cinnamon. … The aroma permeated the whole house,” Ibach recalled. “We used to have a chicken coop, so getting those fresh eggs and adding them made it such a comfort food.”
The versatile braised pork often ended up in all kinds of leftover dishes, including fried rice, rice porridge or noodles.
“It was traditionally made in a clay pot over an open fire,” Ibach said. “Even today, when you travel to Malaysia, there are still a lot of street food vendors selling this dish.”