9 umami comfort foods of the quarantine

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A ceramic sculpture of Mi Goreng by Stephanie Shih from her "Oriental Grocery" series. Photo courtesy of STEPHANIE SHIH

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The concept of comfort food first appeared in a story from the Palm Beach Post, which postulated that when adults are under severe emotional stress, they reach for food associated with the security of childhood. Apart from the memories it triggers, there are two other possible reasons why certain foods “comfort” us.

First is “sugar addiction.” Eating fast-digesting carbs like cookies and white rice releases sugar into our body, causing a spike in dopamine. In fact, studies have found that eating these types of food triggers pleasure centers in the brain, which activate the parts connected to pleasure, reward, and addiction.

The second is the fifth flavor: umami. A marker of protein, humans are naturally drawn to umami because it is the flavor that is drawn out of cooking food for a long time, which gets rid of any toxins. ​Thus, dishes high in umami feel “safe” in that sense, and naturally become more attractive to us.

The key to finding the perfect food, then, boils down to three main things: it reminds us of a good memory, it’s high in sugar, and its umami. Here, you can find a list of nine foods that have comforted me most during quarantine.

Sushi bake

One particular food has boomed in popularity since the quarantine started: sushi bake. Something like an aburi sushi meets a sushi wrap, it’s typically served in an aluminum tray and, depending on where you purchase, you can either eat it as is or after you’ve heated it in the oven after 5 to 10 minutes. I, personally, spent the first two months in something like a sushi bake stupor. After nights craving sushi rolls and the memories of eating them with friends at Nihonbashitei or Kikufuji, I ate every single sushi bake I could find until I was drowning in aluminum trays. The obsession with sushi bake combines that memory, the spike of sugar from all the white rice, and the most important factor: umami.

A common key ingredient in giving food that umami-oomph is cheese, and you will find that most things on this list will contain cheese. Cheeses, aged cheese in particular, have high numbers of that umami glutamate. On top of that, sushi bake mixes in another key umami ingredient: seafood, which contains both glutamate and disodium inosinate — a chemical compound often used as a food additive in instant noodles, potato chips, and other snacks.

Thus, it’s no wonder sushi bake was a nationwide phenomenon. It has become so popular that even big restaurants like Ooma, has come out with its own version, while other non-Japanese food businesses have made variants like sisig sushi bake and a laksa sushi bake.

If you’d like to order your own tray, I recommend three of my favorite sushi bakes, all of which are found on Instagram.

Big Tummy’s Baked Aburi’s salmon aburi was the first sushi bake I and what effectively kicked off my obsession with the dish — it was flavorful but not too heavy, and the sushi to rice ratio was perfect! Before I knew it, I had finished the entire tray.

I was a little hesitant to try Eleven Baker Street’s sushi bake at first since it seemed a little rich: it uses truffle, scallops, and uni in their most popular menu items. I took the chance and ordered their truffle scallop aburi and it was delicious. Unlike other sushi bakes that focused on recreating spicy tuna or salmon rolls, they leaned into being different, and it worked. I’ve ordered this and their uni twice again and again since I first tried it.

The Sushi Bake is one of the bigger sushi bake businesses in the market, and I understand why. Compared to a lot of the other sushi bakes I tried, their classic and spicy sushi bakes weren’t too heavy on the mayonnaise — I’ve had one that used so much mayo I felt dizzy after one bite. The sushi to rice ratio was just right and while the spicy could have been a little spicier for me, it’s still one of my favorites thus far.

All the Pancit Canton flavors are available on SM Supermarket’s website for just ₱11.80 per packet. Screen grab from SM SUPERMARKET/OFFICIAL WEBSITE

Pancit canton

Pancit canton is not a quarantine creation. In fact, I’ve probably been eating it for as long as I can remember. Pancit canton is my go-to food for whenever I’m feeling anything remotely negative. Stressed? Pancit canton, chilimansi flavor. Sick? Sweet and spicy flavor. Lethargic? Original flavor. Extremely sad? Two packets of chilimansi mixed with egg. It started when I was younger and my dad used to cook it for me when I was sick. Since it’s so easy, we could talk while he cooked — I could even help! I order all my groceries through SM Supermarket online, which includes my endless supply of pancit canton.

Cheese balls

A possibly unhealthy but highly comforting habit that I’ve formed is watching mukbang videos at night. I’ve gravitated towards mukbang videos that eat things that are accessible, like instant noodles and canned food, since it’s easier for me to imagine eating it. My latest obsession has been Korean cheese balls. In the videos I’ve watched, mukbangers eat mountains of them, all with that enticing crunch sound and the visually mouthwatering cheese stretch as they pull away. These cheese balls are typically mozzarella flavored, but I’ve seen videos with cream cheese balls (which I am still trying to track down locally).

RELATED: The pleasures of Filipino mukbang

I first ordered the cheese balls from Korean restaurant, Kko Kko. You can order six cheese balls as a separate order, but they do include a few cheese balls along with the chicken orders. If you’re into the rubbery type of fake mozzarella, then you’ll love these cheese balls. Kko Kko adds in a bit of their special snow seasoning, too, which makes it extra delicious. If you’re looking for the frozen kind to make any time you want, I ordered a bag from The beauty of these cheese balls, aside from convenience, is that you can heat them up however you want — the bag recommends an airfryer, but you can even heat them in the microwave too and it’ll still be as good!

Kim Hae Sook and Bae Suzy from "Start-up." Behind them is the corn dog truck owned by Hae Sook's character. Photo from @skuukzky/INSTAGRAM

Corn dogs

Korean corn dogs are a recent phenomenon here in the Philippines. While it has been popular in Korea itself for some time, because most Filipinos have spent their extra time in quarantine binging Korean dramas, they started to crave what the characters ate. I am not an exception to this. I recently started a drama called “Start-Up,” which stars “Dream High” actress Bae Suzy and “Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo” actor Joo Hyuk Nam. In the drama, one of the characters, Dal-mi (played by Suzy), has a grandmother who runs a corndog truck. As is the norm in Asian media, a lot of conversations happen over food — so a lot of characters are shown eating the corn dog.

The difference between Korean corn dogs and the corn dogs we’re familiar with boils down to three main things: the batter, what surrounds the batter, and cheese. Unlike regular corn dogs, the outer shell of Korean corn dogs can be covered in sugar or potatoes (in some cases, both), and can come as half a hotdog and half cheese, pairing umami with umami. The charm of these corn dogs, aside from how addicting they are in itself, is that it’s a reminder of a better time — short-term. When we eat it, we project ourselves into the episodes we just watch, the one and a half hour we were able to forget that the outside world existed. Plus, that cheese pull.

Six episodes in and I’ve since tried two versions of the corn dog: the frozen kind you can get at Korean groceries. Like the Cheese Balls, I got mine from, while I tried the “street food” style, complete with the sugar and potato coating, from Dogs and Dairies on Instagram. Dogs and Dairies even has ube and squid ink variants if you’re feeling more adventurous.

Dong Won Luncheon Meat on Shopee. The shop is linked below. Screencap from SHOPEE

Dong Won luncheon meat

I first heard about Dong Won luncheon meat from a friend at around one in the morning. She told me that it was the best luncheon meat she had ever had and that she hoarded cans during the 10/10 Shopee sale. It was that good. I was curious. While I am personally quite obsessed with luncheon meat, the only brand I’d ever eaten was Spam. In my head, I thought, didn’t all luncheon meat taste the same? A month later, during the 11/11 sale, I decided to buy a can for myself. I was immediately converted. It was sweeter than the Spam I was familiar with, less salty, and less smoky, but the umami flavor rang true. The lighter flavor allowed for more flexibility: I could eat this luncheon meat with more types of sauces and sides without it overpowering the dish too much. I tried it with curry sauce for Spicebird (another wonderful discovery) and wansui vinaigrette I had randomly found in our refrigerator. It was perfect. Dong Won luncheon meat tasted good with all of them.

Individual packets of Indomie Mi Goreng range from around ₱13 for the regular packets to ₱60 for the “premium” salted egg flavor. I got mine in bulk from the shop linked below. Screencap from SHOPEE

Indomie instant noodles

Mid-last year, I joined this Facebook group called “Subtle Asian Traits,” or abbreviated as SAT. The group has blown up, hitting 1.8 million members. The charm of it is that it includes Asians from all over the world all sharing experiences that we collectively relate to. One such shared experience is the love for instant noodles. SAT is particularly obsessed with Indomie, an Indonesian brand of instant noodles. Having been raised in a predominantly pancit canton household, I had never tried Indomie. I was curious. I saw that packets were available on Shopee so I ordered the original flavor. It was typically served with fried egg on most of the posts I saw on SAT, so I mimicked it. Unlike pancit canton, which tends to run sweet, Indomie was more savory. The salted egg flavor, which had trended and sold out almost immediately upon its release, was extremely salty (a surprise to no one as it is, in fact, salted egg). While I did enjoy the original flavor a lot, a part of me thinks part of the SAT obsession is largely due to nostalgia. Because I did not grow up with Indomie, that part of me was not unlocked while eating. It’s cheap, though, and a nice way to mix it up when you’re having that quintessential instant noodle craving. It’s especially good with that sunny side up on top.

Ube cheese pandesal

My relationship with pandesal began after school, hugging the pandesal in a brown paper bag like it was the most precious thing in the world, and pinching small bits off to eat on the way home. The smell of the bread itself brings me happiness and warmth, and I’m sure that association is strong for a lot of people. When the quarantine saw a large boom in ube cheese pandesal, all those memories came rushing back. While the context was different – I am no longer in school, and I did not buy these fresh rolls of pandesal to eat in the car — the taste felt familiar. It felt safe, like a hug. The added punch of the cheese inside, seeing it melt as I pull apart the toasted roll, is what made it more than just eating it for the memories.

I had eaten at Bungalow Cafe and Bakery before the quarantine and liked it, so when I discovered they were selling the ube cheese pandesal and the sweeter ube leche flan pandesal it was an easy order to make. Bungalow is a bit far from me, so eating it is extra special since I only have it once in a blue moon. You can order through their website. The place I order from more regularly is the Quezon City-based Heavenly Bakeshop, which specializes in ube cheese pandesal. They use fresh ube halaya in their bread, which adds an extra layer of ube flavor.

Focaccia bread

Before quarantine, anytime somebody asked me if I preferred bread or rice, I was firmly team rice. Now, however, I’ve switched teams. Because bread is a lot easier to eat in small amounts compared to rice and a lot more people (a lot) have been experimenting with different varieties of bread since the quarantine started, I can no longer go a day without eating bread. In the mornings, when cheese and meat prove to be too heavy, I’ve found solace in my focaccia bread. My favorite is the focaccia from Crafted At Home on Instagram. While they have a wide variety of focaccia, my favorite is their garden focaccia, where they mix in onions, basil, and tomatoes. It is the perfect amount of savory to start the day, with the sweetness of the onions and tomatoes cutting through the olive oil. While this may not have as strong a memory association for me compared to the rest of the food items in this list, because I’ve been eating this since the beginning of the quarantine, it’s become comforting to me in its own way. When I eat this bread I am able to quiet my mind for a few moments, focusing only on how soft and delicious it is when I bite into it.

Potato Corner French Fries (BBQ powder)

This obsession is not new. What is new, however, is their new take home kits that come with large aluminum bags of powder. Truthfully, it is more accurate to say that I am more addicted to the powder than the french fries itself. After I ran out of frozen french fries, I’d taken to putting the BBQ powder on anything that could work: a bag of chips, mixed into my eggs, on vegetables to make dieting a little more bearable. I’ve even put it on my pancit canton (though this might not be for everyone). The flavor of the powder represents normalcy for me. I’ve had some of my best moments over some mega (sometimes giga) BBQ fries. I spent most of the last Avengers movie crying while shoving fries inside my mouth. Even if I put it on things other than french fries, the flavor is enough to trigger that feeling of normalcy and reignite the hope that I can eat french fries in cinema again someday. The best part about having my own stash of powder? I can put all the extra powder I want!

I ordered my own Potato Corner at Home kit by texting them directly based on the information in their form.


You can find out more about Stephanie Shih's "Oriental Grocery" project here.