What’s your pandemic dish?

Shriya Mohan | Updated on April 24, 2020 Published on April 24, 2020

Cured by food: The Tan household eating devil curry made traditionally with leftover meats, white bait omelette and sambal okra   -  KENNETH PAUL TAN

World over people are whipping up comfort and adventure in their kitchens or using the Covid-19 pandemic to make a culinary journey back to their roots

* People are turning to their kitchens to ease pandemic-anxiety

* Cooking during lockdown presents a chance to reconnect remotely with family, cultural traditions and childhood recipes

Cody Eckert calls them corona cookies. Popularly known as snickerdoodles, they are a rage in California, a Covid-19 hotspot in the US, in the eye of a full-blown global pandemic that has infected over 8,40,000 Americans. Snickerdoodles are gooey cookies made with sugar, butter, cream of tartar and cinnamon dust.

The rich biscuits make sense in troubled times. Eating fat and sugar relieves stress, the Californian founder of a new non-profit body engaging youth on the UN’s sustainable development goals reasons.


“The sky is falling, so why shouldn’t I have cookies,” he asks after sharing photographs of a fresh batch he’s just baked. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, the cookies, which earlier made infrequent appearances, have been elevated to the status of essential food in the Eckert household — needed for replenishing sanity levels running in short supply. “While so much of this pandemic is out of our control, it’s nice to know I can still bake and make something yummy,” says Eckert.


Snickerdoodles taste best with a glass of milk   -  IMAGE COURTESY: CODY ECKERT

  • Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
  • In a large mixing bowl, cream 1 cup unsalted butter and 1 1/2 cups brown sugar for 4-5 minutes until light and fluffy
  • Add 2 large eggs and 2 teaspoons vanilla. Cream for 1-2 minutes longer
  • Stir in 2 3/4 cups flour,1 1/2 teaspoon Cream of Tartar (can be substituted with lemon juice and baking powder), 1/2 teaspoon baking soda and 1 teaspoon salt, just until combined.
  • In a small bowl, mix together 1/4 cup white sugar and 1 1/2 tablespoons cinnamon
  • Wrap the dough and refrigerate for 20-30minutes.
  • Make small balls and roll over the cinnamon-sugar mixture until completely covered.
  • Press the centre of the ball before placing in the oven to keep them from puffing up in the middle.
  • Bake for 9-11 minutes


As the world crosses 26 lakh Covid-19 positive cases, stay-at-home restrictions are in place across nations. Hemmed in, people are turning to their kitchens to ease pandemic anxiety. Food, for those who can afford it, has become one of the few indulgences that lockdown permits and a routine they can still wield control over.

On social media platforms, recipes and pictures are being shared at a more-than-usual frenetic pace. Food, clearly, is connecting people, confined to their isolated cells. Many told BLink that they are going back to traditional recipes; some are baking bread and making noodles from scratch.

A baking craze has swept over distant Denmark, where the pandemic is under control when compared to other parts of Europe. Olav Grondael’s finance group on Facebook messenger, where young colleagues trade market insights and statistical analyses, has turned into a baking contest. “Now everybody is offering unasked-for tips on how to bake crusty golden buns. Apparently, you put water below the tray for a crust to form,” says Grondael, clearly a bit miffed.

Learning to grow: Kata Imre’s Hungarian sourdough bakes   -  IMAGE COURTESY: KATA IMRE


If there is one dish that is cooking in most Danish homes, it is the rye bread. The Nordic recipe calls for cracked rye kernels, cracked wheat, flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, sourdough and malt syrup. “This is the national recipe at the moment,” Grondael says.

Miles away in Ireland, where the pandemic has infected over 16,000 people, a common comfort food is the Irish stew. Cooked with lamb, carrots, onions, celery, thyme, parsley, peppercorns and lots of potatoes, the best part about the stew is that it keeps well.

“It’s a necessity in Irish households during this pandemic,” 18-year-old Leah Farrell says of the dish. But Farrell, being a vegan, substitutes the meat with mushrooms, garlic, cumin, oregano, courgettes, vegetable stock and lemon juice. “This stew is a lifesaver during stressful times. Mental health is so important, and anything that can bring a smile to our faces is definitely worthwhile,” says the Irish student who is preparing for her final secondary school examination which will be scheduled whenever normalcy is restored.

In France, where the pandemic has infected over 1,57,000 and claimed thousands of lives, grief and depression have led to stress eating. Among the comfort foods is the Quiche Lorraine, a delectable combination of short-crust pastry, bacon, eggs, cream, nutmeg and pepper. “The quiche is a pandemic escape on your plate,” says Isabelle Foubert, a nurse who works in the dialysis department of a clinic in Lorraine in northeastern France. “Then there’s the ultimate no-fail comfort food — bread and cheese,” Foubert says.

Some food habits underline cultural influences and how tastes have evolved over the years. In Germany, for instance, which has seen over 150,000 Covid-19 positive cases, Italian pasta, known as Nudelgerichte, is an essential staple food. The pasta had briefly gone out of supply from supermarkets, prompting giant discount retailer Aldi to send special trains to Naples to bring back tonnes of pasta. With supplies back on the shelves, Germans are gratefully tucking into popular preparations such as Pasta alla Norma, which is pasta cooked with aubergines, garlic, capers, plum tomatoes and fresh basil, topped with salty pecorino cheese.

Back to roots

Cooking presents a chance to reconnect, albeit remotely, with family and cultural traditions. Austrian Vickey Soelle, who works for a social business in Berlin in Germany, missed her grandmother’s Kaerntner Nudel, made with potato and ricotta cheese. It’s a traditional dish of the Eastern Alps in the southern Austrian region, where Soelle was raised and her grandmother still lives.

“I have been alone in Berlin for weeks and had such a craving for the dish my grandma makes that I taught her how to use Zoom and we did a tutorial for 2.5 hours. She is 79 years old, can’t write emails or messages on the phone, but she managed to log in and do a cooking tutorial with me. The food was delicious,” Soelle tells BLink in an interview via Facebook messenger.

In Japan, a new pastime that’s fast catching on is making udon noodles from scratch. Although the instant variety is available in stores, young Japanese are trying their hand at shaping out noodle strands after kneading flour at home. All that one needs is a rolling pin, a knife and some patience. Japan’s famous chef Masaharu Morimoto recently shared an interesting tip on a food portal. If kneading makes your arms tired, do what home cooks in Japan do — put the dough in a re-sealable plastic bag, wrap in a towel, and knead with your feet!

Going traditional: Hungarian babka is a scone cake made with wild garlic and cheese or chocolate   -  IMAGE COURTESY:AGNES VARI-KOVACS


The Hungarians are baking so much that grocery stores have run out of yeast. Bakeries are now rationing the raising agent, selling only 120 gram to each person. Ágnes Vári-Kovács queues up outside her local bakery to stock on the ingredient, essential for bakes. She and her mother recently made babka, a braided scone cake that’s common in East Europe. She gave it a modern interpretation with wild garlic and parmesan cheese and put up photos for her Instagram followers.

“Since Covid-19, it has become very fashionable to bake bread at home. Lots of blogs and online magazines talk about how to make your own bread and grow your own sourdough starter. Millennials call their starters sourdough babies,” Vári-Kovács says. Sourdough pictures are the new baby pictures for Gen Z, she says in all seriousness.

Kata Imre, who heads communications at a tech start-up in Budapest, is one such millennial for whom home food, especially sourdough, is emotional nourishment. “It gives you a sense of accomplishment to keep sourdough alive and stronger, week by week; but I also feel the responsibility to keep it alive since I put a lot of work into raising it,” she says, almost as if she were parenting a child.

Soups, stews and gruel

There’s a case to be made for the implicit comfort value sought in a variety of local stews that simmer in kitchens during any flu season.

Natalia Olynec, who belongs to Kyiv in Ukraine, draws both physical and mental stamina from the region’s borscht — a blood-red beef broth cooked with beets, carrots and chunky potatoes, served with sour cream and wild dill leaves. “It helps me connect with the women before me who endured much greater hardships, such as being World War II refugees,” she says.

Across the world, people are putting regional broths on the stove. In South Korea, Doenjang-chigae, a fermented soybean paste (doenjang)-based soup/stew, is a common preparation within most households. The recipe is a soothing hot broth of anchovies, zucchini, chilli paste, potato, onion, garlic, mushrooms, tofu, spring onion and green chillies.

In Singapore, which is reeling under a growing wave of Covid-19 cases, a soft lockdown allows people to go out and buy food or order in. But things are surely changing for Singaporeans who traditionally ate out. For instance, academic Kenneth Paul Tan, who belongs to a multiracial household (with Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and Indian heritage), is seeing a lot of home cooking.


One of the Tan household’s favourites is the salty-and-sour kiam chye duck soup. Quartered duck meat is cooked in a pressure cooker with salted mustard leaves, crushed garlic, ginger, galangal (Thai ginger), lemongrass, salted plums, tamarind slices, red chillies and crushed peppercorn. The dish is topped with a dash of brandy just before it is served with hot, white rice.

“This is comfort food for the Teochew Chinese community and the Peranakan (Straits Chinese) community in Singapore. The tamarind also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties,” the associate professor at the National University of Singapore says.

The fix: Lamb ribs and pasta   -  IMAGE COURTESY: MEI XIU TAN

Kiam chye duck soup


Duck soup is best served with a dash of brandy and a plate of hot white rice   -  IMAGE COURTESY: KENNETH PAUL TAN

Cook the following together in a pressure cooker: Quartered duck (can be substituted with pork ribs or chicken), Kiam chye (salted mustard leaves), crushed garlic, ginger, galangal (Thai ginger), lemongrass, bruised salted plum, asam keping (tamarind slices), quartered tomatoes, halved de-seeded red chillies, crushed peppercorns, salt and water.Once cooked, add a dash of brandy and serve hot with white rice.


Source: Kenneth Paul Tan


    Another favourite is the curry debal (devil curry), a Eurasian preparation with leftover meats and vegetables. “It is spicy and sour (and is sometimes compared to the Goan vindaloo), and eaten with white rice or French baguette,” he says.

    In Dhaka, people are making khichuri with rice, lentils, veggies and sometimes leftover meat mixed in. “It’s a one-pot meal that’s nutritious and stretches out produce that will go bad if not used or needs to be used up in smaller quantities. Truly a comfort food,” says Rajya Kishwar Ashraf, a Dhaka resident.

    There’s something about a pandemic that makes people turn back to every little thing that promises safety. And tucking into childhood recipes is often immensely reassuring. “Although it’s not ideal that we had to live through a pandemic in order to want to learn these recipes, we are lucky for having eventually learned them,” says Imre of Budapest.

    There’s a word for this desire for food. Kuchisabishii is a Japanese word that means eating when you’re not hungry, but because your mouth is “lonely”. In the age of social distancing, while the heart might be locked in and lonely, people can always ensure that their mouth isn’t.


    Published on April 24, 2020

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