Arts & Culture

Food For What Ails You

By Angela Garbes March 18, 2010

Seattle’s schizophrenic spring—rain and torrential winds one moment, sun the next, sometimes all within the same day—causes more than just consternation. It leaves us susceptible to colds and the flu, which seem to have affected everyone in town lately. (On top of sickness, those of us with allergies know that spring also means high tree pollen counts and itchy, puffy eyes.)

Dulled taste buds and lethargy notwithstanding, we must still eat. And in our vulnerable states, we turn to food for therapeutic reasons and, more significantly, for comfort. When we’re sick, we rely on food to wake up our senses and remind us that yes, despite evidence to the contrary, we are still alive, still human, can still smell, still experience pleasure.

We turn to things like soup—more specifically, soups that soothe and burn. I’m talking warm broths with aromatic herbs whose scents can actually penetrate the tightly packed matter in our sinuses and brain, soups laced with astringent ginger, pungent alliums, hot chilis to make us sweat, maybe even release a few toxins or kill a little bacteria. Soups like pho, spicy Szechuan hot pots, and congee are the real medicine that give us temporary relief from virus-stricken misery.

Here are some of the best places to find help for what ails you.

Pho in Seattle is ubiquitous, but I have a special place in my heart for Pho Bac (415 7th Ave S, 621-0532, cash only), a.k.a. the place with the big neon sign of a laughing cow in the window. I have heard this pho broth affectionately called “liquid beef,” and it’s certainly more rich and flavorful than most, cloudy and brown with beefiness. While the broth is a bit salty (easily countered with a healthy squeeze of fresh lime), it’s loaded with star anise and black pepper, and fragrant from the raw onion slices, scallion, cilantro, and Thai basil thrown on top.

A bowl of this Pho Bac’s signature dish ($6 for a small, $7 for a large) fortifies, giving your nose and throat a gentle nudge, especially if you add in a few slices of raw jalapeno. As an added bonus, if you show up earlier in the day, you’ll be served by a the nicest woman on earth who you can immediately mentally adopt as your Vietnamese grandmother.

While some swear by the healing properties of pho, others worship at the altar of Szechuan hot pot, the banged up metal cauldron of broth that burbles away on a gas burner right on your table top as you drop raw meat and vegetables into it. The buffet Hot Pot ($13.99 per person) at Seven Stars Pepper (1207 S Jackson, 568-6446) is one of the best places for this in town, mainly because their spicy hot pot broth is flavored with Szechuan peppercorns that give forth a distinct, rapturous pine and citrus scent and make the lips and tongue buzz with delight and just a bit of tough love pain.

Seven Stars could actually stand to amp up the Szechuan peppercorn quotient, but what they lack in spice they make up for with a generous spread of beef, lamb, pork, and chicken slices, along with tofu, wood ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots, cellophane noodles, and bok choy. The broth only grows more flavorful the more meat and sundry items are cooked in it, and the best part may be the end of the meal, when you find yourself scraping the hot pot for the super spicy, thick sludge that’s settled to the bottom.

(It must be said: if you have the means or the time to get out of the city limits, the best hot pot around can be found at Little Hot Pot in Bellevue, where the “healing” and spicy broths are made with dozens of herbs, most of which can be seen in the form of twigs, leaves, berries, and other unidentified floating objects bobbing around in the tub.)

Perhaps the most comforting sick dish of all is congee, the Chinese porridge made from little more than rice and water—and very specifically, the congee from Homestyle Hong Cong Cafe (615 S King St, 748-9168). I have eaten more bowls of congee than I can count, but Homestyle's is the one I can never quite get out of my head. All of their 20+ congee varieties are served in a (dangerously) hot stone pot and arrive at the table steamy and burbling like some kind of magical white lava.  The hot stone bowl is key; it gives Homestyle's rice porridge a subtle, toasty flavor. Pork and Century Egg congee ($5.50) comes topped with thin matchsticks of ginger and scallion rings, which send up a wonderful, healing aroma.

With this congee, the additional ingredients are almost irrelevant. It's the toasty scent and the silky texture that matter most, acting in concert like some sort of blanket, enveloping you, walking you down a padded hallway toward gentle sleep. And when you’re dwelling in the gray state of sickness, separated from your thoughts by your own body, you need all the help you can get.

When comfort and peace feel distant, reachable only with the guiding, synapse-dulling hand of Tylenol PM, consider too the gentle embrace of a bubbling bowl.
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