Does Your Family Have a Signature Dish?
The food we treasure speaks volumes. Here’s what I learned from listening in.
Recently, inspired by an innocent question at the dinner table, I asked myself and a bunch of other people “What’s the best thing you’ve ever cooked?” The responses I received — from friends, family members, even from complete strangers online — led me down a surprising path of discovery and acceptance.
Fast forward to last night, when I started down an entirely fun new rabbit hole. I was chatting with a friend who recently published a cookbook of family recipes. As I was perusing it and exclaiming over her accomplishment, we texted back and forth. Initially, it was a jokey exchange about my older son, whose cookbook obsession runs deep, and who was in disbelief that someone he knew in real life had actually written one. “Look Amma, it’s really her! I checked the About the Author page and it even has her picture!” Instant celebrity status for my seven year old. But our conversation gradually evolved into memories of each of our mother’s “signature dishes” — the ones requested at every possible occasion, the ones everyone wanted the recipe for, but that no one could make quite like they did.
My mother is a terrific cook. This is not a matter of looking back at my childhood with rose-tinted glasses — I’m being objective here. People relish an invitation to join her table, and her repertoire is wide and varied. There are, however, definitely a few heavy hitters, personal calling card dishes that feature often in her home, every time to rave reviews. When I learned to cook, these were among the first recipes I asked her for, although my own versions can still pale in comparison to her originals. In my mind, these will always be dishes I associate with my mother, like a permanent, iconic specials board that needs no refreshing.
Signature dishes can also exist on a broader scale than the personal. Maybe, like one of my friends, you have a great aunt whose legendary noodle kugel has been passed down through the years, and is still made for every special occasion. Maybe your neighbor’s mother in law gave you the inside scoop on a zippy shortcut paella, and it’s now a fixture on your list of comfort foods. Or maybe, on the more realistic end of the scale, your college roommate taught you a take on instant ramen twenty years ago that you still eat today. Hey, no one ever said a balanced diet was a prerequisite to maturity. No one you should listen to, anyway.
My own extended family shares a treasured signature dish that we fondly call “salna”, an all-purpose vegetable lentil tamarind stew. It’s a hard one to explain to anybody that hasn’t tasted it, especially since the dish shares its name with a popular Tamil meat-based sauce to which it bears zero resemblance. Our family salna’s origin story has reached near-mythical status, even if only to ourselves. Knowing how to make it is unofficially required for acceptance into the clan. Five generations after my great-grandfather created it, chances remain high that a steaming tureen of his salna, its scent redolent of tradition and curry leaves, will feature on Sunday lunch menus from Bombay to Boston, wherever his descendants have scattered and resettled.
What makes a signature dish? That’s what I was left wondering after my evening chat. Does every family have one? Do these dishes all share certain traits, some common “tells”? What makes a recipe memorable and something of value, worth recreating over and over and over again?
Just as I had done the last time I was faced with a burning food question, I took my survey to the streets. On the phone, over text, and online, I asked people, “What’s your family’s signature dish, and why?” But unlike the last time I had conducted culinary op-ed research, it turns out this was a much harder, more nuanced question to answer.
In fact, the first thing that jumped out at me was how reluctant we are in general to claim a dish as a personal signature. Only two people named dishes they had invented themselves. In one of these cases, a friend mentioned a roasted lamb that he had perfected over time, but even then, he admitted it was based on a popular Easter recipe in his native Ireland. Largely, it seems like even if you ask enthusiastic cooks for their signature dishes, they are more likely to name something that has existed in their family for a while — food with a longer life and history than their own.
Does signature food need a proven lifespan to be worthy of its status? As a woman with young children, are my peers and I too young to have real signature dishes of our own? As one friend put it, “I think it comes back to traditions, something that maybe we’re just starting to develop in our homes”. It’s true that our parents and grandparents are often the ones we think of as having legitimacy here — so many people responded to my question naming dishes they had learned from specific older relatives, people that had toiled and tinkered over the stove long enough for something to truly be considered their personal hallmark.
My second fascinating takeaway was that most signature dishes seem to have a story behind them. I heard an anecdote about a restaurant chef, harangued endlessly by my former colleague’s father for the ingredients to their secret sauce. Someone else mentioned their signature dish having evolved from a day of scarcity, when they put together the few ingredients available in their home to create something easy and delicious that is now beloved by their family. I think of myself, of the Airbnb with an amazing cookbook collection that I visited years ago. A random screenshot from one of these cookbooks turned into a cake I now make for birthdays, dinner parties, as a gift, and everything in between. It feels like any recipe worth saving and savoring started out somewhere good. In that sense, the food we love is so much more than just part of a meal. The very best food becomes a distillation of memory.
A signature is a signature because there is something that makes it stand out as special. And isn’t that exactly what we want when we take the time to prepare and serve a meal? “You are special to me,” we’re saying, “and so I want to offer you something special in return.”
The final pattern I noticed about several of the dishes people love enough to hold on to is that they’re in some way unusual. Often, this can come down to the subtlest of details. One of my friends from college mentioned that her father’s family had a recipe for vetha kozhambu (a popular South Indian tamarind sauce eaten with rice), but noted that their version added an unfamiliar spin: ground coconut. Another person talked about the one additional step her mother used in her signature cookie recipe that added just the perfect extra crunch to the edges. The more I thought about this, the more sense it made. Why would any of us care to hoard a particular recipe if it was no different from every other version out there? It couldn’t just be family loyalty or the desire to preserve nostalgia. A signature is a signature because there is something that makes it stand out as special. And isn’t that exactly what we want when we take the time to prepare and serve a meal? “You are special to me,” we’re saying, “and so I want to offer you something special in return.”
There is so much about this year that feels unsettling. But I also keep hearing people talk about gratitude, how thankful they are for the new traditions their family has developed in this unusual season of our lives. In this context, I can think of no better time than the present for each of us to start thinking more deeply about our own signature dishes. Do you have one? What makes it special? Where does it come from, and what stories do you want to share about it? And, perhaps most important of all— what stories do you want your food to tell about you?