In Praise of Aunties: The Ultimate Home Cooks
The auntie is a universal concept shared by many cultures around the globe. She can be someone you're related to—even, though not necessarily, your actual aunt—or she might be a family friend, or a member of your community. Whoever she is, she is the keeper of tradition—and the good gossip. And she is the consummate home cook. Your auntie doesn't need fancy techniques or ingredients. The food she makes feeds both your appetite and your soul. Here, we gather the recipes of some of our favorite aunties across the country: a Thai rice porridge that will soothe you, an Armenian dessert that has survived war and genocide, a Korean fried chicken that will remind you to celebrate life, an Indian dish of chickpeas and fried bread that is always a crowd-pleaser, and a Southern seafood mac and cheese that will lift your spirits. We gathered their stories, too, so you can get to know the incredible aunties who make our lives better—and more delicious. They'll do that for you, too.
As a child, I would boldly declare that I would not eat something if it did not taste "like my mom's." I was spoiled for choice growing up and lucky to have a mother who is ferociously talented in the kitchen. There was only one other house, besides my own, where I would happily eat without comment: Hina Auntie's. It didn't matter what she put in front of me. I would drain bowls of steaming dal brightened with a pinch of sugar; pillage stacks of crispy, salty Indian snacks she spent hours frying; and try not to burn my tongue while scarfing down a tray of piping hot enchiladas she would make to appease our endless demands for Mexican food. It was as simple as this: If Hina Auntie made it, I would eat it.
Hina Auntie, full name Hina Mody, is my mom's best friend. She is the person whom I first trusted to thread my eyebrows, and her two kids feel more like cousins than family friends. Perhaps Hina Auntie has always had a special place in my life because she shares a first name with my mom—and several matching outfits. The two Hinas, as I like to refer to them, are especially adept in the kitchen when it comes to the cuisine of Gujarat, the state in western India they both hail from.
It was at the young age of seven that Hina Auntie learned to cook. She didn't really have a choice: Her mother was ill, and as the eldest of three children, she had to figure out how to feed the family. "There weren't many restaurants or other options at the time," Hina Auntie tells me while sitting at her dining table in suburban Michigan. "I had to cook." She would whip up pots of lentils, beans, vegetables, and rice before going to school each day, picking up her skills not from a cookbook but by observation. She turned out to be a natural and has been cooking for people ever since. —Khushbu Shah
As a young woman, Roberta Kochakian knew that if she wanted to preserve Armenian recipes that had been passed down orally for generations, she needed to do what many often neglect to: ask a lot of questions and write down detailed directions. That foresight cemented her role as a rare chronicler of familial culinary heritage, a documentarian of a cuisine with a timeline cut short, derailed, and fused together again due to transformative events like genocide, forced migration, and war.
Roberta wanted to know things like exactly which side of the leaf the filling should be wrapped in for proper yalanchi, or stuffed grape leaves; how many ounces the demitasse used to pour olive oil in the pot actually held; the exact proportions for the spice mix known as chemen, a carefully guarded recipe used in the making of basturma, an air-dried cured beef her family had perfected over generations before arriving in the United States.
"Nobody knows how to do this," she recalls thinking. "Even if I never make it in my life, at least I'll have it written down." But as it turns out, the opposite happened. A lifelong cook, she hasn't been able to stop making the dishes she wrote down. —Liana Aghajanian
The Big Sister
I realized at a very young age that my Auntie Monica was the coolest person ever. She's the baby out of five siblings, coming in right after my momma. She is a Gemini, just like my momma. I have always been in love with and in awe of the women in my family. They're headstrong, hilarious, and fierce, and Auntie Monica is no exception.
Auntie Monica marches to the beat of her own drum. She was one of the reasons I could embrace being different, too. I have never known her to shrink herself or compromise her beliefs. That may have gotten her into some tough spots, but it has made her the unapologetic woman she is today. She was stationed in South Carolina working as a drill instructor training recruits for the United States Marine Corps when I was growing up, and I had a hard time imagining my barely 5-foot auntie marching and shouting at these folks who often towered over her.
I don't have any older sisters, but growing up, Auntie Monica filled that role. She spoiled me, took me shopping, and bought me things my mom would never let me get. She is also one of my biggest cheerleaders. Regardless of my goals and aspirations, she is never lacking in support. Honestly, in her eyes I can do no wrong. With every tattoo, every move to a new city, and a brief stint with the United States Air Force, she was there with unwavering love and encouragement. I'm always starstruck by her, even now.
Like me, she picked up her cooking skills later in life. It was after high school that Auntie Monica moved to Parris Island for the Marine Corps. It wasn't until she had her first duty station that she started calling home to my grandma for recipes like her famous pork chops. —Kia Damon
The Determined Cook
In 1974, Georgia Yi, a nursing major at Korea University, brought dakgangjeong, or fried chicken, that she bought at a restaurant to her boyfriend every other Sunday on her day off from the hospital. My dad's cousin Kyeongsuk Song, who was serving his compulsory military service in South Korea, loved fried chicken and looked forward to Georgia's visits to his army camp. He could eat a whole bird in one sitting and loved alternating between bites of crispy chicken and sweet-and-sour pickled radishes. The combination, to this day, makes his mouth water. It's also one of the many reasons he proposed to Georgia six years later.
A few months after Georgia and Kyeongsuk got married, they immigrated to Atlanta, where they had two daughters, Sehee and Semi. For both daughters' first birthdays, or doljanchi—a traditional milestone often celebrated with a huge party to commemorate the health of the child—Georgia made her signature dakgangjeong.
Many people probably think of the spicy gochujang-based sauce when they hear "Korean fried chicken," but there are other variations of the dish equally popular in Korea. The version my Aunt Georgia makes—and the one that's beloved in our family and in many social circles around Atlanta—has a garlicky, soy sauce–based glaze and is served in large aluminum foil trays to be eaten buffet-style at various family functions, including parties, church events, and funerals. —Eric Kim
Growning up I was lucky that my best friend's mom also happened to be my mom's best friend. I met Pichy when I was 5 at Wat Thai of Los Angeles, a temple and Thai school where kids came to learn the Thai alphabet, traditional dancing, and how to meditate. Both my mom and Pichy's mom, Oranij Promsatit—whom I lovingly refer to as Kru Nid, which translates to "teacher Nid," her nickname—were volunteer instructors who wrangled unruly Thai-American youths each weekend.
You have to have grit, perseverance, and a love of teaching when it comes to imbuing young Thai Americans with the importance of their language and culture. Kru Nid, who emigrated from Thailand when Pichy was only 5, has all of these qualities and more. Though strict in the classroom—she gave me plenty of tough love when I neglected my Thai homework or disrupted class with my antics—Kru Nid also has an infectious laugh, a zest for adventure, and a hidden gentleness that makes her a wonderful teacher both in and out of the classroom.
Having my best friend's mom also be my mom's best friend made asking for playdates and sleepovers a lot easier. As a quartet, the four of us would spend days in Santa Monica, where Pichy and I swam in the Pacific Ocean and rode the boardwalk roller coaster. We took turns having slumber parties: At my house, we'd splash in the pool and go on bike rides around the neighborhood; at Pichy's place in the Valley, we'd hunch over her laptop playing games or give her oversize beagle, Lucky, a bath (and generally annoy him). And when we weren't engaging in shenanigans, we were stuffing our faces with Thai food. —Kat Thompson