No matter where in the world his travels take him, writer Howie Kahn begins every visit with one thing: soup.
Comfort Food
Credit: Ben Wiseman

It started in the interestof sinus relief. After long, ear-clogging flights, the thing that made my head feel less brick-like wasn’t medicine or a warm shower; it wasn’t an herbal inhalant or a good night’s sleep. The fix? A bowl of hot soup.

I discovered this in Tokyo. I’d been on the plane from JFK forever, eaten my weight in M&Ms and bland breads, but I deplaned hungry. And very achy. Actually, my face felt like sausage meat stuffed into its casing: tight under the eyes, bulging above. And I still had 10 hours of traveling to go—three on layover at Narita, followed by another seven to Singapore. Hearing intracranial popping noises, I stumbled into the Delta lounge looking for help in any form. Maybe a sequence of frosty, golden Sapporos could work as an anesthetic? Or maybe I’d find an anti-inflammatory aid in a wad of pickled ginger or a mound of sinus-clearing wasabi?

When the domed silver lid of a steam tray retracted in front of me, I stopped dead in my tracks. I have a policy of never passing a chafing dish without checking its contents, but this one revealed itself to me like a holy intervention, complete with rising vapors. Inside was a pool of congee. Off-white and lumpy, it wasn’t much to look at, but the comforts it soon brought were profound.

Next to this panacean rice porridge sat the condiments: single-serving bottles of soy sauce and a vessel filled with scallions cut to the size of confetti. I made myself a bowl and slurped it down. Then I made another. Full disclosure: I had three. By the time I boarded my flight for Singapore, my face felt like a face again.

When I landed at Changi airport, I was craving more soup. And not only as a remedy. My experience in Tokyo also made me realize the extent to which soup can function as a kind of greeting. It reflects the landscape and culture of a place through its ingredients, while hinting at the breadth of the local cuisine through its flavors. Plus, soup is literally a source of welcoming warmth.

At Changi, I found a revivifying laksa—spicy and noodly and creamy from coconut milk—at a place called Wang Café, and another delicious version at the staff canteens, which are open not just to the airport workers but to everyone who can find them. (Hint: They’re in the basement of Terminal One.) On another trip to Asia, I became so engaged with the wontons in the soup at the Cathay Pacific Wing lounge in Hong Kong that it would have been, in itself, a satisfying destination.

After that, I decided soup would become an airport ritual not only abroad, but also in American terminals. At Ivar’s, inside Seattle-Tacoma, I sampled three kinds of chowder—clam with white and red broths, and smoked salmon—that also worked as a swift introduction to the seafood culture of the Pacific Northwest. I left there curious to explore further (any time curiosity is stoked in an airport is a win). Ike’s, of Minneapolis fame, features some of the country’s most consistent airport restaurant food, including the kind of chili that makes inevitable winter delays tolerable, even enjoyable, especially if they’re accompanied by the state high school hockey championships on the TV. At Detroit Metro, the airport of my youth, you can get a quick peek into the richness of the city’s Greek culture if you happen to hit up National Coney Island during one of the blessed moments when the egg-enriched, tangy avgolemono is on special.

These days, upon arrival, I make a beeline for soup faster than ever. Maybe it’s the sense of discord and unease that colors our times, but each new bowl grounds me, helps me better understand where I am. Soup makes me feel welcome.