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Unpacking comfort food

Certain kinds of food can feel like therapy— almost like a hug from your mother or your childhood best friend

Comfort food is the proverbial and literal safe space on a plate.
Comfort food is the proverbial and literal safe space on a plate. (Photo: iStock)

We often hear that comfort food is just “any food that makes us feel good". There is a template that exists across all examples of it: It’s heavy on carbohydrates and fats. Some restaurants have been quick to utilize the template to market their dishes as comfort foods. For instance, chef Boo Kim of the Dirty Buns restaurant in Mumbai ensures that the burger they serve is laden with cheese and sauces. The abundance adds to the comfort element and the dripping of the sauce with each bite ensures you feel like you are in the opening act of a detergent advertisement.

In The Emotion Machine, Marvin Minsky writes about the idea of a suitcase term—something that means “nothing by itself, but holds a bunch of things inside that you have to unpack", such as “conscience", “emotions", “consciousness", “experience", “thinking" and “morality". Comfort food is one example of this—to gain a deeper understanding, we must aim to unpack it.

In theology and philosophy, one way to indirectly define something is to focus on what that thing is not, an approach that philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “via negativa". Comfort food is not what you would typically eat in a meal when you are seeking to explore the cuisine of a foreign land on a trip, it is also unlikely to be on your plate while experimenting with the newly opened gastropub in town. Neither will it be a dish you saw on an exotic food show and attempted to imitate at home.

Now let’s attempt to break down what it is. The term came into vogue in 1978 when the American food writer M.F.K. Fisher wrote an article in the Bon Appétit magazine to describe foods she found soothing. Since then the term has come to mean much more. Comfort food is the proverbial and literal safe space on a plate. It is the food that we think of having on our worst days or when we are in an unfamiliar place, mentally or physically. In its extreme form, comfort food alleviates our anxieties, stops the inner negative chatter and takes us back to a time of fewer worries, which, for a lot of us, is our childhood. Some cliches, such as “Had a bad day at the office? Get in bed with a tub of ice cream", do offer a crumb of truth. Comfort food is a hug from your mother or your childhood best friend. It can reassure you to stick it out through hard times.

In an essay titled Food As Therapy, philosopher Alain de Botton wonders whether certain foods have “got the tenderness we long for, but that our jobs and relationships are currently lacking. The food we call ‘tasty’ gives vital clues as to what is missing in our psyches not just our stomachs. It’s in the power of food to help us be more rounded versions of ourselves".

On its “Comfort Foods" page, Wikipedia attempts to create an exhaustive list of comfort foods by region. Even though the nature of comfort food is local cuisine drawn from geographical availability of certain fruits, vegetables or grains, the fact that each of us has lived through a unique set of joys, traumas and experiences makes such an exercise futile, for comfort food can differ for every person on this planet. Maybe you take refuge in a bowl of French fries because that’s what your mother used to make when she saw you dejected after a day at school. Or maybe you search for Indian-Chinese food despite the availability of authentic Asian because that’s the only type of international food (you thought it was real Sichuan Chinese!) that was available to you while growing up.

There have been numerous social science studies describing the effects of comfort food on your mind, but, despite being a researcher, I have deliberately chosen not to discuss them here. Science seeks to organize knowledge into systems and despite what Western psychology might tell you, feelings of nostalgia cannot be systematized.

It’s no surprise that most of the dishes I would bucket as comfort food have been my mother’s creations. The only exception being butter chicken, a dish that is traditionally not cooked at home due to its use of the tandoor. I refer to the one specifically from Moti Mahal in Daryaganj, Delhi (not any other restaurant with the same name). It gave me a sense of geeky superiority during an inglorious school life to eat there after I discovered that they had invented the dish (it is still excellent!), a fact that was unknown to my academically overachieving peers.

You can debate which comfort food is superior, and you would be right to defend your choice—but so will your friend who is disagreeing with you. Having comfort food is preserving a tradition that is exclusive to you. If you put comfort food on the political spectrum, it would be safely right-wing.

But who am I to tell you what comfort food is. Go make Sigmund Freud proud and dig deep into why a certain type of food feels like therapy to you.

I wrote the following verse about the Butter Chicken from Moti Mahal, Daryaganj, when I was away from Delhi for a couple of years.

Make do without her they said,

I paid no heed.

Because she’s the only one,

Leaves me more intoxicated than weed.

I’d travel 1000 miles for her,

I’ll admit that without any qualms,

just to get a whiff of her in full glory

and caress her legs with my palms.

I want her in my bedroom,

my kitchen and my car,

Heck I want her with a Chivas

in my neighbourhood bar.

When my lips touch her breast

It gives me the chills.

She’s not good for my heart they say,

getting too attached to her kills.

A sight of her in orange,

leaves me hungry and smitten.

She’s spicy, yet tender,

Oh my butter chicken. Archit Puri is a Delhi-based researcher and writer.

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