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Comfort tastes like a candy

When taste, nostalgia and memories come together and give succour to both soul and body

Nothing encapsulates the specificity and individuality of comfort food more than ‘khichri’. Photo: iStockphoto.
Nothing encapsulates the specificity and individuality of comfort food more than ‘khichri’. Photo: iStockphoto.

My grandmother used to make this delicious guava jelly which I loved. She would spoon it out quivering and golden from her jam jar and give it to us with parathas made with ghee or tava toasts. She did not possess a toaster, so toasts were made on tavas and called (surprise, surprise!) tava toasts. Right through my childhood, I knew of no greater everyday pleasure than to stuff a guava jelly paratha roll or a guava jelly toast into my ever-open, ever-hungry mouth.

Which is why when I am sick or sad or tired or lonely even today, all those years on, nothing brings me more cosmic comfort than eating a tava toast with guava jelly. There is something about the taste that instantly recreates the one thing I knew for sure while growing up—that no matter what else went down, there would always be the intersection of my grandmother’s love and culinary expertise to help patch me back up again.

And that’s the lure of comfort food, it’s the equivalent of a tight squishy hug from the food cosmos, it is the security of childhood made edible and it is a reason to indulge in whatever calorific carbohydrate ridden food we deny ourselves when we have the moral fibre to do so. Because what all comfort foods have in common (apart from being what we ate to feel better when we were children) is that they are simple tastes, they don’t stint on fat and sugar and that when they need to be, they are unapologetically calorific.

So bread and butter pudding, a grilled cheese sandwich, kheer, halwa, porridge, yellow dal and chawal—the list of comfort foods is endless. And what they encapsulate at their heart is the fact that they conjure up an association or relationship that has the power to soothe our battered and weary souls. Everyone’s list of comfort foods is unique and individual, because everyone’s memories and lives and associations are different. But for whatever it’s worth, here’s mine.

■Guava jelly and tava toast as detailed above. A close contender is the simpler and sometimes more cosmically satisfying toast and butter/bread and butter. And while I adore good bread, it’s for when my heart and soul are in good shape. When I am feeling battered and buffeted, I will always reach for a slice of soft, fresh white industrial bread slathered with salty Amul butter. And because that is what security and safety tasted like as a child, I will always surrender into that soft carbohydrate love cocoon willingly.

■Yellow dal and chawal which for me is the taste of home. No matter where I wander, when I come back, I need to have some yellow dal and chawal to feel anchored and whole again. And for me the comfort association is not just the taste, it’s very much the aroma of the ghee heeng tadka in the dal and the fragrance of the basmati cooking that evokes memories of homecoming—both physically and metaphorically, of nostalgia and contentment.

■Khichri. Nothing encapsulates the specificity and individuality of comfort food more than khichri. The khichri that I love and that I inhale when I am sick is made with arhar dal, is slightly runny, has a few diced vegetables in it and has a tadka of ghee, heeng and zeera. Being blessed with an extraordinarily rude constitution, I was hardly ever sick as a kid, and my mother is the Founder President of the Parents United against Mollycoddling their Children Society, so being sick was an amazing anthropological experiment for me. My mother would hover like an unlikely Florence Nightingale, unusually solicitous, shooing off my older sisters, force feeding me steaming bowls of this concoction. I can still hoover up a small swimming pool sized container of this khichri and feel like my mother is in the room with me keeping sickness and sadness and loneliness and pain at bay. However, my children have no use for this khichri at all—they regard it as slightly less appetising than the dog’s upchuck. Which just goes to prove that it’s nurture not nature that determines what provides comfort. Out of the many ways in which my parenting skills have been less than exemplary, this failure to pass on my love of this runny khichri coded in my children’s DNA, or through early force feeding of it has to be one of the biggest fails as a mother. Sorry kids.

■Nutties, Lacto bonbon and Kismi toffees. In my childhood, a combination of poverty and my mother’s position as Founder President of the above mentioned society meant that our intake of sweets and chocolates was so low that today it would be considered unnatural, inhumane and cruel. However, the sweets that we did manage to get our hands on, can still exert a hypnotically soothing influence on me. So Nutties—chocolate covered wafer balls—were the first thing that got my heart racing. They were so posh, that to me unimaginable wealth was always measured in exactly how many truck loads of it I could afford when I grew up. They were harder to get hold of than Cadburys Dairy Milk and Five Star chocolates, and also less chocolate per paisa, but for me there was something about Nutties—some therapy that they provided that I am still game for. And the milk caramel-based Lacto Bonbons—in a green wrapper made by Parle and the red and white kissy face Kismi toffees that children handed out when their birthdays came around in class—I can pop one and be instantly transported back to a time when all that mattered was that there is a yummy in your mouth which you could concentrate on and forget about anything else for three or four very soul satisfying slurpy minutes.

There is something about the synthetic chemical vanilla essence in an ice cream that makes me revert to a state of primal idiotic contentment. Photo: iStockphoto.

■Vanilla ice cream and pound cake. Anyone who has ever sat next to me on a bus even once will have already heard me expound on the merits of a good pound cake. It is my belief that a well made pound cake is a time machine that can transport you immediately to a place of goodness and beauty and happiness—but it bears repeating. It is my assertion that Robert The Bruce of Scotland basically had a pound cake stashed in the cave, which is why he felt anchored in himself and his convictions enough to go on and win Scotland. For me, it’s not just a comfort food, but also a happiness food. Similarly— vanilla ice cream. And while I love vanilla and spend half a Nutties-truck worth of my very modest means on proper vanilla pods and extract, there is something about the synthetic chemical vanilla essence in an ice cream that makes me revert to a state of primal idiotic contentment. So while I can demolish my own body weight in artisanal ice cream made with real Madagascar vanilla, what I want to reach for when I am down and out is the vanilla ice cream we grew up on—the Kwality, Amul, Vadilals of the world—the ice cream equivalent of mothers milk to a certain generation of Indians. After a few bricks worth of this is in my system, I am buoyed and cheered enough to face whatever circumstance sent me racing to the freezer in the first place.

So this then is my comfort food list. This is the junction where taste and nostalgia and memories meet for me—the things that give succour to my soul as much as my body. These are my therapists, my friends and my history all rolled into delicious simple bites.

What gives YOU comfort? What makes you feel cocooned in love and concern, like you can temporarily surrender the woes of this world into the arms of a loving care taker? What makes you feel that however down and out you may be currently, there is hope and love and goodness—and that feeling better is just a small mouthful away? Once you identify your list of comfort foods—keep those things always at hand. Because therapy is expensive, and friends and family, however kind, tend to be selfishly occupied with their own things, but ice cream, French fries and bread and butter—hey, they always, always understand.

Vatsala Mamgain is a glutton, cook, runner, tree lover, shopper, reader, and talker.

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