Friday Food Findings: Comfort Food

There are many comfort foods. But this one is mine.
There are many comfort foods. But this one is mine. (Source)

Note: This will be a short post, more reflection than review. Sorry for being a bit flaky this week, I’ll explain… right below.

It has been a happy and hectic week for Babette. Two of my best friends have come to visit from London, so I’ve been hanging out with them as much as I can. On the other hand, I have also been pretty ill. Sore throat, blocked nose, the works.

Needless to say, this means I haven’t been reviewing many places. Firstly, it would be terribly unfair to go eating with a blocked nose, and then declare that the food doesn’t taste of anything. Secondly, honestly, I could hardly care less about the food I’m having when I’m with the two pals. In our days in London we would order Chinese takeaways – often of the most appalling, microwaved, shrunken-shrimp, limp-lettuce, oil-soaked-toast variety – and enjoy it all the same. Just as good food is good with anyone, good banter is almost independent of food quality.

But thirdly, and I think it’s not just me, illness narrows the range of foods I desire. I don’t want flashy stuff, I don’t want a scattering of vegetables half-burying roast pigeon with exquisite sauces. That’s great, but it ain’t comfort food.


What exactly is comfort food, though? And what about it comforts us? I used to think it was one of two things. It’s either a simple but intense flavour – which would explain things like ice cream, or a good strong bowl of chicken soup or bak kut teh – or it’s the carbohydrates and energy packed in, which would explain dishes like congee or pierogi. It’s the kind of experience – something filling, that doesn’t require much effort to eat and enjoy – that you want when you’re feeling down.

But more reading on scientific studies casts doubt on this. (Must be nice to be a scientist who does experiments about comfort food. I could do that, come think of it.)

For one, in an experiment (abstract here) where college students were given either comfort food, ‘normal’ food or no food at all after watching a sad film, it turns out that comfort food doesn’t comfort any more than normal food. Heck, it doesn’t even comfort any more than no food at all. While it might just be because movie-induced sadness is relatively minor on the scale of discomfort, the results are still quite surprising.

More evidence that the comfort may not actually be in the food itself comes from another series of studies (abstracts here, here and here) where it turns out that the amount of comfort you get depends on the kind of person you are – namely, your psychological makeup and way of relating to people. For those who are secure in their attachments and relationships, comfort food is a powerful way of chasing off isolation and loneliness. In other words, comfort is in the mouth of the consumer.

My unresearched hunch is that comfort food gives us two things we instinctively value. Firstly, they give us a sense of control in times when we don’t feel in control. Getting sick, or breaking up, makes us lose agency. But cooking or buying food, stuffing your body full of energy-giving food, gives us a sense of assurance. Things are bad, but I’m still feeding myself, that’s what we say when we eat the ice cream. We have a full stomach. We’re gonna make it.

On another level, comfort food summons up good memories. Food is life, and giving food is a deep, primal kind of care; so it’s no wonder we attach great power to eating foods we are familiar with in childhood. Once again, when things seem to be spiralling out of control, we reach for the happy memories. It’s like the Patronus Charm for Muggles – less flashy, but a lot easier and tastier.

No less powerful, certainly. For me the memories are of going with parents in the pre-dawn to the hawker centre at Marsiling, to have great, charred, soy-glazed chunks of chai tow kueh with ribbons and straps of egg for breakfast. Of having nasi lemak on weekends for breakfast, the rich, mildly savoury coconut aroma and those crunchy, fried peanuts in their reddish-brown skins, mixed in with crisp ikan bilis. When I lived in Croydon, there was a Malaysian food place not too far off; going there in the dead of winter for nasi lemak is an almost tear-jerking experience.

I used to watch – and join in – jiaozi making parties thrown by friends from northern China, where they make great huge batches numbering in the hundreds to share around, the same way their grandmas did back in Shenyang or Beijing. There are many stories like this, of food evoking memory. Proust’s madeleines. Egg rolls at Grateful Dead concerts. And even harsh, unforgiving Anton Ego melts at ratatouille: 

So, what are your comfort foods? When things go wrong, when life dumps rotten lemons on you, what is the foodstuff you reach for? Look forward to reading about it in the comments!

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