Living in a stressful world drives people to find ways to feel a sense of well-being. Consuming comfort food is one of the ways, and in each country the favorite comfort food is bound in history and culture.
— By John Jacobs
Feeling sad? Eat a bowl of ice cream, and think happy thoughts. Feeling lonely? Dish up a bowl of Korean kim chi. Feeling unhappy or dissatisfied with life in general? Some pasta might cheer you up.
People around the world regularly consume comfort food because they believe it makes them feel less sad, lonely or unhappy. The food is usually associated with a particular culture and memories of people or experiences that gave them a sense of well-being. Comfort food are recipes filled with stories.
Telling a Story
Recently, the BBC website posted an article about a South Korean restaurant that serves a stew named budae-jjigae or army stew. The stew is made with cheongyang chili peppers, fermented kimchi, a variety of meats, ramen noodles and rice cakes, and for the restaurant owner it is also filled with memories and grandmother’s stories.
When 12 years old, Grace Moon’s grandmother fled North Korea during the Korean War and came across army stew. Decades later, she began making it for her granddaughter, even though it reminded her of the traumatic escape from Pyongyang. The stew was originally was made with local ingredients and leftover meat from the a nearby U.S. Army base.
Depending on who is eating the stew, it is now a Korean-American fusion dish capable of evoking a variety of emotions, ranging from fear and sadness for older generations to a feeling of comfort for the younger ones. The younger the diner, the greater the comfort delivered.
The South Korean stew is a national dish now. Such is the power of storytelling and food.
Every country has a comfort food. The International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science defined comfort food as “foods whose consumption provides consolation or a feeling of well-being.” They are foods that offer emotional comfort. Comfort foods are most often associated with home cooking or childhood, giving them a sentimental or nostalgic quality and a sense of security. Comfort food links the present and the past in some manner.
Finding Comfort Through the Centuries
Psychological studies have shown there is a connection to memories and emotional responses to food. People remember social gatherings, friends and family, and enjoyable experiences. That would explain why most comfort foods have a personal story, but many of them also have a strong cultural aspect, like the Korean budae-jjigae or army stew.
The Russian blini (thin pancake) has a history dating back to the Middle Ages, and over the centuries became embedded in everyday life. At various times in its history, they were given to new mothers as a gift, served at funerals to send goodwill, eaten to celebrate the coming of spring, and made a centerpiece of family meals and social gatherings. The blini symbolizes the sun, and the sun is a source of warm days, good crops, and happy families.
Fish and chips in the United Kingdom are best served piping hot and with vinegar. The history of this comfort food dates back to the 17th century when the potato was introduced to England by Sir Walter Raleigh, who brought it from the New World. Chips (fried potatoes) was a staple food in the industrial north, and fried fish was a favorite in the East End of London. They ended up together and went on to become a member of the family weekly meals. It supported small family businesses in the 17th century, was sustenance for a growing population in the 19th century, fed a nation through two World Wars, and served as a source of income for fisherman. Though we tend to think of fish and chips as unhealthy, the meals provides many nutritional benefits, like protein and vitamins.
With its long history, fish and chips is so very British and filled with memories of meals with loved ones, takeaway food bought from street shops, and stories from the past and present.
One Person’s Food is Another Person’s Source of Comfort
You can point to any country and find a comfort food with a history.
In the United States, comfort food is often thought of in terms of sugar and fat – cookies, gravy, mashed potatoes, cake, pasta and ice cream are good examples. Of course, chicken soup is called a comfort food, too, but often it is eaten when not feeling well.
Look around the globe though, and comfort food is found in endless forms and made with a variety of ingredients. It is often healthy sustenance that also happens to bring emotional comfort. The Ukrainians love borscht (sour beet soup); Moroccans enjoy shakshuka (stew of eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce); and the Japanese adore a wintertime dish called oden (hearty dish of eggs, vegetables and fish).
Interestingly, rice is center stage in many global comfort foods. In Kenya, pilau (rice dish) brings comfort as a staple food, but in India, it is khichuri (rice and lentils). Congee (rice porridge) is a favorite in China, and in Spain it is paella (rice and seafood) warming the heart.
Of course, there are plenty of comfort foods that really cannot be described as healthy, but are oh so good. Check out Canada’s poutine which is french fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds, the decadent spaghetti alla carbonara in Italy or the delicious fat-filled bratwurst in Germany.
Ready to Take on the World
What each person calls comfort food depends on the person, but most food that brings comfort has a cultural or personal history. It is one of the most interesting aspects of food.
The study in the Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science found that people eat comfort foods to change their emotional state from negative to positive. When eating something that evokes memories and makes a person feel happier or soothed, the food is telling its story all over again.
Some studies suggest comfort food is getting too much credit for mood effects, but does it really matter? All that is really important at the moment is that the Nigerian eating puff-puff (deep-fried dough) and the Mexican enjoying chilaquiles (tortilla triangles piled high with cheese and crema) just know they really feel more prepared to take on the world.