Comfort food: When you’re hungry for nostalgia

There is a strong link between scents of food and emotional memory. And so, our learning history predisposes us to enjoy certain food that improves the mood and produces feelings of social connectedness, say experts.
Published on Aug 24, 2019 07:23 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByKumKum Dasgupta

Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli is one of the fittest athletes in the world. But even the star sportsman, whose daily diet includes grilled chicken and salmon, mashed potatoes, green vegetables, spinach, can’t stay away from an occasional cheat meal from Ram’s chole bhature in Rajouri Garden, Delhi. “That too I’ll go to his shop and have it, not take away. By the time it comes home, it’s not a bhatura anymore. It feels like stale bread. Fresh bhatura’s where you pop a hole with your finger along with some onions, mint chutney and some pepper pickle,” he said during a TV show in 2017. His loving description of the dish, a combination of chana masala and bhatura (a fried bread made from flour), makes it not just his cheat meal, but also his comfort food.

There are various definitions of comfort food, but roughly it’s the kind of food that provides you with a sense of well-being, and is associated with childhood or home cooking. “Corporate life is difficult and sometimes can be all consuming… after a hard day’s work, I often eat a plate of simple dal-chawal that I would often eat at home before exams while watching some soap on TV. I instantly I feel much better and re-energised,” says Deepti Srinivas who is with a consulting company in Gurgaon.

Is rice the ultimate comfort food?

Ayurveda celebrates rice as the symbol of health, wealth and fertility and that’s why, from newborns to newly-weds to new acquisitions, everything gets showered with rice…. You get off an exclusive breast milk diet and you get on to rice either in the form of pej or kanjee (rice soup) or really diluted rice itself. …. And there are many reasons for that, the most important being that it is suitable for people of all kinds of constitutions, doshas - vata, pitta and kapha. That’s Sanskrit for non-allergen, gluten-free and high on the protein digestibility score. That’s exactly why big or small, man or woman, happy or angry, constipated or loosies, rich or poor, rice is everybody’s comfort food. ( In Rujuta Diwekar’s Indian Superfoods)

Why does Kohli or Srinivas feel good after they polish off a plate of their respective comfort food?

A study conducted by Lukas Van Oudenhove of the University of Leuven in Belgium show that there are certain areas of brain that are activated by our moods response to fatty acids. So most comfort foods, such as junk food, contain a large amount of fatty acids. There is also a strong link between scents and emotional memory. “Smell of foods can evoke vivid and detailed emotional memories of our past. Our learning history predisposes us to enjoy certain foods…. Because odour-evoked memories tend to be positive, the smell improves the mood and produces feelings of social connectedness,” writes Shahram Heshmat in Psychology Today.

While there is a lot of discussion on nature’s own anti-anxiety product (comfort foods), there are some foods that should not make the grade, warn nutritionists, even if they lift your mood: Junk food and sweets. “Junk foods are designed to create cravings and addiction. Sweets reduce stress hormone cortisol temporarily, but leads to fatigue and tiredness,” explains nutritionist Kavita Devgan in a YouTube explainer on comfort foods.

In STEMjobs, Giovanni Cizza, MD, a researcher with the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, US, writes: “Maybe if you’re sad and you feel like that chocolate could help you, go for it. Don’t feel too guilty, but try to limit what you eat and maybe later cut down on something else.”


Indians are very lucky when it comes to comfort because there is so much diversity in food across the regions. Celebrated Indian food writer, chef, cookbook author Tarla Dalal has a fine list that includes the best of various regions: Rasam, kichdi, kesar peda; soups such as makai shorba, cream of tomato soup; snacks such as moong dal chilla, stuffed moong dal chila, vada pav, samosa and dahi vada. It’s time to dig in, and feel happy!

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