Chicken soup. Pho. Sinigang. Tteokbokki. No matter where you go, almost every person in the world has their own version of comfort food, or a dish that they eat when they just want to feel warm and safe and loved. As people in today’s society, full of uncertainty as it is, taking a moment to care for oneself with something nourishing and wholesome is not just a luxury but a necessity.
But what actually happens when we turn to our preferred foods for self-care, whether that’s some cookies and warm milk or your mom’s sipo egg recipe served over steamed rice? How do comfort foods earn their name? If these questions have kept you up at night, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s why comfort foods are comforting in the first place.
Fat, Sugar, and Salt
Over the more than 300,000 years that humans have been on this planet, our brains have evolved in strange and interesting ways and one of those is how it reacts to food. For most of our time on Earth, we haven’t had much access to foods with really strong flavors, like those laden with fat, salt, or sugar. The idea of seasoning food is a relatively recent contrivance, and as a result, our brains have become highly sensitive to these three substances. Evolutionary biologists believe that in the past, our brains would have lit up with dopamine and other pleasure hormones at the merest taste of an apple or a well-cooked piece of meat.
Fast-forward to today with our plethora of modern conveniences, with almost any food craving at our literal fingertips. Many people simply turn to their favorite food delivery app to have whatever they’re craving for delivered right to their doorstep, providing their comfort-starved brains with a flood of neurotransmitters designed to make them feel better. In moments of extreme anxiety or sadness, this is what we tell ourselves we need when we seek solace in a big slice of moist chocolate cake or a perfectly grilled burger.
Food Equals Memories
In most cultures and for most people, eating is a social activity. Throughout history, our biggest celebrations and gatherings have always happened over food, usually in the company of those dearest to us. As a result, foods consumed during those gatherings take on a character and significance greater than just the ingredients that comprise the dish. When a mother takes her son out for halo-halo as a way to congratulate him on a job well done at school, that halo-halo forever becomes more than a collection of preserved fruits and sweets served over crushed ice. Whenever that boy has halo-halo later on, inevitably, he will remember when his mother treated him to it, and he will remember the pride and joy he felt in that moment. Who would not want to be able to recreate this memory over and over again?
Food’s relationship to memory becomes even clearer when we examine the sense of smell. Neuroscientists have long known about the connection between our ability to smell and our memory, with almost everyone having an experience like catching a whiff of an old friend’s cologne and instantly being transported to time they spent with that friend. Food, of course, engages our sense of smell quite intensely, and it therefore engages our memories and associations of a particular dish, even before we’ve actually eaten anything.
When we experience personal difficulties or undergo a major unwelcome change in our lives, we often say that we have “become unmoored” or that we have “had our world turned upside down.” This kind of language hints at what we’re actually feeling: that we’ve lost control over our lives and that somehow, our capacity for agency has been compromised. It’s times like these that we crave a way to reestablish some semblance of control and familiarity over our lives and food is an easy way to do that.
Whether we prepare our own comfort meal or not seems to be largely irrelevant. What seems to be more essential is that, in our darkest moments, we are able to self-direct and find something that will make us feel a little better. For some people, that’s a grilled cheese sandwich and some tomato soup, while for others, it’s a bowl of congee topped with fried wonton and a raw egg. Regardless of the form the food takes, their function remains the same: to help an individual reestablish a feeling of agency over their own life and choices.
Much of our relationship with food has yet to be fully explained. Take, for example, cilantro: for some people, it’s a necessary ingredient that adds zest and freshness to dishes like salsa, while for others, it just has an unpleasant soapy taste that ruins everything. This predilection seems to be genetic in nature, but why it exists in the first place is anyone’s guess.
However, what we do know for sure is that food is one of our most concrete ways to care for ourselves. Perhaps by designating our comfort foods, we can begin to understand foods as being able to nourish more than just our physical selves.