LONDON — Comfort food is hard to pin down.
It’s as slippery as noodles, with any attempt to characterize it often countered by an exception.
Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “the type of food that people eat when they are sad or worried, often sweet food or food that people ate as children.”
I connect with the nostalgia part and love sweet things, but I tend to reject the idea that comfort food must fill a sad- or worried-shaped hole.
To me, all food is comfort food: Do we ever set out to make food that discomforts? It’s true that the past year has seen a focus on food’s particular ability to provide solace amid so much uncertainty. Slippery though noodles can be, then, it’s interesting to ponder why noodles — so simple, so basic, so every day — have such an ability to nurture, sustain and, indeed, comfort.
Is comfort food about ease? In Thai cooking, it’s less about how food makes people feel than about its ease: dishes that are quick to make, untaxing, gentle on the day. And you can find this in any cuisine, of course. These are the pasta and noodle dishes, the daals and soups: things that come to life with little more than boiling water, hot stock or broth.
Is it to do with texture? Is it the feeling of noodles as we eat them? Does that explain the appeal of smooth soups or hummus? Or the lure of rice: light on one hand, reassuringly starchy on the other?
Or is it defined by food group? Do carbohydrates comfort more than others? Is that what makes noodles — and pasta, potatoes and bread — so enticing? Does the same hold true of fat and dairy?
Or is it how (and where) we eat it? From a bowl, with chopsticks, by hand? Is the link between a bowl of hot soup and a tub of cold ice cream that both are eaten with a spoon, cross-legged on the sofa? Is that why some people love to eat in bed?
Or is it to do with memory? If one kid’s happy place is a baked potato with melted cheese, and the next kid’s is lentils and rice or chicken soup, does that make the whole notion of defining comfort food nonsense?
For all the ways to define comfort food, the dictionary definition is the one I’d push back on. Why is comfort food associated with sadness or some kind of lack or guilt? Why is the tub of ice cream we fall into on a Friday night seen as a substitute for the real hugs we’ve all been missing? Can’t we just love it because it’s delicious, easy and there?
I don’t like Champagne (no guilt!), but I do love this quote from Lily Bollinger, of Bollinger Champagnes: “I drink champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad.”
“Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone,” she said. “When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it — unless I’m thirsty.”
I feel the same way about food! I eat when I’m happy, and when I’m sad. Sometimes I eat when I’m alone. When I have company, it’s a must. I snack when I’m peckish and feast when I have an appetite. Otherwise I can go without — unless I’m hungry.
And, when it’s a weeknight and I want to easily make something from what I have in my cupboards, this kind of noodle dish, inspired by some Japanese ingredients I have in my cupboard, is what I prepare. It ticks all the boxes. Sustaining, slippery noodles, cooked in broth and eaten from a bowl with chopsticks or a spoon (or a slurp, if I am alone): tick, tick, tick, tick. The chicken stock and fresh cilantro remind me of the food I was nurtured with as a kid, and that I now pass on to my own children: tick.