The context for your ice cream or hot chip binge may actually matter more than anything else. People eat for so many emotional reasons, notes Oxford psychologist Charles Spence, whether they are consuming fish and chips or Brussels sprouts. They eat to keep their good mood, to celebrate, to pass the time. And the food itself is different from culture to culture.
An oft-cited Indian comfort food is khichri, a savory porridge of lentils and rice, topped with pickles; for some Chinese people, the massive lion’s head meatball, a globe of spiced ground pork, scratches that itch. A Syrian might wax lyrical about mujaddara, a lentil and bulgur dish heaped with caramelised onions, and French people might dream of tartiflette, the cheesy, lardon-laden potato casserole. For Swiss people from Canton de Vaud, the hyper-local delicacy of saucisse-aux-choux with leeks and potatoes can summon comfort when it’s needed most.
Attempts to classify comfort food as crunchy or soft, easy to eat or pleasingly difficult, have largely failed to find a pattern, even within a given culture. But some clear evidence of people eating comfort food for comfort’s sake comes from, of all people, tourists.
Far from home, a little intimidated by the local cuisine, and maybe sick or jet-lagged, people in two major airports in Taiwan were surveyed by researchers. Those travelers who didn’t like to try new foods were the happiest as they consumed their comfort food, confirming that at least in some situations, familiar foods do play the role we imagine they do – giving reassurance, a sense of belonging, and a stable anchor, alongside all the calories.
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