A few days ago, after a somewhat taxing day at work, I found myself setting aside the dinner that my help had prepared. Mani is more than competent at her job, and, in any case, the meal that she had laid out was more elaborate than the fare I was replacing it with. But as the tempering of cumin, mustard seeds, asafoetida and green chilies mingled with the masoor dal cooked to a gloopy consistency, to issue smoke signals to the endorphins in my body, I could sense that I was not wrong in acting on my impulse. And, as the small pieces of rahu, smeared with turmeric, a pinch of salt and red chili powder, slid into the kadhai of hot mustard oil, the happy hormones seemed to be making their way back. The therapy was complete once I broke the little mound of rice on the plate, poured a tablespoon full of ghee and used my fingers to mix it with the grains.
Culinary history has it that the word typically associated with my behaviour is of relatively recent provenance. One of its earliest print mentions is said to be in the 1960s by a somewhat lesser-known Florida-based daily, The Palm Beach Post: “Adults, when under severe emotional stress turn to what could be called ‘comfort food’ — food associated with the security of childhood like mother’s poached egg or famous chicken soup.” But it was not until the late 1990s that the phrase found its way to the Oxford English Dictionary. The lexicographers attributed its coinage to a 1977 Washington Post article by Phyllis Richman. However, the Post’s food critic refused to take credit for creating the term though she added that “since  — if not before then — it has been one of my favourite food descriptors.”
Regardless about the differences over origins, there is something uncharitable about the way both the OED and The Palm Beach Post refer to comfort food. The Florida daily’s mention appears under the headline, “A Sad Child Might Overeat”. The first OED entry of the term says that such foods are frequently associated with high sugar and calorie content. And allusions to a pathological condition — indulgence and overeating — predominate descriptions of a very human urge for the simplest and the plainest of recipes.
But isn’t there an elemental connect between eating and feel-good emotions that goes beyond the nutrition science explanations about high levels of carbohydrates counteracting our blues? Most food, after all, is about comfort, and the dinner table, the outcome of the ageless desire to seek reassurance from the company of our loved ones. Social scientists have told us that the solace the kitchen offers is an evolutionary hangover from the time spent huddled around the kitchen, eating and telling each other stories. A dish is much more than a perfect combination of ingredients acted upon by fire, it is also to do with memories, history and geography. As the chef and food writer, Valentin Warner writes in The Good Table, Adventures in and Around My Kitchen, “Rising to the nose in the fragrant steam are the sum parts of everything that contributed to the plate. See any dish prepared with love, however humble, then surely is to know that it’s preceded by centuries of trying to make it as delicious as possible. The more we know about our food, the more we know about our life…”
It would be unwise, however, to ignore the caveats of the nutritional scientists. We live in an age of culinary paradox. Recipe books and cooking guides proliferate in the printed and online world, TV channels beam into our homes the skills of master chefs and food festivals bring gastronomical delights from faraway places. Yet, increasingly, cooking is losing its place in the list of our fun activities. The joy of eating is most often restricted to ordering from takeaway outlets. It seems that our appetites are satisfied by fast foods that seem to rest on the proposition that an overdose of salts and fats — most often unhealthy — can compensate for the lack of any other flavour — and culinary skills.
Perhaps, many of us simply do not have the time to cook. But that’s not difficult to surmount. A meal of rice, dal and fish, a paratha stuffed with mashed potatoes, onions, lentils or leftover paneer, a rasam, even an omelette were perhaps invented because few ingredients and an uncomplicated cooking procedure was all that was needed to make them delicious. Even nutrition scientists agree that to indulge occasionally is no sin. For, as the famous quip from the film Julie and Julia (2009) goes, “A day when nothing is sure, and when I say ‘nothing’ I mean nothing, you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. It’s such a comfort.”