Asian noodle salad
Asian noodle salad

Opinion | How to be free of the curse of comfort food

  • Cosy cuisine drives people to instant recall, pleasure and eloquence. But it retards your ability to cook and eat new foods
  • The great thing about impromptu cooking—it does not matter what you do not have, you make do with what you have

I was feeling creative, expansive and magnanimous.

So I told the girls that dinner would be one big-bang dish, which I would cook of course.

The reactions were underwhelming, to put it mildly.

“Husband, I am having a bowl from last night’s leftovers" (this is what she was talking about).

“Appa, it’s my Domino’s pizza night."

The man of the house may cook—and reasonably well at that, I am told—but the family is not as enthused as outsiders tend to be. I suppose that is because I am not a great believer in comfort food, and that approach tends to imbue my family with a certain wariness.

Don’t get me wrong. They do like what I dish out, but sometimes they do not want experiments. Since I do not follow recipes closely or recall the superb-roast-vegetables-when-parents-were-here-last, I am not a reliable supplier of what I call cosy cuisine, which of course leaves not many people around me feeling warm and comfortable.

My mother’s comfort food is dal, rice and fried fish. My wife’s is rice and chhole (chickpeas). My nine-year old is partial to puri and roast mutton or mosaru anna (curd rice) with pomegranate. My friend Rohit, a sportswriter, says it’s chips and cream-cracker biscuits when he’s writing and stressed. My cousin says keema-chapati. My friend Rohini—who does not care overly for chicken—says thin chicken stew and rice: She cannot explain why. But she does know that she associates her other comfort food, mooli ka parathas with home-made dahi (radish parathas with yogurt), with her grandmother, who used to make them when she and her sisters came to Delhi in winter for the holidays.

Cosy cuisine has associated memories, even if they are sometimes hard to identify or recall. These memories float around somewhere, within all those billions of neurons in the recesses of our brains, surfacing when chemicals called neurotransmitters are released on some stimulus, delivering pleasure and joy as they do. The craving for comfort foods can be strong, driving people to distraction and eloquence.

“Some foods are so comforting, so nourishing of body and soul, that to eat them is to be home again after a long journey," writes Eli Brown, an American writer, in Cinnamon And Gunpowder, an improbable yarn about a chef kidnapped by a beautiful pirate. “To eat such a meal is to remember that, though the world is full of knives and storms, the body is built for kindness. The angels, who know no hunger, have never been as satisfied."

That is certainly eloquent and all very well, but I believe such satisfaction is overrated.

As you might have guessed, I am not a great fan of cosy cuisine, although I like dosa, chutney and fried egg, occasionally, for breakfast, and fish curry and chapati for dinner. What I would really like as comfort food is roast pork and sannas (steamed Goan rice cakes), but alas that is a sure-fire way to clogged arteries—and never mind what the latest studies appear to suggest about the harmlessness of red meat (do read the caveats).

One of the joys of travelling or living in an unfamiliar place is discovering the local food. There is no place in the world where I have not taken to the local cuisine. I like the anticipation, the unexpectedness and the revelation delivered by new food. I can eat unfamiliar food day after relentless day. There have been times when I was not wholly delighted—like the nine-course snake meal I once ate in Vietnam—but that does not deter me from trying something new the very next meal (and, yes, I would eat snake again).

I am, in short, keen to experiment and be experimented on.

I might grudgingly agree to the family’s keenness for comfort food, but on the day in question they sensed I might not, given my enthusiasm for turning out something new and exciting. Hence the rebellion.

I was determined to carry on. Their reluctance made it easier because now I could just do exactly what I wanted. As it emerged, that was just as well because I was faced with a familiar weekend situation: a bare fridge.

I had pulled out some old recipe books but it was clear I had no ingredients, even for a simple Asian noodle salad. This is the great thing about impromptu cooking—what you do not have does not matter, you make do with what you have. I am happy to report that the ultra-simple noodles were most satisfying, a pleasure I might never have experienced had I settled for comfort food.

Ingredients

250g noodles (egg or soba)

1 cucumber, with the central seed core removed and cut into slivers

1 handful spinach leaves, roughly torn

2 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted

For the dressing

2 large garlic cloves, chopped

2 tbsp tahini paste

1 tbsp sesame oil, toasted

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 tbsp rice wine vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

Method

Cook the noodles and drain the water.

Stir all the ingredients vigorously to form a thin dressing. Toss the noodles in the dressing. Garnish with cucumber, spinach and toasted sesame seeds.

These noodles can be customized to taste. Suggested ingredients: strips of omelette, bean sprouts, spring onion, prawn, roast pork or chicken.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.

Twitter - @samar11

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