Craving Comfort | Comfort Food

The dreaded combination of stress, boredom and excess free time means many have been turning to comfort foods in recent months (while turning away from the bathroom scales), a type of gorging called ‘emotional eating’. But do take some extra comfort from the knowledge that isn’t necessarily a dose of self-loathing or a dearth of willpower that has us reaching for those cheeseburgers or pepperoni pizzas, rather a yearning for love and familiarity. The problem (for our waistlines, at least) is that the comfort usually comes in the form of carbohydrates.


Three of our most powerful hormones are cortisol (the stress hormone), dopamine (the reward hormone) and serotonin (the happy hormone), a kicker of a combination when it comes to comfort food, for they all play a role in the culinary choices we make. Cortisol regulates how we process carbohydrates, fats and proteins, meaning stress causes a craving for food loaded with sugar, fat, and salt. Dopamine kicks in with the promise of such treats, while serotonin helps lift our mood.


Then, there’s the subconscious association of comfort foods with the people and places we most love, of an association with good times and celebration. A study by New York’s University at Buffalo even found that those that consume treats while feeling down are more likely to find the food tastier than those that eat while in a more positive frame of mind.


Eating psychology expert and author, Karen R Koenig says that ‘comfort’ is not something we should associate with food, rather something to be sought through human connection and healthy activities that “reduce internal distress”. Food should be filed in our brains under “nourishment” and “occasional pleasure” to be seen as a treat, rather than some form of treatment.


And so, to be enjoyed in moderation, Verve takes a look at some favourite “occasional pleasures” from around the globe. 


Tahdig, Iran

Many of us have probably made this one by accident without even realising it, though it takes skill to perfect doing it deliberately. Tah-dig literally translates as ‘bottom of the pot’ (though the more appetising  ‘scorched rice’ is often used instead), a Persian delicacy that sees chelo (a type of rice) cooked to a crisp crust at the bottom of an oil-covered pan, often accompanied by thinly sliced bread and vegetables.

Beans on Toast, UK

A personal favourite of this writer, few things better soothe a hangover than tinned baked beans on toast, preferably with lashings of HP sauce. Or, if you really want to up the ante, scrap the sauce, add Branston pickle to the toast, then the beans, then smother the lot with melted cheese. Beans on toast was said to be the result of a clever marketing ploy by Heinz in the late 1920s, and boy was it clever—now the UK gets through a staggering 1.5 million cans of beans each day.

French Onion Soup, France (obviously)

A king among comfort foods, the French onion soup ingredients list reads like a who’s who of indulgence: white wine, butter, cheese, and baguettes. This gastronomic great has some classy ancestry too, said to be based on a broth of Ancient Rome. Rumour has it that King Louis XV created the modern-day version of the dish upon returning to his lodge following a hunting trip to find that there was little left to eat but onions, champagne and butter (presumably the hunting trip was unsuccessful then).

Chilaquiles. Photo Credit: Joe Lingeman
Chilaquiles. Photo Credit: Joe Lingeman

Poutine, Canada

One of the most calorific—and delicious—comfort foods in the entire world, poutine comprises hot chips loaded with cheese curds and gravy. As iconic to Canadians as Mounties and maple syrup, such is its popularity that it’s even served at some of their McDonald’s and Burger King restaurants. Legend has it that in the 1950s a farmer asked staff at Québec restaurant L’Idéal to chuck some French fries and cheese curds into a bag to go because he was in a hurry. When the eatery owner Fernand Lachance looked into the bag, he said, “This is poutine,” which is Québécois slang for ‘a mess’. 

Chilaquiles, Mexico

Pronounced ‘chee-lah-kee-lehs’, this dish dates all the way back to the Aztecs and comes from their Nahuatl language meaning ‘chillies and greens’. Born from central Mexico, but now popular throughout the land, it is essentially pieces of crispy, fried tortilla pieces drizzled in spicy salsa. Historically made using leftovers, the modern-day incarnation has become a dish in its own right incorporating the likes of beef, chicken and queso fresco (‘fresh cheese’), with various regions having their own interpretations.  

Carbonara, Italy

No comfort food list would be complete without a mention of pasta, and what is more comforting—or occasionally controversial—than a plate of carbonara? Creamy it may be, but contrary to most culinary belief the dish should not contain cream, rather its velvety-ness should be the result of egg yolk and pecorino Romano. Unlike so much of Italy’s splendid culture, this dish has no ancient roots, but was created in the mid-19th century as a fast, simple and substantial meal for coal miners.