The Cultural Complexity of Comfort Food

I bet each of you have a favourite food to eat when you are feeling ill. If you have an appetite, that is. Growing up, it all depended on what we were suffering/recovering from. Fever? Crisp toast with butter and sugar. Stomach ailments? Green papaya (which we Bengalis love to eat as a vegetable) steamed and served with salt and pepper, maybe a touch of butter if we had already recovered. Any other ailments that required a strong pick-me-up, it was boiled rice and potatoes with butter, salt and pepper. These were the first meals we were allowed to have before progressing to the mandatory lean fish stew with rice.

When my husband fell ill the first time in my presence, I lovingly served him my trusted rice and potatoes. He merely picked at it, his body language conveying what he was too polite to articulate. Eventually it emerged that when he falls ill, all he craves for is some semolina cooked in milk. That is what his mother always made for him. I heard that and promptly forgot about it. Because semolina in milk would be something that my mother would have had to chase me around the house with. So the next time he fell sick, he did not wait for me to serve him something. He just dragged himself out of bed and made himself some. I know, poor guy! But save your sympathies. Because one time when I was coughing my guts out, barely able to sit up, he served me sausages. When I looked at my plate and asked him what the idea was, he pointed out that the sausages were of a variety that was supposed to be just right for sick people. If you look and feel like a ghost in my opinion, because the sausages were white and tasted…well white. It was called Wollwurst, which translates to “wool sausage” I believe. The name says it all.

So yeah, if you want to know what is the hardest part of a cross-cultural marriage, it is the following: you don’t get served the food you actually crave for when you are sick. Not unless you stand by the stove and issue instructions. In which case, it would probably be simpler to just make it yourself.

Last Saturday, my seven-year-old was feeling under the weather. Going by past record, I assumed he was craving a noodle soup and made him one. I chopped up some carrots and hold your breath, scallions or spring onions. Because I did not have celery. Did I ever tell you that I have never been one to not make a dish because I lacked an ingredient? But after I had sweated them in some butter and simmered them in some bouillon- (organic vegetarian) flavoured water, the end-result was quite tasty, if I might say so myself. He looked at me making the soup, picked out the noodles that would go into it, and then asked for some boiled rice and potato with ghee, salt and masala powder. What on earth is a masala powder, you ask? Well I am not sure what goes into it, but a friend who hails from Kerala made it for me once. A bunch of toasted and ground spices go into it, to which is added I believe some toasted coconut and tamarind. She called it chutney powder or some such thing. It is quite tasty and spicy and meant to be an accompaniment to dosa or idli. More on these dishes in the future. Anyway, the kid wanted that on his rice and potatoes, after a first course of noodle-soup. A true fusion of cultures!

On other news from that Saturday, I made some out of this world stuffed parathas from some left-overs. I took the last spoons of leftover kichuri, pureed it and kneaded it into a pliable dough with some whole-wheat flour. Then I took the last spoons of the meat rajma, made a paste of it in my handy dandy chopper and used it as a stuffing for the parathas that I rolled out of the dough. The husband gobbled them up hot from the skillet, exclaiming “very good” several times. I won’t give any detailed directions today because I don’t have step by step pictures. My hands were too floury. But when I do, you will be surprised at how simple the procedure is really. For those of you who are itching to give it a try, here is a somewhat similar procedure in this video. Except that my stuffed parathas are much thinner then Melissa Clark’s flat-bread and my dough did not have any yeast.

So people, here is a question for you. What do you crave when you are ill? Is it what your parent/grandparent made when you were sick as a child? Leave your comments.

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2 thoughts on “The Cultural Complexity of Comfort Food

  1. Smita

    Beautiful post– Really hit “home.” “Audaa Cha” (Oriya) or ginger tea is what I crave when I have a have a cold. My Mom used to and still does make it for my when I visit home. Recently she went away to India for a couple of months and while I had an upset stomach, I craved the simplest “Daali-Bhaata,” or rice with lentils, which somehow is a comfort food and a staple. So when she returned, she served me a plate of rice with lentils, which she mixed up for me, adding a touch of lime and ghee on top. (Earlier that day my Dad clarified butter to make jards of ghee so the house had even more comforting smells of childhood.) Something about having her mix the lentils into the rice, with the perfect proportion of ingredients, makes it even more tasty.

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