Comfort foods bring a feeling like ecstasy to the palate and the stomach. Suppose it is the morning tea with milk and sugar, or the ‘cha’ that wakes you up. And when your doctor tells you to avoid sugar and milk, the joy of drinking the ‘cha’ disappears, and you keep wishing you could go back to your old days when restrictions were none.
How can we define comfort food? According to Wikipedia, “Comfort food is food that provides a nostalgic or sentimental value to someone and may be characterized by its high caloric nature, high carbohydrate level, or simple preparation. The nostalgia may be specific to an individual, or it may apply to a specific culture.” Comfort food is like a gentle hug to yourself. But, as Ms. Lakhsmi, an Indian American teacher, says, “Living in America and mingling with its diverse community has given me a huge platform to marvel about the varieties of comfort foods. For example, while I must have my ‘roti and motor-panir’ at least twice a week, my Italian colleague mentions her craving for pasta and pizza, must-haves on weekends. So my food is like a treat to the self.”
We want our comfort foods at life stations near and far. Busy weekdays could culminate into a Bengali residing in Dhaka cooking hilsha fish curry for the weekend family meal. And a Bangladeshi living in the USA might make a two-hour drive to buy some hilsha fish from a Bangladeshi store to fill the demands of the palate. Here in Amherst, Alissa, my friend from Mexico, craves the tamales from her hometown in New Mexico, peddled on the tricycle. Mexican food places have them in the USA, but the US ones are not like those she has back home. So her summer vacations are planned with visits to her hometown to eat tamales. Tamales are not pricy, neither are the ingredients hard to find. Still, the familiarity of the place and the satisfaction of the taste buds make it unique enough for Alissa to fly to New Mexico to eat her favorite street food. Street foods have a magic of their own. Among the Bangladeshi community in the USA, one can often hear the lamenting of how delicious the streetside tea is. For them, no shops in Jackson Heights of NY can beat the peddler’s ‘fuchka-chotpoti’ sold around Dhaka. And yet, people from Massachusetts would make day trips to eat sweets or ‘chotpoti’ from Bangladeshi shops in NY. They return and, with hiccups, call home in Bangladesh full of stories on their American dreams coming alive.
There is the palate wanting to taste one particular food for our eating habits, and then the stomach doubles it. It’s challenging to understand whether we respond to the stomach or the taste buds, what makes us go miles to get comfort food. Or maybe it is just the environment that makes eating so special. When we get a substitute food, make a wheat flour flatbread though it may be the rice flour bread we want. We tell ourselves, “ I can wait till the rice flour is in hand and for tonight eat the available kind.” But eat the flatbread, we will. According to Chef Alice Waters, “Every decision we make about what we put in our mouths affects not only our bodies but also the world at large—our families, our communities, and our environment. We have the power to choose what we eat, and we have the potential for individual and global transformation—simply by shifting our relationship to food. All it takes is a taste.”
When we come to pregnancy for women, the comfort food and other food craving is a whole new chapter. Motherhood is a gift from God, and it comes with its mysteries too. Pregnant women may develop mind-blowing food cravings. They bring another human to the Earth, which seems to make sense of the mysterious food wants. I recall an aunt who was a teacher when schools had only blackboards and white chalk markers. I was a student in her class the year she was pregnant. I could hardly believe my eyes in her Geography class as she broke off bits of the chalk and munched it like nuts. Back home, my mother explained the craving chapters in pregnancy, saying that it may be due to a condition called pica. The community, culture, and environment influence our food habits as it does pregnancy cravings. In Bangladesh, many new mothers-to-be tend to crave tangy/sour food. The dry fish (shutki) often hits as the must-have food with its spicy cooking and intense flavor. There is a thing among Bangladeshi people: when newly married women start eating tamarind and shutki, it’s supposed to be for the happy news of having a new family member.
For the people who have adopted a new land as their home, weekend calls could be spent on food, the food they grew up with, and what feels like an adhesive on the challenges of settling in a new country. For instance, the last call I made to my aunt in Sylhet talked about how delicious jackfruits are and how we can cook delicious shutki dishes with the seeds of the jackfruit. And she said the customs in the US entry points are not allowing them to bring ‘hatkora’ the lime that Sylhetis live to eat. What to do? Sigh.
Tulip Chowdhury writes from Massachusetts, USA.