Comfort Food vs. Grandmother’s Diet

Is pitha a comfort food? Photo: Ihtisham kabir

Ten years ago, I wrote a Tangents column called "Grandmother's Diet." The idea was this: in this age of processed and factory manufactured food, how does one choose what's best for health? The notion – originally presented by Michael Pollan - is to avoid items that your great-grandmother (or, in my case, my grandmothers) would not recognize as food. This eliminates many of today's unhealthy inventions such as breakfast bars, reconstituted cereals, sweets and candies, salty snacks and soft drinks, while encouraging consumption of wholesome food, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables.

Then there is comfort food.

Comfort food makes us feel good. We crave it in troubled times when we are feeling down, tired or anxious. Eating comfort food, we feel rejuvenated and all seems well with the world. It is simply prepared (usually), presented without ostentation, and may have nostalgic or sentimental connotations. Foods that we loved in childhood are good candidates for comfort food.

Comfort food is culture dependent. Take the dish cooked the world over from simmering beef shanks, where the bone marrow slowly becomes one with the gravy. In Sylhet this dish is made with shatkora and called poncha – something that my mother made exceptionally well. But cooked without shatkora, it is called paya in the rest of Bangladesh; a meatier and spicier version is nehari. In Italian cuisine, osso bucco is a similar dish made from lamb shanks. And at opulent Chinese weddings, a soup of beef shanks simmered in milk is sometimes served as the banquet finale.

I have tried osso bucco and that Chinese bone soup. But, while they might be comfort food for the Italians or the Chinese, for me they were exotic. My palette was on guard because I didn't know what taste to expect. It was adventure, not comfort. But with poncha, paya or nehari I know what to expect. That's why they are comfort foods.

But is grandmother's diet and comfort food one and the same?

I was a lucky child because both my grandmothers were alive and active. They doted on me. From one I learned about fresh food. She took me to the market and pointed out the varieties, specially the fish. My other grandmother taught me about vegetables because she had a superb kitchen garden. And so to this day, small local fish, sautéed with a hint of spices, as well as robust helpings of fruits, spinach, vegetables and daal-bhat – these constitute my grandmother's diet.

Grandmother's diet is concerned with health, comfort food less so. The former is for the long-term; the latter is for immediate relief. Fat is important in comfort food, probably harking back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors who valued fat for its concentrated calories. Comfort food allows us to gratefully enjoy the moment like nothing else while forgetting the troubles of the world. Grandmother's diet, on the other hand, helps reduce the risk of serious diseases and ill-health going forward.

All this talk about food is making me hungry. Now where did I put that bowl of ice cream?

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