The Profound Comfort of Food

When I fell at school and scraped open my knee my teacher gave me a Marie biscuit while she called my mom to come fetch me. After the events of 9/11, supermarkets and restaurants in New York reported a spike in mashed potato sales. When I graduated with my Master’s degree, we celebrated with pancakes at Salvation Café in Joburg. In The Big Bang Theory, even socially-inept Sheldon understands that the correct thing to do when someone is upset is to bring them a hot beverage. When we finished the final kilometre of the 56km-long Whale Trail hike, we rewarded ourselves with Coke, pizza and ice cream. A Hindu blessing is not complete without a piece of sweet barfi. And even Jesus decided to be immortalised as a carbohydrate. For humans, food is used to comfort, to reward, to incentivise, to celebrate, to mourn, to ritualise.

Ruby Tandoh recently revived her wonderful Good Food Things series: lists of ordinary yet extraordinarily satisfying and enjoyable food-related experiences, which serve as a source of comfort and pleasure at a time so rife with worry and uncertainty. Tandoh emphasises the unfussy normalcy of these Good Food Things – floating ravioli, Nik Naks, a rediscovered snack, molten cheese – implying that ‘comfort food’ isn’t so much a criteria-driven category of food; rather, even the most insignificant and commonplace of food experiences can spark joy. The very banality of food is what is most reassuring about it. If you ask anyone what their idea of comfort food is, the answers are often overwhelmingly beige: cheesy, carby, creamy, eggy. One’s comfort food declarations are often accompanied by some sort of justification – “my grandmother made this”, “we always have this for Iftar”, “I’m embarrassed by how British it is”, “it sounds gross but I promise you it’s good”. We choose comfort foods in part for what they contain – often serotonin-producing things like sugar, fat, and starch take centre stage – but also because of the associated nostalgia. 

First appearing in a 1966 article on childhood obesity, under the callously succinct headline ‘Sad Child May Overeat’, the term “comfort food” referred to the fatty, starchy meals eaten by sad, lonely children to make them feel better about being sad and lonely. This reductive view of the powers of food neglects the comforting role of food in a world increasingly characterised by the voluntary and involuntary movement of people. Food is the easiest thing to cling to for members of diasporas, and so is often the most meaningful aspect of a culture. It is inherently political. It makes sense: even without displacement, most cultures of the world use food in celebration and ritual, placing an importance on certain food that transcends just basic nourishment. For the white American, tacos and enchiladas are the best kind of TexMex. But for the Mexican immigrant, it’s a cruelly ironic bastardisation of home. For me, challah recipes are cool because they always make two loaves, but to Jewish people this has religious and historical significance that I and my secular greed don’t appreciate. Comfort food means childhood, nostalgia, memory, but it also means culture, heritage, belonging, and identity.

My personal choices when it comes to comfort food are therefore predictable: things associated with important people in my life, my childhood, and my heritage. My Greek-Egyptian grandmother’s unfussy spaghetti with butter and salt, slightly crispy on the bottom, which leaves you with a greasy chin and a beaming tummy. Or my English gran’s tuna pasta – slightly overcooked penne, with bechamel sauce and tinned tuna – which is obscenely squelchy but tastes of happiness. My Xhosa nanny’s phuthu pap, eaten hot with crunchy sugar and cold milk, which tastes of love and a bit of sadness that she’s gone (and echoes centuries of black women mothering white children). My best friend’s mom’s crunchy potato tahdig, heaped onto a plate and only half-jokingly fought over at the table, which tastes of indestructible friendship and adopted family. My boyfriend’s mother’s masala tea, which he now recreates almost flawlessly at home, which tastes of love, acceptance and excitement for the future. My mom’s hummus, eaten with everything imaginable, which is one of the first things I learned to make on my own. Greek stuffed vegetables; Spanish paella cooked by my grandfather over the fire at family events; slices of bread, slathered in tomato sauce, loaded with cheese and grilled until melty by my dad on a Sunday evening to curb the pre-Monday blues; Five Roses tea, with milk and half a sugar (ideally made by someone else) for dunking Marie biscuits and Ouma rusks; croissants and rooibos cappuccinos after Parkrun, even if they take an hour to arrive at the table; and about a hundred other things – all personal, all delightful, all happy.

Phuthu pap

2½ cups water

Pinch of salt

2½ cups mielie meal

Sugar, to taste

Milk, optional

Bring the water and salt to the boil, then pour in the mielie meal and don’t stir it. If that goes against your culinary sensibilities, you may give the pot a bit of a wobble. Turn down the heat, pop the lid on, and simmer for 5 minutes. You may now breathe a sigh of relief and stir everything together, then cover again and steam over a veeeery low heat for about 30 minutes, occasionally fluffing it up with a spoon or fork, until cooked through and crumbly. Scoop into bowls and serve with your favoured combination of milk and sugar. I like lots of cold milk and a little bit of sugar, while my sister likes it dry with lots of sugar.

Yaya’s pasta with butter

Spaghetti

Salted butter

Salt and pepper

That’s it

Boil the spaghetti until al dente. Drain, then return to the pan. Add in as much butter as your little heart desires, then stir over a high heat until some of it catches at the bottom (I was never sure if my gran intended for this to happen, but it is Absolutely Necessary). Grind on some salt and pepper. Watch Anastasia and be happy.

In Defence of Brussels Sprouts

Of all the vegetables in existence, there is none so polarising as the brussels sprout. Brussels sprouts look like tiny cabbages, and are in the brassicas family along with (perhaps equally despised) broccoli and cauliflower. They are grown in abundance in the United States, having been brought over from Europe, where they were predominantly grown in Belgium (hence the name, it is thought) and the Netherlands. Despite the seeming demand for brussels sprout production, throughout time they have rather unfairly become a poster-child for detested vegetables and a metaphor for all that is unpleasant in the world. In the movie Infamous (2006) a fictionalised version of Gore Vidal describes Truman Capote’s voice thusly: “To the lucky person who has never heard it, I can only say, imagine what a brussels sprout could sound like if a brussels sprout could talk.” Writer E.B. White, despite his proclivity to sing the praises of truly horrendous things (like mice), said that “the world likes humour, but treats it patronisingly. It decorates its serious artists with laurel, and its wags with brussels sprouts.”

It’s impossible to tell what the cause of the portrayed villainy of the brussels sprout is, but it might have something to do with the vegetable’s illustrious career as an antagonist in children’s literature and TV shows. The British animation The Forgotten Toys contains a character whose entire personality is built around his hatred of brussels sprouts and the lengths he’ll go to avoid eating them. Children’s author Andy Griffiths is also a notorious anti-brussels sprout propagandist, whose book Just Disgusting! contains a lengthy diatribe on the vegetable, which includes the following eloquent piece of verse:

Who wouldn’t hate them? 

They’re green. 

They’re slimy. 

They’re mouldy. 

They’re horrible. 

They’re putrid. 

They’re foul. 

Apart from that, I love them. No, I don’t. That was just a joke. There’s absolutely NOTHING to love about brussels sprouts. Nothing at all. They’re disgusting.

While tomatoes, onions, lemons and even eel soup all feature as the subject of a complimentary poem or two, there is as yet no ode to the brussels sprout. There is, however, no dearth of poems denouncing the poor lil things.

Brussels sprouts do appear, very infrequently, as central figures in rather outlandish tales. In 2014, for example, in a bizarre bid to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support in 2014, an admirable nutter by the name of Stuart Kettell pushed a brussels sprout up a mountain with his nose. The sprout was chosen by this Sisyphus not because they aren’t good for eating, but because they are easier to roll with one’s nose than a pea. Sprouts took centre stage again when a group of Irish Dominican nuns had their whole harvest of organic brussels sprouts stolen in the dead of night. Sister Julie Newman was certain their prized goods were pilfered to be sold on the black market (who knew?). And in case you were wondering, the world record for most brussels sprouts eaten in a minute is 31.

It is likely that the way brussels sprouts were cooked (and continue to be cooked by some people) contributed to their poor reputation. People were most likely scarred from their encounters with farty overboiled sprouts or devilled brussels sprouts. Below are some truly fab ways to eat brussels sprouts, and I encourage (implore!) you to give them a go and slowly, we can claw back their reputation. Perhaps even start our own smear campaign against an irredeemably ghastly vegetable: iceberg lettuce.

Garlicky balsamic brussels sprouts

600g brussels sprouts, halved lengthways

1½ Tbsp olive oil

4-5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 tsp caraway seeds 

5 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

Salt

Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium-high heat, then toss in the sprouts. Fry them for about three minutes, moving around occasionally, until they begin to brown in places, then sprinkle in the garlic slices and caraway seeds. Cook, stirring occasionally, for a further five minutes then add in the vinegar. Stir it around and cook for a further 3-5 minutes until tender. Season with salt before serving.

Deep-fried brussels sprouts with tahini

600g brussels sprouts, cut into quarters lengthways

Vegetable oil for deep frying (about 500ml)

3 Tbsp tahini

1 Tbsp lemon juice

4-5 Tbsp water

Salt

Heat up the oil until very hot. Fry the sprouts in small batches for 5-6 minutes until the leaves have separated and are a deep golden brown. Once each batch has cooked, remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon and place on a wire rack set over a baking tray (or a plate lined with kitchen towel) and sprinkle liberally with salt. To make the tahini sauce, stir the lemon juice into the tahini until it thickens and becomes stodgy. Mix in the water a tablespoon at a time until it becomes creamy and thick, but still pourable. Serve the sauce either in a bowl on the side for dipping, or drizzled over the crispy sprouts.

Other ways to get your sprout fix:

  1. Steamed until tender (but not squishy), doused in lemon juice, salt and olive oil.
  2. Fried whole in butter with a bit of chilli or harissa.
  3. Halved, fried with garlic in oil or butter.
  4. Halved, topped with grated parmesan, then roasted in the oven.
  5. Shredded/sliced, then scrambled with eggs and ras al hanout spice blend.
  6. Ottolenghified.

The Ubiquity of Oat Biscuits

It was recently Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand, which was brought to my attention by a surge in the number of Instagram posts prominently featuring oat biscuits. Anzac biscuits are eggless oat biscuits that were historically made by the wives of Australian and New Zealander (what’s the adjective?) soldiers fighting in World War I. This little nugget of commonwealth history, naturally, got me to thinking about oats – a staple ingredient in porridge, biscuits, and even some beer – and just how multitudinous the variety of oat biscuits we humans have available to us is. Everyone from self-proclaimed (and who am I to argue) domestic goddess Nigella Lawson, to Ottolenghi and Mary Berry, from Milk Bar (a symbol of American decadence), to Martha Stewart has a recipe for some sort of oat biscuit. Queen Elizabeth II is also apparently partial to an oat biscuit for breakfast, and a version is also an ol’ faithful from my mom’s side of the family (more on that later). 

Oats have been cultivated all over Europe for thousands of years, but from the 17th century, they became a symbol of Scotland. Barley production in the country declined fairly rapidly to make way for the more versatile and longer-lasting oat – the derided staple grain of the barley-and-wheat-eating Englanders’ inferior neighbours. Samuel Johnson, in a disparaging entry in his 1755 dictionary, defined oats as ‘a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’ from which ‘tolerable good bread’ can be made.

The entry on oats in Samuel Johnson’s catchily-titled ‘A dictionary of the English language: in which the words are deduced from their originals, and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers to which are prefixed, history of the language, and an English grammar: in two volumes.’

Scots must have taken their version of an oat biscuit (called an oatcake) with them to newly-expropriated North America. The first documented recipe for an oat biscuit in the USA (where oatmeal cookies are now the country’s fifth favourite cookie) appeared in 1896, in a voluminous recipe compendium compiled by the rather unfortunately named Fannie Farmer. The recipe appears on page 406 (!!) of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, and does not contain raisins – a fact highlighted by a few American oatmeal cookie fanatics who despair at the unfair classification of this biscuit as a health food. Raisins were only introduced to oatmeal biscuit recipes almost a decade later on the packaging of Quaker Oats, a leading American brand of oat-y products. 

Fannie Farmer’s 1896 recipe for oatmeal cookies.

As a child, one of the biscuits in my English gran’s biscuit repertoire most favoured by me and my cousins was what we called Quaker Oats Biscuits. I understood this to mean that these were oat biscuits originally made by Quakers. This made sense: my gran was from England, Quakers were from England (according to a novel I’d read), oat biscuits seemed decidedly English in their homely deliciousness, and I was only familiar with South African Jungle Oats (not American Quaker Oats). It took me 25 years to figure out my mistake. So here’s my gran’s recipe for Quaker Oats Biscuits, which involve neither Quakers nor Quaker Oats, but are nevertheless an important addition to the plethora of other oat biscuit recipes floating around the interwebs and elsewhere. The only amendments I’ve made to the original recipe is the use of butter over margarine, a slight reduction in the amount of sugar, and the addition of a bit of salt.

1 cup flour

1 cup oats (Jungle Oats, Quaker Oats, rolled oats, etc.)

½ tsp salt

¾ cup sugar (brown or white)

125g unsalted butter

1 tbsp golden syrup (or honey)

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda, dissolved in 1 tbsp hot water

Preheat the oven to 180C. Combine the flour, oats, salt, and sugar in a mixing bowl. Melt the butter with the syrup in a saucepan over a low heat. Once the butter has melted completely, pour it into the dry ingredients along with the bicarb and water mixture. Stir everything together until well-combined – there should be no visible flour, and all the oats should be slightly moistened. Set aside to cool for a couple of minutes while you line two or three baking sheets with baking paper. Scoop out about a heaped tablespoon of mixture, roll it into a ball with your hands, then set it down on a baking tray and flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. Keep going with the rest of the mixture, until you have transformed it all into lovely little pats of buttery, oaty deliciousness. Make sure to leave a good few centimetres between each biscuit. Bake for 12-14 minutes until deep golden.

Note: the photographs in this post were taken by Kabir Dhupelia.