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.

Greek Easter

Greek Easter fare!

As a child, Easter involved hunting for sickly-sweet Beacon marshmallow eggs and other pastel-coloured atrocities, which would inevitably sit uneaten in the pantry for months until my mom threw them away (to make space for the following year’s haul, duh). But for my sister and me (and obviously a few other children with Orthodox connections) this was just the inferior of two Easter celebrations. Due to centuries-long disputes about calendars, Greek Easter usually falls one or two weeks after ‘regular’ Easter. And the Easter goodies that come with this bonus Easter have always been a highlight in the year for me.

Western Easter falls on a lunisolar-determined date within the Gregorian calendar, while Orthodox Easter is determined by the Julian calendar, with the added influence of Passover and the Hebrew calendar. These links also have interesting linguistic relevance: the English word Easter has Germanic roots, related to the month of the goddess Ēostre, in which Easter fell; but the Latin and Greek word for Easter, Pascha, is related to the Hebrew Pesach (Passover). Although the death and resurrection of Jesus happened some time after the biblical Passover occurred in Moses’ time (my Prince of Egypt-based knowledge is unparalleled), it is likely that the two occasions were celebrated concurrently by early Christians as the themes of rebirth and vanquishing death are similar. For people so inclined, Easter is a Big Deal because it serves as proof that Jesus is the son of God and so the food eaten at this time is seen as reminiscent of blood, flesh, sacrifice, rebirth and other lighthearted Old Testament stuff. But for people who are not this way inclined, Greek Easter food is just Real Good, and Real Fun to make. 

The outbreak of COVID-19 has made this year’s Greek Easter a particularly strange one. With the usual specialty shops closed, I have resorted to making my own Greek Easter cake (tsoureki) and biscuits (koulourakia) for a celebration in lockdown.

Tsoureki

Tsoureki is a very delicious cake/bread hybrid that is shaped into a braid to rival even the most elegant of Disney princesses. Braided loaves are fairly commonplace across the world, but what makes this one special is its flavour: a sweetish, orangey overtone with a veeery subtle underlying bitterness, achieved by the addition of two (serendipitously alliterative) spices* called mastic and mahleb. Mastic** is the resin from a certain tree, which can be chewed as is, or ground and used as a flavouring as it is here. Mahleb is a little kernel extracted from the pit of a type of cherry, used in a variety of Greek, Turkish, and Armenian dishes. Tsoureki is often braided around eggs which have been hardboiled in vinegar and red food colouring, but this isn’t essential for you to have the complete Tsoureki Experience. Hunting down the ingredients*** and going through the paces of rising and proving and waiting are absolutely worth it for the beautiful loaf you will birth in the end.

*for want of a better term

**from the Greek Μαστίχα (IPA: /mastiχa/), derived from the word for ‘gnaw’/’chew’, which is the origin of the English word masticate. Fun fact Friday. 

***if you’re lucky enough to live in Joburg, you can find everything you need at The Cheese Place on 1st Avenue in Linden.

To make it:

3g mastic and 4g mahleb (you could sub in any spices, like nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom)

200g sugar

20g yeast

100g lukewarm water (not a typo)

35g butter, salted or unsalted

135g milk (also not a typo)

4 eggs, at room temperature

870g bread flour

Zest of 1 orange

1 egg yolk mixed with a splash of water for glazing

Almond slices

Grind the spices with a teaspoon of sugar to a rough powder. Mix the yeast, water, and a teaspoon of sugar in a jug and leave to bloom for 7-ish minutes. Put the milk and butter in a saucepan with the rest of the sugar and melt together over a very low heat. The butter will melt and the sugar will dissolve. Remove from the heat and make sure it’s not too hot – it should be lukewarm. If it isn’t, leave it to cool for a bit. Once you have all your bits and pieces, beat the eggs into the milk mixture, then pour this into a big bowl with the yeast mixture, the flour, spices, and zest. Combine into a dough either with your hands or an electric mixer with a dough hook, then knead for 13-15 minutes. The dough will be slightly soft and no longer sticky. Cover and let it rise for 2-3 hours until doubled in size and you feel a great sense of accomplishment. Once risen, knock it down and divide it into six more or less equal pieces. Roll the pieces into long sausages, then braid three pieces together so that you get two loaves. Cover with tea towels and rise again for another hour or two (until doubled in size and breathtakingly beautiful). Brush with egg wash and scatter over some almond slices, then bake at 160C for about 35 minutes.

This recipe is adapted from the one on MyGreekDish.com

Koulourakia

Koulourakia are deceptively plain-looking biscuits. They’re beige, sometimes topped with sesame seeds, usually shaped like half-arsed braids, and sold by the bajillion in Greek shops year-round. But they are not to be cast aside in favour of more attractive Greek biscuits (THE VERY NOTION). They are the crumbly, buttery biscuits of your dreams and once you’ve eaten them you will never look at baklava again.

To make them:

150g granulated sugar

Zest of 1 orange

115g butter, softened

2 eggs

60ml milk

1 tsp vanilla extract

3 cups flour (my apologies to the metric system)

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1 egg yolk mixed with a splash of water for glazing

Sesame seeds

Beat together the sugar, zest, and butter until light, pale and fluffy (this will take about five minutes). Add the eggs one at a time, beating until completely emulsified after each addition. Beat in the milk and vanilla, then add the dry ingredients in batches until a soft dough (more like a veeeery thick batter) forms. Let it sit, covered, for 20 mins. Meanwhile preheat the oven to 200C and line two or three baking trays with baking paper. Roll out your biscuits: I used 1.5 tablespoons of dough per biscuit, rolled into a rope about 21cm long, then twisted around itself; but you could do any shapes you want. You do you. Brush your biscuits with the egg wash, and sprinkle over some sesame seeds if you want. Bake for 10-20 minutes, depending on the shape and size of your biscuits. Mine took about 13 minutes to cook. They should be lovely and golden and perfect when they’re done. Let them cool completely before devouring.