As humans, we eat to satiate our appetite, nourish ourselves, and, additionally, to have a sensory experience. That’s where comfort food comes into the picture.
Whether it’s a fresh-out-of-the-oven slice of apple pie, a bowl full of creamy mac and cheese, or grandma’s signature chili, some foods just make you feel all warm and cozy inside.
In this post, we’ll explain all about comfort food, including examples of some of the most popular comfort foods around the world and why our hearts return home every time we taste them.
But before you dig through the shelves of your house for grandma’s old recipe book, let’s answer the main question: What is comfort food?
What Are Comfort Foods?
The concept of comfort food has evolved over time, to the point where today it is essentially whatever makes you feel good, makes you feel nostalgic, or, basically, whatever you love to eat.
Picture this: it’s a cold, rainy afternoon in the middle of winter, and you find yourself leaving the office after a long, tedious day. Your boss kept demanding tasks, your co-workers were particularly insufferable, and the A/C was plotting against you to freeze you to death.
You arrive home, grumpy and shivering, just wanting to put your head on the pillow to end what seemed like the worst possible day, but suddenly a familiar scent hits you: something sweet, a hint of vanilla, lots of cinnamon… Could that be… Sticky buns???
It seems like your significant other has read your mind, this is exactly what you needed! And once you take a bite, time seems to stand still. You remember the ooey-gooey cinnamon sticky buns your mother used to bake for you when you were a kid, and for a second, everything is just fine. This is exactly what comfort food is — it’s the feeling that everything will be okay, even if it’s not.
What qualifies as comfort food?
A wide range of dishes can qualify as comfort food, but usually, they fall into three categories:
- Physical comfort foods, i.e. all those foods that are healthy for both your body and mind, that taste good and make you feel happy.
- Nostalgic comfort foods, which bring back memories of your childhood, your loved ones, your hometown or any happy ones. Mom’s or grandma’s signature recipes definitely fall into this category.
- The so-called “guilty pleasures“, indulgent foods on the heavy side that you love for their delicious taste but make you feel a bit guilty when you eat them.
As you can see, comfort food is not a specific dish. Rather it’s a dish that when we eat it, brings us back to a safe space. It doesn’t even have to be a dish that we used to enjoy when we were kids, a comfort food can be comforting as long as it has a special seasoning that we love or is prepared by someone we appreciate.
In a nutshell, comfort food is a pleasure within tradition. A person’s preference for sweets, such as chocolate, may differ from another’s preference for savory foods, such as mozzarella sticks. That’s because each person’s culture, eating habits and past experiences are what define their comfort food.
Why does comfort food make us happy
Clearly, comfort food gives us an unmatched sense of happiness. But what makes comfort food so comforting? Is there a scientific reason for that warm feeling or is it all in our heads?
The truth about comfort food is that it has little to do with the food itself, but rather with our associations with it.
Our primitive brain identifies that specific foods are related to positive experiences we had, which creates positive associations. For example, let’s say your favorite comfort food is fluffy mashed potatoes that your grandma used to make. When you store the memory in your mind of those mashed potatoes, you don’t just store a small part of it —the mashed potatoes itself—, but you store everything that surrounded you while you were eating it.
When you eat that food, it’s not only the memory that is triggered in your brain, but also the emotions you experienced — comfort, security, and love. Unconsciously, thanks to our primitive brain, those associations are activated and bring a rush of positive feelings and a sense of happiness. That’s why comfort food can be as comforting as a hug!
Does comfort food actually induce a feeling of emotional comfort?
Of course, it does! Comfort food triggers dopamine, and dopamine is the substance —a neurotransmitter— that makes many things pleasurable. Our brain releases this substance when it is expecting a reward, so even when you just smell or see those delicious ooey-gooey cinnamon sticky buns, you start to feel happy.
Furthermore, it’s been proven that there’s a relationship between fatty acids in the stomach and neuronal signals in the brain. Fat-rich food contains essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins that are vital to general well-being, and many —if not most— comfort foods contain a lot of these fatty acids.
One of the studies that best demonstrates this is the one carried out by a Belgian-UK team led by Lukas Van Oudenhove of KU Leuven University. In a small-scale experiment, the researchers used sad music and pictures of sad faces to generate negative feelings in the subjects.
Then, while receiving a fatty acid infusion in their stomach, some of the subjects’ brain activity was analyzed. Turns out that the subjects who had “eaten” the fat “food” showed a weaker emotional response to the sad visuals and music than the control group, meaning that these types of foods have a significant reward value. So yup, it is a fact that scientifically, comfort food does induce a feeling of emotional comfort.
What is the most popular comfort food in the United States?
Treadmill Reviews surveyed over 2,000 U.S. citizens about their favorite comfort foods, and turns out that they vary depending on the state. E.g., the most popular comfort food in Texas is fried chicken, but when it comes to Wisconsin, they can’t get enough mac and cheese.
However, the quintessential American comfort food seems to be one that we’ve all eaten throughout our lives, one that even originates from another continent (drumroll, please): pizza!
The delicious Italian dish claimed the top spot in most states, and given the fact that Americans eat approximately 350 slices of pizza per second, this doesn’t surprise us at all. Without a doubt, pizza is a source of cheesy comfort.
Examples of the Top 10 comfort foods
Perhaps the foods in this list aren’t the healthiest for our bodies, but certainly most —if not all— are acceptable choices for your emotional well-being. Here are 10 comfort foods from around the world that we find absolutely yummy!
- Cheesecake (U.S.): Although historians claim that this food originated in ancient Greece, cheesecake is a dessert that almost everyone in the U.S. has tried at least once for a sweet and creamy comfy feeling. With its berry topping and signature graham cracker crust, cheesecake has brightened up the childhoods of many Americans, and we are sure it will continue to do so for generations to come.
- Tacos (Mexico): Without a doubt, one of the most comforting Mexican foods are tacos. Whether it’s meat or meatless tacos, a classic taco al pastor or tacos de costilla, tacos are in the DNA of all Mexicans. They strongly believe that everything fits in a tortilla (i.e. everything can be a taco), so this warm, comfy food is a must on any Mexican’s table.
- Chicken soup (Australia and all around the world): Who hasn’t had a bowl of steaming chicken soup after a long night of tequila shots? This highly nutritious grandma’s traditional recipe has spread around the world, and for good reason, as it has many benefits. Chicken soup is the perfect dish to enjoy on rainy and cold days, to relieve any flu symptoms, or even to alleviate broken hearts. Even packs of instant chicken soup can evoke that comfort food “sigh”.
- Poutine (Canada): Is there anything more heartwarming than a bowl of crispy french fries smothered in cheese and gravy? The beauty of this Canadian staple lies in its simplicity, and although you can order a poutine at a gourmet restaurant, you can also enjoy it at a food stall with a plastic fork or cook it easily from the comfort of your own home. However, if you can try a poutine made by a Québécois grandma, don’t hesitate to do so! Those are the best.
- Fondue (Switzerland): Every Swiss citizen has a built-in soft spot for fondue, period. Besides being an excellent way to warm up, fondue also has other advantages: it’s a simple and quick meal to prepare and is also a great option for a meeting with family and friends. There’s something about sharing a bubbling pot of cheese that the Swiss love, and that “something” is definitely a cozy feeling of togetherness.
- Ramen (Japan): While it is true that the process of making ramen is time-consuming, the reward is a thick, unctuous and, above all, comforting dish. This pork-flavored broth has become a gastronomic art in Japan, but you can find it not only in Japanese homes, but in almost every Asian restaurant around the world. Seriously, who doesn’t love ramen?
- Goulash (Hungary): If there’s one comfort food that defines Hungarian national cuisine, it’s the classic goulash. Although this spicy dish flavored with paprika, rosemary and garlic has humble beginnings, (originally cooked over an open fire by Hungarian shepherds), it isn’t just a simple meat stew. Rather a rich and smoky unforgettable soup!
- Jollof rice (Nigeria): As well as being a loved comfort food, this dish is a must at Nigerian parties and special occasions thanks to its unique taste and simple recipe. Jollof rice consists of rice with tomatoes, onion, garlic and red pepper, to which meat, fish or chicken can be added. Each family has its own recipe and its own special way of cooking it, but no matter how it is prepared, it’s a unifying dish.
- Empanadas (Argentina): Ask any Argentinean what they used to eat when they were kids after playing with their neighbors, and for sure more than one of them will answer “empanadas”. Argentinian empanadas are one of the most sought-after dishes thanks to their unique flavor, as well as being perfect for any time of the day. Although their filling depends on the region, the base is always a dough that can be filled with meat, ham, cheese, or even something sweet.
- Som Tum (Thai): This Thai green papaya salad, also known as Som Tum, is known for honoring the five flavors of Thai cuisine: sweet, sour, acid, salty and spicy. Although it’s a salad, it’s great for making every Thai feel warm and nostalgic, and is a living proof that not all comfort food has to be on the heavy side.
Each country and region has different types of cuisine. However, when it comes to comfort food many ingredients or ways of cooking are the same: deep fried dishes, pasta, cheese, some type of meat, pastries, and sweet, decadent desserts. All of these are warm ingredients intended not only to nourish the body and satisfy hunger but to warm the heart, evoking a feeling of coziness and security. After all, that’s what comfort food is all about.
Comfort Food is just another term for some of our favorite foods that evokes a sense of “Happiness”
Comfort foods can help you feel better about a bad day or just make your taste buds happy. It doesn’t matter where you live or where you come from, comfort food will always mean the same thing: happiness.
There is as much variety of comfort food as there are happy memories for everyone, so if you’re feeling down one day, just put on your most comfortable clothes, turn on your favorite music and enjoy a nice fried chicken, a creamy cheesecake, a sizzling pizza or any other dish that warms your soul. Sometimes, the best cure for a bad day is a tasty meal, even if it means extra carbs.
Now that we know all about comfort foods, what’s the one that makes you feel cozier than your favorite pair of sweatpants? Let us know in the comment box below!