Comfort foods of India

Whether it is chips and fries or simply ‘dal chawal’, comfort food feels like a hug for your soul

The unpredictable rain brought with it a heavy dose of nostalgia. I have been thinking about the banana fritters, or ‘ethakka appam’ as we call it at home (I didn’t even know people call it ‘pazham pori’ until much later in life) that my grandmother makes when I visit her.
I can imagine the ‘nendrapazham’ (the lengthiest and biggest banana variety commonly available across Kerala )being sliced and dipped into sweetened batter and fried till it is crispy.  

‘Comfort food’, though a highly subjective concept, can be used to describe absolutely any dish that makes you feel good. Though many believe that a high-fat content makes a dish comforting, a study published in the journal ‘Appetite’ suggested that a person’s choice of comfort food is very likely to be closely tied to their childhood. These dishes have the ability to evoke emotions, memories and remind one of the relationships that they associate with it. Whether it is Maggi noodles or some intricate dish, consuming it often feels like receiving a warm hug that instantly soothes your soul.

My colleague, who hails from Assam, told me about ‘Aloo Pitika’. It is made with finely chopped onions, green chillies and a generous heap of coriander leaves being added to mashed potatoes.

Add a generous drizzle of mustard oil and serve it with some freshly cooked rice, and dal. Gently mush the three together with your fingers, and devour.

But it was the memory of ‘Tenga Anja’ that got her mouth watering. Seasonal vegetables are cooked in tomatoes, lime and thekera, giving you a delectable sour curry. A soothing summer dish, it is eaten with white rice. 

My friends from Karnataka didn’t seem to be able to decide on one.  Initially they all said ‘mudde’,  a slightly difficult dish to prepare even though  it has only two ingredients — ragi
flour and water. The dish is enjoyed best by dunking pieces of the ball in mutton kozhambu or chicken curry.  ‘Pulliogre’ and ‘Vangi Baath’ were the other popular choices. 

Another friend said she would turn to an MTR, Sunny’s or Koshy’s. “For me, the sense of solace comes from eating at these places that have been there for years. These are joints I
visited as a child, that I frequented while I was studying, and now that I am away from home, it’s these places that I wish I could eat at,” says Surya Alexander. 

Arunima Banerjee is a Bengali whose family settled in Tripura generations ago.  Even though she grew up in Kolkata, and has spent the past eight years in Mumbai, she likes
to go back to her ‘Aloo Sheddo Bhaat’.

“I grew up having it. When my mom didn’t feel like cooking, she would just boil rice, potatoes and dal with a pinch of turmeric and drop of oil. You add ghee and mash it all and have
it hot. Munching on green chillies is a must while eating this,” she says. Some versions call for a boiled egg to be added on top of your serving, but that is purely optional. 

Allahabad’s Praniti Badhouria has a list of comfort foods like ‘Chole bhature’, ‘Rajma chawal’ and ‘Aloo Tikki’. A baker based in Delhi, Praniti has always had a soft spot for ‘ghar
ka khaana’ and ‘chaat’. However, she finally settled on ‘Nimona’, a dish made from peas freshly harvested in the winter. The soupy, spicy curry can be had with rice, roti or even parathas fresh off the stove.

Aditya Dhoot from Punjab chose ‘Dal Bafla’, which he described as a variation of ‘Dal baati’ that is eaten with a soft bread made out of wheat flour.

“It is a heavy dish, and you have it as a snack. But, once you eat it, you will feel so full that you just want to laze around the rest of the day,” he chuckles. 

Madhuri Kadam, with a indescribable fondness for ‘bacon pizza’, surprised me by choosing ‘Varan bhaat’. “It is quick to make and easy to eat. You have it when you are sick,
or bored, or just not in the mood to cook. You can just eat if off a bowl. Just mash it all, and eat it with your fingers,” she says.

A Wikipedia search says that ‘Varan bhaat’ is a food preparation involving pigeon pea split beans and rice as its main ingredients, along with turmeric powder, cumin seeds, asafoetida, jaggery and salt 

The only non-vegetarian dish that seemed to have made it to the list was ‘Beef cutlet pao’. “It is the yummiest snack you can get in Goa. It is what families pick up on their way home after an outing when there is no food waiting at home,” shares Zenisha Gonsalves, who I met about two years ago at St Josephs College.

A huge critic of Goan food available in the city (“Carnival de Goa is an abomination”), she would talk for hours about how the Goan cutlets filled with meat and potatoes were to die for. The fact that the dish is usually bought from the select few eateries that have been run by the same families for generations also added to a sense of belonging, she added. 

To end the tour of the country through its culinary offerings, I decided to find what Tamilians had to say.
Sufiyan Jason Paul picked ‘Curd Rice’ without a moment’s hesitation. “No matter what you have, you end it with curd rice. I don’t think there is any other dish that can quite satisfy a
Tamilian’s palate the same way,”  she says.

While I imagined that most people would respond with exotic dishes or fast food options, it seemed that most still found homemade food to be a source of solace and comfort. Maybe the effects of urbanisation haven’t seeped all that much into our lives. Anyway, let me go make some ‘ethekka appams’ for myself. 

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