The Science of Why We Love Comfort Food
A Sensory Experience Tied to Memory

Few things are so enjoyable in the moment for us as some of our favorite comfort foods. A big bowl of spaghetti Bolognese snowed under with Parmesan? Amazing. A hefty slab of moist chocolate cake covered with plate-lickable chocolate frosting? Divine!

Whether you have a soft spot for tubs of ice cream, crave perfectly crisp sweet potato fries, or simply can’t say no to a steaming bowl of hearty chili, we’ve all got our favorite comfort foods. They cheer us up after bad breakups, warm us up on cold winter days, and remind us of the wonderfully simpler times of childhood.

But why do certain foods give us such a warm and fuzzy feeling? Why do we differ so much in the foods we adore?

Comfort Food Smell Evokes Memory - The Science of Why We Love Comfort Food

The Psychological Dimension

As it turns out, there’s a bit more to that feel-good chicken noodle soup than great taste and a full belly. A study conducted in July 2015 discovered a strong relationship between comfort foods and significant relationships in people’s lives. It wasn’t just that these favorite foods were sinfully irresistible on their own – they had greater meaning from being connected to important people (your family, close friends, or people who took care of you as a kid) and positive memories of them.

Sometimes just the smell of a dish or a single ingredient can evoke strong memories. Often these associations seem totally bizarre to others. Without a doubt, this smell for me is almond paste. It’s the smell of a little English confection called a Bakewell tart I used to adore as a kid, which I’d get on special occasions or if I’d accomplished something significant. The association is so strong for me that I can feel myself cheer up a few notches when I smell it – and I’m lucky, as the smell is quite common to hand soaps!

But the science also shows that our love of comfort food goes beyond any chemical-driven feeling of happiness we might get, like the giddy effects of a sugar rush. One study found that comfort food doesn’t speed up the feel-good vibes any more than any other food, or no food for that matter. So we seem to have feelings about these foods that go further than the transitory highs we tend to experience from junk food.

The Cultural Dimension

You could say my love of almond paste is pretty peculiar. I certainly haven’t come across anyone who shares my bewitchment. Moreover, these individual differences seem to be particularly pronounced when you compare comfort foods across cultures.

I conducted my own brief survey to find out what people’s favorite comfort foods are and why. I found few variations in the “why.” The number one reason? “Because it reminds me of childhood.” But the food choices were all across the map. I got everything from mac and cheese to congee, which pretty accurately represented the range of cultures in my survey.

Cultural differences in comfort foods make sense if we tend to think of comfort foods as things served to us in childhood by those we love. A Chinese family will have served different dishes than an American family, and so on.

Jennifer Berg, director of graduate food studies at New York University, notes that the cultural dimension of comfort food is particularly important when you become separated from your mother culture. Eating these comfort foods is a way to maintain that strong emotional connection to family and place.

We can see this played out on a much larger scale when we look at big international cities that have become “melting pots” of people from around the world – think New York City or San Francisco. Instead of shedding their cultural heritage, we see increased diversification of restaurants and food options offered proudly by those who know exactly how to make it the authentic way. It’s a product of the passion of many restaurateurs to bring the foods they grew up eating to the world.

Comfort Foods Around the World - The Science of Why We Love Comfort Food

Comfort Foods From Around the World

As temperatures cool we start to reach for those foods that help us feel warm, physically, emotionally, and also culturally. Here are some favorite comfort foods from around the world:

China: Cha siu bao (barbecue pork buns)

These wonderfully sticky gooey pork buns are a Cantonese favorite as part of a dim sum spread. Filled with slow-roasted pork and surrounded in fluffy white dough, they’re perfect when dunked in soy sauce.

Lebanon Manoushe - The Science of Why We Love Comfort Food

Lebanon: Man’oushe (herbed flatbread)

This flatbread is quite unlike any you’ll have tried before, filled with tomatoes and mint and overflowing with Lebanese herbs and spices. The center of this satisfying flatbread is divinely chewy.

India: Khichdi (a kind of rice-and-lentil stew)

This soupy mixture of rice and lentils is similar to a risotto dish, but is actually quite light while being nutritious and filling. Staple Indian spices such as turmeric and cumin make khichdi lip-smackingly flavorful.

Poland: Pierogies

The Polish dumpling has become a favorite way beyond its shores thanks to an international movement of Polish people set on proudly bringing their satisfying fare overseas. With fillings like potato and cheese, sauerkraut, and even fruit for dessert versions, there’s a pierogi for all tastes. Don’t forget the sour cream dip!

Greece: Moussaka (eggplant-and-potato casserole)

This rich casserole is a true treat. Layers of sautéed eggplant overlap with minced lamb, tomatoes, onions, and garlic, and are then topped with a creamy potato mash and baked to perfection. Béchamel sauce takes the richness of this dish to the next level.

Irish Stew Recipe - The Science of Why We Love Comfort Food

Ireland: Irish stew

There are few things more heartwarming on a rainy day than a hearty Irish stew. Made with bone-in lamb (to maximize the flavor), potatoes, onions, salt, and copious amounts of freshly ground black pepper, this stew is slow-cooked until the ingredients meld together in a bubbling broth fit to fight any kind of weather.

Iceland: Rice pudding

Versions of rice pudding are treasured the world over as comfort foods, but nowhere else are they quite as effective at combating winter’s long dark nights than in Iceland, where the days can get as short as a few hours. Icelandic rice pudding is sweet and sticky with sugar and cream, but it’s perfectly balanced, topped with sharp red fruits such as cranberries.

France: French onion soup

We’re all familiar with this one. French cuisine is ubiquitous, and for good reason: it is delicious! The combination of fat buttery croutons strung together with melted cheese atop a rich and deeply flavorful onion-filled broth is a comforting favorite year-round, but especially cherished in the cooler months.

Canada: Poutine

Though poutine originates in Quebec, it’s a beloved dish nationwide, especially when the chilly months round the corner. Traditionally made with crisp french fries, cheese curds, and piping-hot gravy, modern versions include elevated toppings such as pulled pork or kimchi.

The Comfort Food Legacy

It’s hard to walk into a bookstore today without finding veritable tomes of comfort food recipes, especially as summer becomes a fond memory. Sandwich boards advertising warm dishes and hearty favorites line our streets as we pull hats down over our ears, and celebrations like Thanksgiving promise pumpkin spice-everything just like we used to love as kids. Our comfort foods are very personal to us, and they reach beyond the plate to tap into fond memories and strong personal ties to people and places. Sometimes all we need to face the day is another mouthful of our favorite comfort foods, and we’ll be right as rain.

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