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Healing Space | Of Masterchef paanta bhaat and TopChef upma: why comfort food wins

The psychology of comfort eating, belongingness, and social surrogacy. Also, comfort food is not equal to junk food.

July 17, 2021 / 06:42 PM IST
Illustration by Suneesh K.

Illustration by Suneesh K.

Note to readers: Healing Space is a weekly series that helps you dive into your mental health and take charge of your wellbeing through practical DIY self-care methods.

Before he helped launch the restaurant The Bombay Canteen in Mumbai’s Kamala Mill, we remembered the late Chef Floyd Cardoz best as the man who won Top Chef Masters Season 3 with upma in 2011.

This year, it’s Kishwar Chowdhury serving up the all-too-familiar Poitabhaat or Pantaa bhat in the grand finale of Masterchef Australia. She served it with aloo bhorta or aloo bhate, rice gruel with a potato crumble. She may have renamed it the fanciful ‘smoked rice water’ served with sides of sardine and salsa, but to thousands watching, it hit home.

Healing Space logo for Gayatri Jayaram column on mental healthIn the film Ratatouille, which is also the name of a humble French Provençal dish of stewed vegetables, we saw the hardened critic melting into memories at one bite. In the American deep south, soul food is cornbread, grits, hush puppies, biscuits, gravy and beans: inexpensive meal components that preserved the traditions of African Americans. As the monsoons cover India, we are drawn to everything from rasam to khichri to pakoras and chai. Comfort food is unassuming and modest, yet no one can resist it because it tugs at the heartstrings.

Food affects us in visceral ways due to behavioural conditioning. When we have celebrated something positive with a nice flavour and taste, we receive positive reinforcement. It could be simple samosas or jalebis from the neighbourhood thela to celebrate the monsoon or kheer to celebrate a good exam result, a new job, or a cricket match. When we try to take away the sting of the negative with food, we receive negative reinforcement. If we are sad because we didn’t get admission, or faced a loss, or were unwell, and mom made us her signature paanta bhaat or khichdi with pickle, or rasam and crunchy potato curry, it made us feel better. In this way our associations with food are forged and create our lists of ‘comfort food’. We now refer to this deeply personalised menu to invoke happiness or chase away the blues through life.


Cravings are different from comfort foods. Because there is a difference between hunger and appetite. Hunger is a physical need, appetite is emotional, influenced by hormones, exercise, mood, memory and experience. If a parent has always shouted at us to finish our brinjals, or a hostel served us very bad chow-chow, even if we are hungry we may not have an appetite for the dish. We tend to crave foods that are high in salt, sugar and carbohydrates because they give us a dopamine hit, releasing pleasure. Cravings contribute to food addictions and get used to manipulate mood physiologically.

In 2015, psychologist Dr Jordan Troisi conducted studies on comfort eating. He found that participants loved the taste of specific foods in specific circumstances in order to feel psychologically comfortable. They create relational connectedness in those who already have strong social ties. All comfort foods are not craving-related junk foods and may not necessarily be calorific. They can be simple carriers of emotion, like the paanta bhaat or buttermilk. They evoke attachment rather than simply a pleasure fix. Comfort foods achieve this through memory but also somatic invocations like fragrance.

Emotional eating overrides the body’s signals of fullness because it is trying to recreate or validate a feeling, not satiate hunger.

We can also use comfort food to manage stress. Triosi and Gabriel in 2011 found that comfort food has social utility because it fulfils belongingness needs. This is especially triggered after a belongingness threat or a feeling of isolation. In a competitive environment like a food show, when we are watched, critically evaluated or put on the spot, it is instinctive to turn to a comfort food that self-validates. The aspect of social surrogacy, in which parasocial television relationships fulfil the belongingness needs of viewers kicks in. This makes for embodied cognition, charging non-human stimuli with emotion. Hence, the comfort food seals the deal.

In short, upma is not just upma and paanta bhaat is not just rice gruel. It’s a piece of home, it’s emotional, it’s association and to the contestant, it is self-validation in a tough spot and it connects both viewer and contestant in a sense of belonging. And that always wins.

Healing Space -Comfort food BOX
Gayatri Jayaraman Gayatri is a mind body spirit therapist and author of Sit Your Self Down, a novice’s journey to the heart of Vipassana, and the forthcoming Anitya, a guide to coping with change. [ @G_y_tri]
first published: Jul 17, 2021 06:36 pm

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