Comfort Food

“Rice Grandma”, fermented glutinous rice just like my own PoPo used to make, and in the background glutinous rice balls filled with black sesame paste. Both foods that bring me home.

What foods make you happy?  Why?

In Disney’s 2007 film “Ratatouille”, the hostile food critic experiences an existential transformation after his first bite of the unsophisticated but sentimental title dish.  His olfactory sense, the most primitive and tightly bound to long term memory of them all, triggers intense feelings of comfort, love, and security from childhood, when his mother served him ratatouille after he was hurt.

Sister and I bonded recently over the Asian food display at my local Costco.  We found the pork sausage that Ma used to use in her fried rice, and egg yolk pies that we can almost never find in stores, even in Chinatown.  When I gushed about it to a fellow East Asian friend, she pointed me to a new Chinese supermarket near me.  Daughter and I went exploring today.  …While I would not quite call my experience existential, it was intensely joyful, and our haul provided a unique satisfaction that moved me unexpectedly.  I found myself texting photos to my parents, wishing they could be with us, recalling the flavors, sounds, and memories of growing up Chinese in white, suburban America.

I learned early in childhood not to bring food from home for lunch at school.  Stares and disgusted facial expressions from classmates at the appearance or smell of my family’s cooking vaporized my appetite and made me unpleasantly self-conscious.  It’s okay though, because I loved hot lunches at school—it was stuff I never got at home—overcooked green beans, spaghetti and meatballs served with an oversized ice cream scooper, and chicken fried steak—I had no idea what it was, but it tasted great—so different!

Authentic Chinese food was enjoyed at home only, especially the really weird stuff like preserved or salted duck eggs, fermented bean curd, and dried pork sung.  Like most teens, I did not fully appreciate these foods at the time.  In college I got to explore Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Thai food, all new to my naïve palate.  But when I went home—when I go home still—Sunday mornings eating rice porridge with the small plates of colorful, multi-odorous, myriad-textured food really was (is!) comforting.  Daughter saw today how giddy it all made me, and it excites her to try these foods for herself.  Another generation bonded to cultural roots awaits its next awakening.  

One of my goals this year is to live much more mindfully.  This includes cooking more at home, and really appreciating and enjoying—savoring!—my food, rather than inhaling it while attending to a dozen other tasks or problems.  My Chinese grocery acquisitions these last few weeks excite me more than I anticipated.  Maybe I’ll start bringing leftovers for lunch again.