Comfort Food: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

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The sinigang

I grew up in a middle-class Filipino home, the middle child in a family of five. We lived quite comfortably, but always had our share of financial woes. I know because my parents frequently squabbled about it. But no matter how challenging life had seemed at times, there was always warm food on the table, three times a day. My mother could not cook even if her life depended on it, but she had the means to hire all-around help that did the cooking for us. I do realize that I actually grew up with some privilege for which I am supremely grateful.

As kids, we did not have free reign on what must come out of the kitchen. If that were so, we would probably have our guts bulging today from a steady diet of processed bacon and baked cookies. The miracle of modest deprivation was that we could not afford a working oven. What we had was a dysfunctional oven merely doubling as a support case for a stove that had dual burners. It was incapable of churning out warm baked goods. Our cook was also clueless about baking so there was no need to spend on oven repairs.

Our cook was a curmudgeon, always frowning and not really someone whose ego you can massage and convince to make your favorite dish. You eat whatever she puts down in front of you, even if you despise it. But despite the cranky facade, she cared about her work and our family that was not even her own.

As a fat kid, I rarely despised anything and ate everything with carb-heavy rice. I loved all types of meat and would try any meat dish with only the slightest hint of greens. I was not a big fan of fresh salads, but the bitter melon was the worst, no matter how much ground pork our cook adds to it to make it more edible for a child. It is the local equivalent of Brussel sprouts, only way higher on the bitterness scale. I was fat but still a normal kid, and anything bitter was an abomination that would make me reel in disgust.

Unbeknownst to me then, our cook was just doing what she was told, so my defiance of some of her gourmet renderings that I reported to my mom merely fell on deaf ears. But our cook was always listening. She cared deeply about feedback, especially when it comes from the innocent and brutally honest mouth of a child. So she formulated a strategy based on my eating habits, and would always follow bitter melon with comfort food, just the way I like it.

I have since been constantly daydreaming about comfort food, a glorious term which was coined in 1966 by the Palm Beach Post in a story:

Ah, the chicken soup. The one dish that would melt all my worries away, and more.

Our cook was noticing a pattern. It seemed to her that I enjoyed soup very much and would always have rice with it, even if the soup was chock-full of noodles! The rice would be next to a meat viand on a plate and the soup in a separate bowl. It did not matter what was in the soup, or if it even had anything. If it were flavored water in a bowl, it’s soup.

Our cook also knew she had to feed me vegetables, but not the green leafy ones that I hated but needed. So she would make me chicken macaroni soup (which locally we call sopas), a very simple dish that I relished with delight. The mere sight of her making it excited me, and the smell that would waft through the living room was almost torture.

I still eat sopas so heartily to this day that I had to learn how to make it.

The other comfort food that she knows I could not resist is sinigang, a warm broth soured by a tamarind base full of vegetables such as water spinach, radish, okra, eggplant, taro, and tomato. This is mixed with either pork, milkfish or prawns. I was always over the moon when she made the pork version, which should only be eaten with plain white rice. It is so good that the NYTimes Cooking has chosen to feature it (Frankly, it’s about time).

As I happily look to these fond food memories of the past, I realize that this is still how I eat today: a strong bias for a soup-based dish that I drizzle over rice to make the meal less dry, wherever I am in the world.

And in case you are wondering, I never dump the rice in the soup bowl. For some reason, that feels like a crime. There is nothing wrong with that. It is just not how I grew up enjoying it.

Our cook is no longer with us, but is very much alive and better off taking care of her own lot in Toronto. When I visited her last June, and had been away from home for a while, it was time to utter the magic word: sinigang. The next morning, a hot bowl and steamed rice were waiting for me, eagerly wanting to be shared with our cook and her family who have adopted me as their own.

Comfort food means many different foods and traditions to many people, but we can all agree that the real gift it keeps on giving to us is the sheer joy we feel in its presence, in our memories and in our current lives. What makes it extra special for me though is the love that comes with each helping, from waxing nostalgic about our cook then, and now for the people I lovingly share my comfort foods with. Everything seems right in the world in its company.

I literally have either sopas or sinigang every other week, and have yet to get tired of it. Thankfully, these are dishes that are genuinely healthy and nutritious, and therefore, can be consumed generously. I would probably be more cautious and conscious of portion sizes if your comfort food of choice is ice cream or potato chips. Even if they boost your spirits in moments of distress, frequent indulgence can lead to a serious health problem, especially if you tend to get sad often. A monthly or bi-weekly pig-out might be a reasonable compromise, to also make our favorite go-to foods worth looking forward to.

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Former presidential speechwriter, still a musician; writes about urban gridlocks. Will work full time for the planet. Harvard Kennedy School ‘14 🇵🇭

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