Biryani, burgers, sushi and fries: The many faces of comfort food in the UAE – Gulf News
Memories, cravings or a rainy day; UAE expats and Gulf News readers share their food tales
Sure, you have heard of the term comfort food. A cup of hot chocolate is the ideal solution on a cold, rainy day. On a hot summer’s day, ice cream; on the days when you’re under the weather, khichdi; on the good days biryani, and the bad, maybe French fries or a slice or two of pizza.
Food brings you comfort. But is this feeling of comfort bound by a memory? Chances are, it is. So you seek certain foods at certain times not necessarily because of the nutrition it brings or its taste, but because of a memory, it invokes.
We spoke to a few of our readers about what comfort food means to them. We got the common message: food holds the key to happiness, especially on sad days.
« I always prefer sandwiches, but I can’t resist a burger, » said 30-year-old Dubai-based Egyptian expatriate and Gulf News reader Rana Morsy. « Cheese, pickles, sauces, and a juicy patty… I love the mess created when a burger is eaten. I only eat it in times of need because I keep my fitness in check. The feeling of comfort that comes from eating a burger, though, is temporary because the minute I eat it, I feel guilty about consuming the calories. »
For 31-year-old Philippines expatriate and Gulf News reader MJ Dinglasan, salmon sushi offers the ultimate comfort any day. « I love Japanese food. It brings me a lot of comfort. I only discovered my love for it in Dubai, though. Before that, I used to resort to French fries for comfort. Salmon sushi, in particular, makes me happy, especially when I eat it to meet a craving. It’s a stress reliever, and I only wish it was a permanent feeling. »
Safety, memories of home, childhood or traditions, food is the friend indeed.
Tasneem Shahana, a 30-year-old Indian expatriate and Gulf News reader, can’t keep her hands off a good plate of biryani. « It all began when my mum would make it at home. I used to enjoy watching her make it, the aroma that came from the dish, and then waiting to eat it… I grew up with that. When I moved to Dubai, I was surprised by the food scene here, especially because the city had a lot of options. The food culture is just brilliant, and it made me realise that food is more of an emotion. At the end of the day, we all want to be happy, and food brings that. For me, the feeling lasts a long time. I look for the days when I have an off day, and I can relax to make biryani or order in. »
For 37-year-old Dubai-based Indian expat and Gulf News reader Farah Butt, french fries bring happiness and comfort together. « It began during the pandemic. Restaurants were shut, and we used to buy frozen fries from the supermarket. So when the restrictions were lifted, and restaurants were open again, we used to order fries as late-night snacks. This became a tradition for us as a family. However, it left a permanent feeling of joy more than a temporary one. So I don’t eat it daily nor during a crisis, but only when I have a craving. »
We also spoke to Vikesh Rana, a 37-year-old chef in Dubai and a Gulf Newsreader, whose comfort lies in a bowl of rice and dal (split yellow lentils). « I think my love for this dish began when I was a young boy. My mother used to make it right after school, and it’s just stayed in my heart ever since. A dollop of ghee (clarified butter) with mustard seed tempering and cumin seeds… the feeling is just blissful when you eat it. Over time, this has become the perfect solution after a long day at work and I enjoy the dish in front of the TV or with my family. It is a permanent feeling… a feeling of home, along with the comfort that comes from a bowl of dal chaawal. »
Speaking of home, 41-year-old Dubai-based Italian expatriate and Gulf News reader, Silvia Gnapetta, says the feeling of comfort comes from a slice of pizza topped with buffalo mozzarella cheese. « I’m from Italy, and we take our food quite seriously. However, being in Dubai for nine years, I’ve only found the pizza I love is in an Italian restaurant in Dubai. We can have pizza for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, but it must be perfect. So I make sure I eat from there every month, although I do order in or go out and eat during the difficult days… where I feel eating pizza is like getting a hug. It’s become the go-to option for me after nine years. »
Speaking to our readers helped us discover that comfort food consumption is seen as a solution to emotional stress, which triggers the brain’s ‘reward system’. Moreover, our poll results also showed that 35 per cent of our readers consume comfort food daily, whereas 65 per cent resort to comfort food during a crisis.
As we said, every food fills the stomach, but comfort food fills the heart. So it’s no surprise that carbohydrates or sugars are the best options available when seeking comfort. Carbohydrates release a good amount of serotonin (also known as the ‘happy hormone’) – a chemical in our brains that regulates our mood and creates a feeling of calm or stability.
To get a clearer idea, the Gulf News Food team reached out to Dr Lakshmi Saranya, a clinical psychologist from Lifeline Modern Family Clinic in Dubai, who explained the science behind comfort food. « A particular food or dish acts as a cue that might signal the immediate availability of a reward. For example, some eat it as a distraction from a stressful day, while some eat due to their good mood or a euphoric day. In both cases, food works as an imminent reward. [People resort to] a particular dish, because of their memory and the learning of the hedonic component or because of its pleasurable reward to the brain as well.
« Any pleasurable stimuli leave an impact in our brain. It can be a favourite food, person, or even a place. So the eating experience is influenced by the properties of the food itself and how the brain processes the sensory stimuli presented to the brain while eating. Moreover, eating food – favourite or not – invokes memories and generates emotional responses.”
Today, comfort food has transformed from eating a particular dish to experimenting and creating new meals. French fries with a scoop of ice cream, nachos with chutney or even mac and cheese with pickle or achaar works just fine on a bad day.
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