Healthy Comfort Food
Each culinary culture (and indeed each individual) has a slightly different definition of comfort eating, but almost all of us broadly understand it to be nostalgia-stimulating, high-calorific food associated with the security of childhood. In terms of mouth-feel, the recipes that most people put into this category are often cooked into mushy, melt in the mouth or even stodgy textures that would not be out of place in a bottle of baby food.
The good news is that there is increasing evidence to support the notion that comfort food can be genuinely comforting. Nostalgia and neurochemistry combine when consuming energy-dense, high-fat, salt and/or sugar food. Taste treats, such as ice cream, chocolate or buttery mashed potato, have been shown to trigger emotionally elevating reward systems in the human brain. The bad news is that this self-medication offers only short-term stress relief, and regular consumption of such stuff has long-term negative health consequences.
Many of Mzansi’s modern soothing suppers have the nation’s nutritional experts recoiling in horror. Rustenburg-based dietician Mpho Tshukudu observes that: “We have got into a habit of defining comfort food in very Eurocentric and/or American terms. We tend to think quick-fix, high-fat, high-salt and high-sugar drive-thru fast food, or we do double and even triple starch: rys, vleis en aartappels (rice, meat and potatoes) type plates. There is a lot of fatty meat involved. I tell my patients that modern life is often stressful, so the need for comfort is not going anywhere, but fulfilling that comfort craving and sticking to your healthy goals are not mutually exclusive. Healthy and comforting can go together. The lighter, healthier take on comfort food is not only possible, but also historically authentic. I think the trick is to look to the heritage flavours of our grandparents. Since many of us have forgotten those recipes, it can also be a valuable voyage of self-discovery.”
So, where to start your epicurean odyssey? In these cold, dark days, almost all of us are craving something hot and filling, but that doesn’t need to be dense and fatty. Allspice and clove-laced, beef bone stock-rich Cape Malay-style split pea soup will stoke the inner fires with only moderate calories, minimal fat, and plenty of vitamins.
Tshotlo, Tswana pulled shin, made with lean meat and no additional oil, is slow-cooked, health-enhancing pleasure on a plate. Especially when paired with slightly sour, soft fermented sorghum ting ya mabele. For plant-based, super-strengthening and deeply delicious food cuddles, why not treat yourself to a bowl of Venda tshidzimba (groundnuts, bean and corn melange)? Even Afrikaner karringmelk beskuit (buttermilk rusks) can be baked in a high-fibre, low-sugar form. And are beyond blissful when dipped into antioxidant-laden rooibos tea.
So, what are you waiting for? South Africa’s culinary culture is replete with stylish, healthy, tasty treats with which to stay in, snuggle up and nourish both body and soul.