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Ultimate comfort or a load of tripe? İşkembe çorbası (Turkish tripe soup) (©BIN IM GARTEN CC BY-SA 3.0)


It’s the season for comfort food, for feeling insulated from cold and proof against the winter darkness: the nights are drawing in — they’ve been drawing in since June 21 but it’s unkind to mention it too early in the year — and the food sites I subscribe to keep sending me emails headed “50 Cosy Comfort Food Recipes” or “50 Fall Recipes More Comforting Than Soup”. Inevitably the recipes are for things soft-textured, soupy, starchy, creamy, cheesy. The words used seem designed for search-engine optimisation: classic cosy fall pumpkin spice comforting grilled cheese pie doesn’t exist, but easily could.

If you ask someone what they consider comfort food the answer is always something from their childhood: spaghetti bolognese, macaroni cheese. I remember my mother’s very mild and uncomplicated chicken soup with rice — chicken broth, rice, shreds of leftover chicken.

It occasionally feels ceremonial. “Of course, with chicken soup, you have to sing the song,” said my sister, meaning the song written by Carole King — yes, that Carole King, the one who wrote You Make Me Feel (Like A Natural Woman) — for the 1970s animation of the Maurice Sendak book Chicken Soup with Rice; remembering watching this on VHS is a voyage into nostalgia in itself. (“I told you once, I told you twice/All seasons of the year are nice/For eating chicken soup/Eating chicken soup with rice.”)

The editor of this magazine remembers, as a child, being given white toast with butter at a friend’s house. My cousin described his mother’s risotto, made with chicken stock, scraps from the chicken carcass, pancetta and mushrooms: “Greasy, carby, meaty, filling, umami, delicious.” He said he’d never make it himself, unless someone asked him to; it was comforting because someone else had made it for him.

Comfort clearly isn’t the same for everyone. I’m actively discomfited by macaroni cheese (the smell! the texture!) and am not wild about pizza. Two people I spoke to don’t like soup, the archetypal comforting liquid: “It’s just the same all the way through,” said one. An American friend overwhelmed with nostalgia once made me eat a corn dog (a hot dog wrapped in sweet cornbread, on a stick) — I really didn’t understand the appeal of it.

 As a child in Istanbul I ate mercimek, red lentil soup, and sort of hated it; as an adult I find it powerfully nostalgic because it tastes so typically Turkish (chilli, dried mint, lemon juice). I feel the same about packet-mix chocolate pudding (çikolata puding), which was similarly ubiquitous.

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