Co-authored with Maria Birger
Comfort eating has been a topic of much conversation in 2020, since the beginning of the global coronavirus pandemic. It makes perfect sense. Working, studying, and generally staying at home, having to cut back on going out, many people have been cooking more home meals for their families. With food replacing so many things in our lives – socializing, travel, leisure, holiday celebrations – all of us have been generally thinking of food more than ever. Uncertainty about the future is another reason for increased comfort eating. Long-term stress is known to increase appetite. When people experience a lot of stress, their bodies produce the steroid hormone cortisol, which boosts the feeling of hunger.
It is well known that in times of emotional stress, people turn to “comfort food” – special, indulgent foods, sometimes fatty, sugary, high calorie, carby, often associated with the safety of childhood or the love in mother’s cooking. Growing up with diverse cultures and traditions, what people call “comfort food” differs a great deal. Comfort food could be warm chicken noodle soup that your mom made for you when you were sick as a child, a gooey chocolate cake baked by your grandma on holidays, or deep fried goodness reminding you of your Southern roots. There is more to it than just calories to keep us going – beloved food is a promise of contentment, and serves as a coping mechanism when feeling down or lonely. After all, there is a relationship between how we feel and what we eat. Many studies show that comfort food is mainly about the associations and attachments it calls to mind. People who grew up in a happy loving family are likely to look for reminders of those relationships when sad or stressed out. And those reminders often come in the edible form. It is classical conditioning, really. Think Pavlov’s dog. If you are given certain foods by your caregivers as a child, those foods begin to be associated with being taken care of. When you are older, just the food may be enough to trigger that sense of well-being and belonging.
One of the world’s most popular foods, noodles are a staple in so many households, and for many, the ultimate comfort food. The very first historical mention of noodles was found in a dictionary from the third century A.D. in China, but the oldest noodles found (also in China) are 4,000 years old. Early Chinese noodles did not look like strands of dough, but instead little bits of bread dough thrown into a wok of boiling water, a style still eaten. Two millennia later, noodles were brought to Italy (considered responsible for introducing and making them popular around the Western world), probably from the Middle East, the cradle of wheat. Fast forward to today. Asian, Italian, and other cuisines compete for the title for the yummiest and most irresistible noodles. Across the world chefs showcase them in different ways. According to Jen Lin-Liu, founder of Beijing’s Black Sesame Kitchen and the author of a book on noodles, in China, chefs pull thin noodles called la mian and throw them in a simmering beef soup with chili, coriander, and crumbles of meat; while in Italy, pasta makers bake delicate thin sheets of spinach noodles with bolognese and bechamel sauce.
We asked Tim Cheung, a Bay Area food blogger and photographer famous for his mouth-watering shots of noodles, to explain what makes his subject so attractive to people and why they are his comfort food of choice. “There are countless types of noodles and a variety of ways to make a flavorful broth – that’s why I can never get tired of it. With a little bit of chili oil, it takes me back to when I was a kid. It’s probably the most familiar food to me and there are a lot of great memories with noodles.” Tim is passionate about mom and pop restaurants serving delicious ethnic foods, especially noodles. “There are so many things you can do with a bowl of noodles. They are so versatile.” he laughs. “Since I’ve been around them so much, I’ve had a lot of time to figure out how I like to shoot them. Toppings in the bowl of noodles can be organized in many different ways. There is always a surprise element: every noodle lift looks different from another. I love how it allows so much creative freedom from just a single bowl.”
Likely because a considerable number of people have found solace in cooking and sharing recipes and photos of their edible creations with friends and family, comfort foods and their photos have become popular on social media. “Comfort food always does extremely well on social media – perhaps now even more than ever,” says Tim. “People love seeing photos of noodle lifts. I have even had fans come up to me and ask me to teach them how to do them. Comments come pouring in from my followers whenever I post photos of noodles. Some even say “This is art!”