By Tony Samson
AS A marketing strategy, promoting a restaurant as a haven of comfort food seems risky. In terms of Filipino cuisine, comfort food usually consists of meals taken at home without calling delivery. It is traditional home cooking for Sunday family lunches.
The dictionary suggests “comfort food” as something enjoyable, familiar, evoking nostalgia (maybe from childhood) and hinting at unhealthiness — perhaps cholesterol-inducing offerings such as crispy pork knuckles, again reminiscent of long-ago days when hardening arteries were possibilities as distant as owning a rest house in the South of France.
The nostalgic flavors from long ago may be accompanied by memories of deprivation when such special treats were only available at parties of richer relatives. Thus, the now allowable “healthy food” consisting of mushy items like oatmeal and porridge, seemingly pre-masticated, for easier passage, seems to cry out for variety and rebellion. What better options than food that invites head-shaking from those who run in place on a treadmill, just to look good…and, perhaps feel healthier?
Still, even home cooking as a way of nourishing the body may be a waning practice, especially for solo dwellers and empty nesters. Condo designs for ever-shrinking spaces even question the need for a kitchen. It takes up space and is hardly used, if you don’t count the microwave oven and an espresso machine that can occupy a small counter. The kitchen with its ovens, large sinks, dishwashers, and closet space for frying pans and woks may become a thing of the past, for the basic home.
Comfort food is also getting a makeover and bowing to the dictates of healthy living. But instead of taking out the fats and the carbs and cholesterol loading, the only nod to the nutritionally correct police is plating. The guilty pleasures are simply served in smaller doses and may be surrounded by green leaves and stuff, like a garish house with good landscaping.
Without losing its native allure, comfort food standards like oxtail in peanut sauce (with a catchy name like KKK) or chicken and pork cutlets in vinegar and soy sauce are not served in a big bowl for digging into, “family style.” They are cut into small pieces and drained of their saucy bathtub.
Let’s set aside the truly frightening comfort food like the innards of a pig cooked in its own blood. Here, there is just enough sauce for covering the bottom of a small bowl. The accompanying rice cake balls are smaller and off to one corner. The black motif is accented with large green peppers.
What about that quintessential nostalgic offering that used to be hawked in a basket at sunset, the vendor shouting it out in an ascending vibrato, as he wends his way through the neighborhood streets? This partially formed duck fetus, swimming in its amniotic fluids accessed by breaking the shell and throwing the whole content down the gullet, is part of the childhood experience. True, it was never home-cooked, but always home-bought.
This duck egg is a favorite test for survival reality programs. The shock approach is an obstacle in marketing native dishes globally. We promote the “balut challenge” with foreigners visiting us all the time. We applaud when they hesitate with a look of undisguised disgust — those are not hairs, Sir. They’re feathers. Is the little duck winking?
The prefix “comfort” seems to embrace a wide range of meanings beyond food. The comfort room, perhaps a unique usage for us (not comprehended by those abroad), denotes a place offering relief of a physical sort, whether number one or number two — often without toilet paper at hand. A comfort letter provides a quasi-legal assurance of a negotiation for an acquisition to move forward under certain terms and conditions, pending due diligence. Comfort women denote a shameful occupation enforced by conquerors in the last war. Comfort zones are organizational situations and jobs that require skills already possessed and easily proffered without stress.
In all its uses, comfort as a modifier seems to imply a temporary state. The relief that is provided is not expected to last, and even likely to result in unintended consequences.
As to our comfort food, the nostalgic glow from its ingestion soon fades. The unhealthy adventure is sure to invite penance in needing to go back to healthy and less joyful options, including fasting and prayers.
Tony Samson is chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda