‘The link between food and memory is profound’

From the softness inside a French baguette to the chewy texture of Chinese noodles, food holds a special place in our heart, conjuring up precious memories

"The foods we eat when we are children are especially important to us". Pic: shironosov

Everyone has their favourite comfort food from home – a childhood memory, a note of love or delicious satisfaction. Like the madeleine cake that arouses memories involuntarily from Marcel Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time, food has the power to awaken the past and drive your present.

This Proustian moment often arises from our childhood. “The foods we eat when we are children are especially important to us,” says John S. Allen, an anthropologist and author of The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food. “I’ve compared this to learning a first language. There may be a critical period when we are children when we easily acquire ideas about what is and isn’t food and assimilate them at a basic level. That’s not to say that these ideas can’t change later, just as we can learn a new language as an adult, but it seems to be a lot harder.”

“The link between food and memory should be profound,” says Allen. “We typically have positive emotions associated with our childhood caregivers and the places where we grew up. These taken together inform our individual feelings about comfort foods.”

As subjective as our individual feelings may be, they have been proven to evoke one thing – the past. When Lancaster University researched food and its place in history, the study showed memories in old age are usually recalled from specific tastes and smells. Out of the 72 collected memories, the majority of research participants experienced “time travel” and “recalled strong feelings of being brought back in time.”

The recollection of feelings is, in fact, more prominent when it comes to diasporic communities. David Evan Sutton, the author of Remembrance of Repasts, emphasises that “the longing evoked in diasporic individuals by the smells and tastes of a lost homeland” provides a “temporary return” to a time in the past. 

We ventured onto the streets of Hackney and Tower Hamlets to explore local memories of comfort food. 

Along the buzzing Ridley Road, shop owners and butchers deliver their selection of fresh vegetables and meat of the day. In Dalston Butchers, Sammy Lanjamal, says his favourite Afghanistan dish involves roasted lamb and rice. Describing himself as a “20 per cent chef”: he cooks 20 per cent of the time and remembers cooking this particular dish with his wife, which reminds him of home in Kabul.

Along King David Lane, Shadwell, Anushka Sharma says “Maggie”, the Indian top-rated instant noodles is her comfort food. “Whenever I’d had a bad day, my mum would make it for me, so it holds great memories,” she says. “She adds vegetables and fries it. We talk about random funny things over it like what’s happening in her life, and some weird stories that happened in my college. Sometimes she gives me advice.” Anushka says even if she finds the same packet of noodles in the UK, it doesn’t taste the same as when her mum makes it, especially without her company.

At Goodman’s Fields, Aldgate East, Anselina Tay says her comfort foods come from Singapore. Known as a multiracial cuisine pot, the place is a food haven for everyone. She says, “If I had to name three, they would be ‘chai tow kway’, ‘bak chang’ and ‘utapan’. ‘Chai tow kway’ is a Teochew food where diced radish cakes are wok fried in sweet soy sauce, eggs and vegetables. It is one of my favourite foods, as my family has Teochew roots, I used to eat this almost every week growing up.” 

“Whenever my sister opens the takeaway box of the radish cakes she would cringe at the sound of styrofoam. It’s the best because it’s funny,” she says with an anecdote. “My family would talk about troubles and work stress over the dish.” It is an incredible bonding food for her.

“‘Bak-chang’, sticky rice dumplings, is often eaten during Dragon Boat Festival, however, my family would eat it all year round. It is a family tradition to get it store-bought and have it monthly,” she says. “Lastly, ‘utapan’ is a popular item in Singapore hawker centres (food courts) where abacus seeds are fried and served all throughout the day, breakfast being the most popular time. Now I’ve been away from my family for almost seven years, this is all I can think about when I’m homesick.”

This article is part of our series, Food Without Borders: Taste of East London, check out more stories here.

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