20 MARCH 2018 • 4:17PM
It’s called comfort food for a reason: the soothing embrace of a warm pie on a cold winter’s day; refreshing strawberries and cream in midsummer; the ability of a dish to transport us back to our childhood kitchen table; the magic tonic that a greasy meal can provide after a few too many drinks.
Often, the food that makes us happiest is tied to a memory. A simple childhood favourite, perhaps; a particular dish on holiday that makes you long to return; or a meal shared with a loved one.
Food makes us happy. “When we taste, see, or even think about the food we love, our natural serotonin levels rise, giving us a sense of overall happiness and well-being,” says Dr Becky Spelman, a cognitive behavioral psychologist.
“From childhood, food is at the heart of a range of happy occasions, such as birthdays and Christmas. From a very early age, we find it impossible to think about celebrating without also thinking about we’ll eat and drink on the happy occasion.”
And new research to mark International Day of Happiness today has found that food, above all else, puts a smile on our faces. Of the 2,000 who took part in a survey by Giraffe, 76pc said food brought more enjoyment than anything else. For over half the respondents, food trumped TV and exercise, while one in five said a favourite meal was better than sex.
While Britain has seen a boom in ‘fine dining’, with fancy establishments serving modern cuisine opening almost daily, almost half questioned said classic comfort food was their preference.
The nation’s top ‘happy meal’ was, predictably, chocolate. Who doesn’t like to tuck in to a chocolate bar or some ice cream when feeling a bit down? Second and third were arguably our national dishes, a curry and fish and chips. Steak and burgers rounded up the top five.
The Telegraph asked a range of top chefs, food writers and experts for their ultimate comfort foods, the dishes that turn their frowns upside down. Here are the results. Feel free to share yours in the comments.
Ching-He Huang, Taiwan-born, British-raised chef and TV personality
“My mother used to make seafood ketchup rice which was a real comfort dish when we were growing up. It’s a complete bastardised Western version of Chinese fried rice. She would wok fry some garlic, ginger and chilli, courgettes, tiger prawns, squid rings and frankfurters. Then she’d add cooked jasmine rice, dark soy, light soy, ketchup, white pepper, toasted sesame oil and coriander. It was super delicious.
Now we make a veggie version at home and add fluffy bits of scramble egg. It’s my favourite Chinese way to use ketchup and puts a smile on my face whenever I have it.”
Rob Howell, head chef of Root in Bristol
“All food makes me happy really, I guess it’s subjective to my mood. I like eating simple food done well. At the moment my Sundays are spent walking to the market in Bristol to get pastries from Farro bakery. The canalé is just crazy good. The craftsmanship in all his work is insane, the best pastries I have ever had and they make me very happy.”
Geoffrey Smeddle, food writer and head chef at The Peat Inn in Fife
“In an an effort to arrive at something approaching an honest answer, I ask myself: what could I not live without? The answer comes easily. Chocolate. For a decade I used Amedei from Italy, which is superb. It has been replaced on our menus by a bean to bar chocolate made in Edinburgh by Chocolate Tree. An outstanding and ethically produced chocolate, I can nibble it as a treat and create indulgent desserts with a clear conscience. Whatever the question, chocolate is the answer!”
Scott Smith, chef patron of Norn in Edinburgh
“The dish that makes me most happy is my mum’s macaroni cheese. It’s quite different from the classic and uses tinned Campbell’s condensed tomato soup. It was passed to my mum from hers so it has a happy family connection. It’s so easy and cheesy and mustardy and tomatoey. I don’t eat it much, but when I do, it takes me straight back to being at home and is extremely comforting. It’s my go-to if feeling unwell.”
Raymond Blanc, owner and chef director of Brasserie Blanc in London
“Escargots forever! For my British friends it is roast beef but for me snails are one of my greatest food pleasures and I enjoy a plateful every Sunday. They arrive bubbling in herby green butter, reeking of garlic. That moment is just perfect, and I am a happy man. I might choose a Sunday roast to follow my snails.”
Vivek Singh, executive chef of The Cinnamon Collection
“My personal happy food is a chicken tikka and cheese toastie, because it reminds me of my student days training in hotels. In fact, even now, there is very little that doesn’t make me happy accompanied with cheese between two slices of good bread.”
Aggi Sverrisson, chef patron and owner of Texture in London
“The dish that makes me happy is slow-cooked lamb shoulder, cooked overnight and eaten with lamb broth, barley, root vegetables and swede. It reminds me of my childhood, and would be just the thing to warm up with in this cold weather. My mother used to do it every week when I was a child, and it is a very traditional Icelandic dish.”
Annie Gray, food historian
“Fresh summer strawberries. I make myself wait until British ones are on the market, for they don’t travel well, and they need to be picked and eaten within a few hours. I’ll buy 6 punnets and eat one on the way home (no mean feat on a bike). The next one will be gone by the evening. It’s the taste of summer, and I have yet to reach a limit on how many I can eat at one sitting. We used to go strawberry picking when we were children and the red-stained fingers, stuffed stomach gloriousnesss of it all is repeated with every single bite.”
Shaun Rankin of Ormer Mayfair
“I am lucky to have eaten so many fabulous foods from around the world, but the food that makes me truly happy has to be roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. It reminds me of home as a boy and reminds me of my mum.”
Ibrahim Dogus, politician, restaurateur and founder of the British Kebab Awards
“The humble kebab makes memories and creates occasions. Whichever your favourite, there’s something for everyone. Every time I have lamb shish it takes me back to Sevdilli, a small, picturesque Kurdish village in Turkey and reminds me of the community coming together to celebrate great food and culture.”
Colin Layfield, head chef of St Pancras Brasserie and Champagne Bar by Searcys
“The one food that makes me the happiest is a simple mackerel and beetroot salad with homemade olive bread. The vibrant colours, flavours and texture reminisces of holidays spent under the Mediterranean sun – which is for me the ultimate happiness.”
Helena Puolakka, executive chef of Aster in London
“My grandmother’s bortsch soup would make me the happiest chef in the world followed by warm smoked turbot with a green salad with perfect grain mustard vinaigrette and dill crème fraîche. I would follow this with simple vanilla ice cream and my mum’s bitter chocolate sauce. These dishes make me happy because they remind me of good memories and sharing food with my family.”
Matt Osborne, head chef at Hām in London
“In a word, dumplings! Dim sum with the family, watching my son navigate chopsticks. I’ve never met a dumpling I didn’t like, but my favourite would have to be a xiao long bao. My family loves Royal China Baker Street and Xu in SoHo.”
Alexandra Dudley, author of Land & Sea: Secrets to simple, sustainable, seasonal food
“My mother grew up in West Africa and though we never visited in real life she would regularly transport us there with her homemade ‘jungle curry nights’. Jungle curry is hot, with a bold mix of spices and whole chillies that are fished out of the sauce before serving, although my mother would always keep them in – the one who found them was ‘the lucky one’. The table should be scattered with various small plates and bowls of fruits, nuts, herbs or pickles. The passing of plates is often messy and it gets people talking, laughing, sharing. I am happiest when sharing food with friends or family and my mother’s jungle curry is just that.”
Paul Ambrose, head chef and co-founder of Krapow LDN in London
“When I get time off from the kitchen I love eating out in London with my wife. When we first met, I lived just off Bermondsey St and we’d often crave the Mama’s Scallop at Pizarro; Jose is a great chef, lovely guy and one of my food heroes. We’ve had a lot of good times at his restaurant. This is definitely going to be in the diary for the next date night.”
Jacob Kenedy, chef patron at Bocca di Lupo in London
“Food is memory, and the happiest food comes from my family. My mum (and her mum before her) makes the most amazing salads. They are simple – a beautiful lettuce and maybe a little sliced fennel, dressed with good olive oil and lemon juice. The best she makes in Sperlonga where we have a family home, in the garden of Italy. But the salads she makes in London (and I make at Bocca di Lupo in her honour) are bright and joyous too, made with love and with loving memories of time in Sperlonga.”
Gary Lee, executive chef at The Ivy
“My perfect meal starts with a long walk through Epping Forest with the family around me and my beloved dogs. I particularly enjoy when my daughters cook for me as it then means no pressure, otherwise I gladly cook for the whole family. Sundays are my best time to relax and nothing makes me happier than a grand roast dinner with some lovely wine, and of course a wonderful pudding to finish.”