On the day the second Movement Control Order (MCO) was declared last month, Adelyn Kong, a brand marketing manager and mother-of-two, cooked up a defining dish for Asian households: the simple but hearty fried rice.
Announcing the revival of her #MCOMenu home-cooking series on Facebook, she included a mouth-watering slab of fried luncheon meat and topped it off with a perfect sunny side up.
Adelyn may have alleviated the midday indulgence by substituting with cauliflower rice, but the subliminal message was nevertheless clear: In these unprecedented times, we crave all the comfort we can get, and the familiarity of food becomes our emotional sustenance.
Surveys and news reports had declared 2020 the ‘Year of the Comfort Food’, one where “feel-good, nostalgic food has made perhaps the biggest comeback of all time”.
The New York Times even ran two articles on the “pandemic snacking” phenomenon, citing the surge in popularity of Big Food brands again. Pizzas, burgers, mac and cheese, French fries and all manner of childhood favourites topped the list in the Western world. While there isn’t as much data in our region, we certainly have our own pandemic-led food trends.
Like in the US, cans of Campbell soups flew off the shelves of our local supermarkets early into last year’s lockdown—especially the perennial favourite mushroom soup. Campbell’s Malaysia had to quickly double their production which, to this day, has yet to fully catch up to global demand.
A year on, it’s been interesting to observe how the relationship we Malaysians have with food has evolved. Who can forget the sold-out Gardenia loaves, and later on, shortage of baking flour during our first MCO as Klang Valley urbanites seemingly became gripped by a baking frenzy, particularly of sourdoughs and burnt cheesecakes.
Drinking our frothy Dalgona lattes—or jibed at those who did—we showcased our daily meals on social media, and any dish beyond the common fare were met with envious responses or questions on its recipe or where it was ordered. In food, our nation found its escape into normalcy.
But this time around, there is noticeably less fanfare surrounding food. One reason is our now-established ‘new normal’ work and daily routines. Another factor could be the dragging on of the pandemic and how we’re all adapting to it.
Take my friend Samantha, for example, who introduced instant noodles to her grocery list this lockdown. While currently secure in her banking job, her experience of being laid off due to budget cuts last year left a lingering effect.
“I definitely have a much simpler diet this time, though it’s also a conscious decision to cut down on ordering food as much. I think I’d also rather donate or to support businesses that I know could use it rather than feeding myself expensive things,” she says.
Simpler meals and reaching out for more nostalgic, home-cooked style dishes based on childhood memories is shaping up to be a trend for this MCO. It’s comforting carbs of “pasta, rice and bread” for one, Chinese-style porridge or local hawker offerings or the fail-proof Maggi sup for others.
Our evolving appetites perhaps reflect the fact that being unable to control what happens next, we’re reaching inward into what gives us warmth and a sense of nourishment emotionally. Interestingly, almost every friend spoken to mentioned having more soup or craving one.
Still, aren’t we just trying to eat our feelings away, as they say? Not quite so, at least not in the typical sense. Actor Sean Ghazi said that while ice cream was his default comfort food last year, he’s worked out a better approach this MCO – working with a trainer online and managing his meal portions, only allowing himself to indulge on Sundays. “This time around the treat for me is nasi lemak!”.
Even this writer–who survives on food delivery–has started cutting back on processed, fast food in favour of more freshly cooked and balanced options.
In an article with The Atlantic in 2014, psychology professor Dr. Leigh Gibson indicates that energy-dense foods have always been part of survival in human history. “Healthy eating is a modern, cultural thing that we now need, because we’re living so long … [But] you could almost say the default is comfort eating.”
Even so, what defines comfort for us is slowly realigning itself as we resiliently move forward in these strange times. Now that tub of ice cream or bar of chocolate on standby need not be our crutch anymore, maybe just the occasional treat as they’re meant to be.