Culture Columnist - Travel

Janika Popova discusses how comfort food and self-love coincide.

Trigger warning: eating disorders 

In the morning, it was sirniki: quark sizzling in the frying pan and served glistening with drops of jam and creme fraiche. The type of breakfast that makes you feel sluggish yet happy in the morning. I remember the first time I watched my dad cooking: the smells wafting from the kitchen coaxing me inside to watch his deft hands spoon pancake batter into a pan. That’s how delicious food is passed on through generations: by watching with your eyes, smelling with your nose, and cradling a yearning to recreate. 

As it happens, Eastern European food has been my epicentre of comfort since I was born. It’s the food that keeps you satiated and gives you energy for the day ahead. It is also the food that has stayed with me through my journey across countless countries and homes. Picture me: a six-year-old child, uprooting my life in Estonia to move to Scotland, leaving everything but my childhood memories and my grandma’s recipe books behind. I was so young that I didn’t even have a chance to learn my mother tongue before moving to the UK, so food was one of the only things anchoring me to my homeland.

Afternoon brought in borscht, red as blood, in my soup bowl. I brought it into school once (when I was younger and first trying to find my footing in Scotland) and watched the kids stare and giggle from the edges of the cafeteria. I explained to them how the sourness of the beetroot mingles with the rich beef. I told them that my mother always taught me to offset the sourness with a spoonful of creme fraiche. She taught me to stir in the creme fraiche and watch the soup lose its distinctive red colour, turning into a more palatable soft pink. 

That’s how I would describe my high school self actually: palatable. At 15, my cultural identity is the joke I tell when I meet people to make them like me. I tell them about the kholodets (or meat jelly, as I like to refer to it) that my parents used to make. I tell them about the stringiness of the meat; the coldness of the jelly. I joke about creme fraiche being in every meal I ate as a child. That’s where the paranoia sets in, you know? First, you notice it in every meal, then in every spoonful, until it’s creme fraiche in your brain. Creme fraiche everywhere: that’s how my soon-to-be full-blown eating disorder presented itself. It rears its head and suddenly every food has too many calories. Suddenly you turn to vegetarianism, veganism, anything, to try to fix your leaky, creme-fraiche brain. At 15, my brain’s new favourite foods were rice cakes and a rationing of dark chocolate. Let me make it perfectly clear: my eating disorder was a last-ditch attempt to bring comfort to a life that felt out-of-control. But, in seeking this false comfort, I ended up letting go of the small comforts not just of Eastern European food, but of food altogether.

It’s dinner time and my family are around the table eating pelmeni. 20 dumplings on my plate. A dollop of creme fraiche on top. My parents never let me leave the table until I had finished my plate: “Every last dumpling. Don’t forget the creme fraiche.” I wriggle around in my seat. Dumplings used to be one of my favourite foods, but now I’m dragging one through the puddle of creme fraiche on my plate and I’m doing anything but eating it: refilling my glass of water once, twice, three times; fiddling with the cutlery; trying to make a dumpling tower, maybe. And, eventually, you just get tired of pushing dumplings around a plate. Tired of a rumbling stomach. Yearning for some long-lost comfort and peace of mind. A brave streak gets you into therapy (years and years of therapy, actually) where you relearn how to eat. Like a child, you relearn to love the smells wafting from the kitchen. You find your new “normal” by learning how to bake and by trying to recreate dishes you find in recipe books.

So, what is comfort food now? Nutella on toast for breakfast and recipe box subscriptions, apparently. It’s also being able to eat without counting calories actively and subconsciously at all times of the day. It’s about being really excited to make Eastern European dishes again and about criticising food blogs that don’t call for a heaping spoonful of creme fraiche next to a bowl of borscht. And, last of all, it’s the realisation that comfort food and self-love coincide, and it’s the acceptance that we could all use some more of both.

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