My Spoonful of Dopamine

My Spoonful of Dopamine

Jan 11, 2024Roni Mae Serrano

One of my favorite childhood memories is spending a few years in my grandparents' home. I remember the old-fashioned couch in the cozy living room that was made of native wood and rattan, the aparador or cabinet, which is probably much older than I am, the cable television with an antenna that shows all my favorite cartoon channels, and of course—my Lola's cooking. 

My grandmother's cooking doesn't have a three-star Michelin rating. Nevertheless, it always seemed to me that it did, especially­—specifically—if it's her homemade Sopas, a Filipino take on American chicken noodle soup. Sopas came from the Spanish word sopa, which simply means soup.  

Elbow macaroni, evaporated milk, hotdogs, corned beef or chicken chops, carrots, cabbage, kinchay, or Chinese celery make up my Lola's sopas. Although the ingredients aren't particularly fancy, it has become my go-to comfort food for most of my life. 

Our comfort food goes beyond physical comfort; it also provides emotional support to keep our sanity.

I was too young to recall, but whenever we sat at their dining table for our after-lunch conversations, Lola would always tell me how I fell in love with her homemade sopas as a child. She used to tell me that whenever she made the noodle soup, she would hear my excited footsteps coming from upstairs right away. I would peek from the top of the stairs, where I could see her in the kitchen preparing food. I would exclaim, "mmmm, ang bango ng niluluto mo, La!" as I smelled the delicate aroma of sauteed vegetables and chicken broth while she stirred the soup using her favorite ladle in her favorite pot, and I would continue to ask, "Sopas po ba yan? Luto na po ba?"

Later in life, I came to discover that I would usually run to my grandma's house to get comfort from her and her homemade sopas whenever I had an issue in my life: a misplaced toy, a failed exam, a lost job opportunity, or just a difficult or tiresome day. 

Why and how does a specific dish make us feel so relaxed? And why do we keep returning to them when we're worried, stressed, or sad? 

Eating comfort food is one of the many ways people cope and deal with emotions like stress and anxiety, or even to extend feelings of happiness. Specific foods can hold special places in our hearts because they taste delicious, lift our spirits, and bring back fond memories—especially on those days when we're feeling down and could use the reminder. Comfort food goes beyond physical comfort; it also provides emotional relief to support our well-being.

As humans, we are emotionally vulnerable, and when a particular event threatens our emotions, we can seek solace through food to feel secure and in control of what is happening to us. Even when it can only give a momentary sense of repose, comfort eating can still bring back enough joyful memories to offer us consolation from stress and sadness. 

We all have different preferences when it comes to our comfort food. When we eat food that is sweet, salty, or high in carbohydrates to soothe and ease our feelings, our brain activates its reward system to make us feel the pleasure of eating it specifically. Think of how we often associate a chocolate bar, ice cream, or chips with positive emotions and lower stress levels.

As for me, my chosen comfort food is deeply rooted in memories of a person who has significantly impacted my life: my grandmother. Though my Lola is no longer with me, I can still feel her presence in the small details of my meals. 

Beyond the delicious, there is a substantial correlation between food and how well the brain functions. According to research, when we eat our favorite comfort foods, the brain produces a chemical called dopamine, a happy hormone, that promotes feelings of happiness and pleasure. 

Research also suggests that the essence of comfort food extends beyond chemical responses and psychological relief. It delves into nostalgia, where our chosen comfort food is influenced by a desire to reconnect with memories we cherish; the smell and the familiar feeling that transports us back to specific times. 

While taste undoubtedly plays a role in how food makes us feel, the power of comfort food sometimes lies in the associations woven around it. Sometimes, our comfort food becomes a vessel for memories tied to significant individuals, often loved ones who offer unwavering support during moments of loneliness. This food then becomes a symbol of warmth and security found in the comforting embrace of home. 

As for me, my chosen comfort food is deeply rooted in memories of a person who has significantly impacted my life: my grandmother. Though my Lola is no longer with me, I can still feel her presence in the small details of my meals.

Now, every time I eat sopas, it connects me emotionally to the memories my grandmother built for me when she was still alive—it transports me back: sitting at their dining table, I lift the spoon to my lips and enjoy the deep warmth of the sopas she had carefully made. Those were the times when the inviting aroma rising from the bowl managed to capture not only the ingredients but also the love, care, and comfort she put into each spoonful. 

Cover photo by Alex Bayev. In-article photo by FomaA.

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