Food Nostalgia: Third Culture Kids & Comfort Food

I walked into Khan BBQ on Devon Street in Chicago and immediately smelled Tandoori Chicken, a dish that we regularly ate while growing up in Pakistan. The smells of red pepper, lemon juice, and charred chicken mingled together into one beautiful aroma of Home.

Growing up in Pakistan, fast food was not an option. McDonalds and Pizza Hut did not make their way to the developing world until after I returned as an adult. I am ever-grateful that my palate was influenced by our own versions of fast food. Chicken tikka or tandoori chicken hot off the grill and wrapped in naan, or meat kebabs, spicy and cooked to perfection with a side order of hot pakoras, fresh out of sizzling ghee were the tastes that I have enjoyed since my earliest memories. Burgers and fries were not a part of my memories or vocabulary. I didn’t go to a diner until I was well into my thirties and, though I love them now, my first impression was not favorable. 

In a study found in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers found that “the stronger your sense of social identity, the more you are likely to enjoy the food associated with that identity.” Neuroscientist Rachel Herz, author of the book Why You Eat What You Eat says that comfort foods are “usually foods that we ate as children because, when it comes to aromas and flavors, our first associations are the ones that stick most indelibly.”

For the third culture kid, this is an oft misunderstood part of their social identity. “Why do you love Pakistani food so much?” a colleague once asked me. “I grew up there.” I said, thinking it would be an adequate response. “So?” she said, clearly puzzled. I gave up. Though she understood her own love of chicken nuggets and fries, when it came to me she could not reconcile my response. Her unspoken words were “But you aren’t Pakistani.” My unspoken words were “How do I explain an 18 year connection to a country that began when I was three months old, that has continued through a lifetime?”

I think of my childhood memories of chai, not the Westernized adaptation, instead the real chai: steaming hot and made with full cream buffalo milk, sweetened with coarse-grained sugar, poured into saucers to cool it down. Chai was the ultimate comfort drink. If you were happy, you drank chai. If you were sad, you drank chai. Sick? Chai. Angry? Chai? In love? Chai, chai, chai. Chai was everything you needed it to be.

Now that I’ve started down the food nostalgia journey, I continue with chicken curry, so spicy that my nose and eyes run, the sauce thick and pungent on my plate. Hot chapatis, straight off the tava ready for sopping up curry sauce, spicy omelets from the tea shop across the street from my boarding school, eaten with ghee-filled parathas. The food soon turns to friends and their names and childhood faces float across my memory – Nancy, Bruce, Paul, Maylene, Marty, Gene, Ruthie, Joyce, Meg, Michael. Some I have reconnected with in recent years and the joy of these shared experiences is immense and always includes food.

Life has moved on, and with it our experiences and food choices have expanded. With births and deaths, deep joys and immense sorrows, loyal friendships and painful betrayals, our journeys no longer follow the same roads.

That is why these food memories and the journey back into a simpler time matter. Just as Pakistan has changed, so have we. For a time, she loved us well and, like any first love, parts of us will always belong to her. So our nostalgic journey is filled with tastes of hot peppers and sounds of ghee spitting off of frying pans; a journey filled with light, love, and very few burdens.

[sources: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/04/fast-food-nostalgia/558686/]

16 thoughts on “Food Nostalgia: Third Culture Kids & Comfort Food

  1. So true. And so ‘weird’. For Thanksgiving I made a Bahamian meal: peas n rice, stew chicken in tomato gravy, plantains, switcher (limeade), and macaroni (mixed with herbs like thyme and chopped peppers, and baked so that you can cut a hunk and eat it with your hand. Often sold as street food).
    And then, from my pre-TCK life, sitting home this weekend because I have a concussion, White Castles and IBC cream soda.
    No wonder people are confused by us!

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  2. So your palate is an ex-pat. Long-distance nationalism of the taste buds? Makes sense.

    We don’t understand ourselves at all. We think of ourselves as present consciousness, as a list of identity markers that are static and essential (and so above time – you’re a woman, you’re an American, you’re an X-er – I mean, I certainly don’t think you’re a Boomer, no matter what the official start and end dates say for those cohorts), but we are really histories, we are a present that is only made possible by the curious intersection of a past that is both presenting itself and being retrieved in light of a future that we’re moving into. Change the future, and you change thr past. Some pasts have no alternative contents (you have no childhood food experiences but these), but also have no futures that they can move into (you can’t have this uncomplicated relationship to the food you enjoyed, probably even if you were to move back to Pakistan, both because that world has changed, and because you’ve now acquired more history, new history, that couldn’t have a future if you were to do that). Thus, you casually interpret it as just a blik about your childhood, some idiosyncratic and immediately present character about you in-the-now, when what it really is is a past – one that has no_where_ (because no future) into which to go, but which occasionally catches sight of a future when you smell some familiar foodstuff.

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  3. I totally get this! Having grown up in Ethiopia until I was 13, the injera and wats that I knew are still what I go to for my basic meals. I also do a lot of Indian, as Ethiopia and India were the two ends of the Spice Road (God bless India!) I have a saying: food without spice is not food. it took me forever (well into my 30s) before I accepted American food as edible, and I still struggle with it. My fried chicken has cumin and red chilis in it; my chicken soup always has crushed red chili, and I make my own masala mixes that end up in everything. Chicken Tikka and Tandoori Chicken are two of my favorite things in the whole world. Thank you for this article. I’m so glad someone else understands my struggles.

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  4. “What’s your comfort food?” is a great ice-breaker. I’ve used it many times during meal-times at international gatherings or meetings. Once explained, the concept is easily understood and leads to wonderful sharing of food memories. Food really does nourish the heart as well as the belly. :-)

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  5. Oh my, I don’t even want anyone to know how many Kenyan chapatis (more like Pakistani parathas) I ate in our 2 days on the Kenyan coast! There’s nothing like the aroma of Pakistani/Indian food!

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  6. I would like to share this with a Pakistani man I have met here in Greece and interviewed at the request of a mutual friend. Thanks for sharing this!

    Sent from my iPhone

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  7. That picture is not Devon Street! It’s Jhika Gali for sure. Marilyn, I’m not sure how psychologists explain those of who are TCAs (third culture adults). I will say that during our first few years in Pakistan, I often longed for my Mom’s beef stew, her roast pork or pork chops – and bacon! But at some point, Pakistani food took over. Do you remember our Sunday night suppers when you were all home from MCS in the winter in Larkana? That house was in a terrible location in many ways, but the tikka shop right outside our front door made up for all of it. Dad, or one of the boys, would go out with a chapati cloth and a covered dish to get chicken or lamb tikkas and fresh chapatis – I can close my eyes and almost smell those tikkas, the best Sunday night supper ever. Bettie Addleton, I almost think they were just as good as what you got in Karachi! And right on our doorstep!

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    1. Third Culture Adults- First time I’ve heard that term, but I love it! I’m not a TCK, but my ‘comfort food’ is definitely Javanese oseng-oseng with tempe kering and kuah mangut. (Not famous enough to be known by those who haven’t lived in Indonesia, probably). I’ve lived in South Asia and enjoy many of the foods mentioned in this post now, but there was a bonding to my first Asian home that has made the foods I would buy from neighbors who sold it on long tables outside their houses my absolute favorite. I just had a short trip back, and enjoyed the yumminess. If it’s about the stronger sense of social identity, I guess there may be something about that dying to self to identify with a new culture that causes us to make a strong connection with food even in adult years.

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  8. Oh Marilyn, I’m not usually emotional (often to a fault) but this post got to me. There’s something about food nostalgia that triggers all of those senses and the time and space connected to them. So many memories of Tanzanian street food, Chai (ours with goat milk) – all of them complemented by the smell of smoke from the kitchen fire. Oh to go back there to those tastes, smells, and memories. Thank you for helping me to reminisce.

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  9. My favourite childhood food my granny’s Irish stew- no surprise as I grew up there & never left! I can never make it the way she did- food touches our memory in a very special way- loved hearing of your food memories ⭐️& how they still influence your taste buds🥘

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  10. There is NOTHING on any menu that is as satisfying as chicken tikka, chapatti or naan. Barbecue Tonight in Clifton was our favorite go to place. Before this opened nearer our home, we loved Bundu Khan. I think both are still thriving.

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