When my husband left me, I headed for the kitchen – here’s how comfort food can save the soul

The day after my husband first said he didn’t love me any more, I made a Nigella recipe for parmesan french toast: big wodges of white bread soaked in egg with parmesan, dijon mustard and Worcestershire sauce, fried in butter to a deep golden brown. It reminded me of the “eggy bread” my mother would make when I was a child. The week after that, having told our children their dad was leaving, I made meatballs from the Falastin cookbook by Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley. It’s fiddly but worth it. Each meatball is sandwiched between slices of roasted aubergine and tomato, with a rich tomato sauce on top followed by torn basil leaves after it comes out of the oven. I served the meatballs with a big pot of coarse bulgur wheat cooked with bay leaves, which is one of my carbs of choice when I am feeling fragile. I’ve been eating a lot of bulgur lately.

People talk about “comfort food” as if it were a kind of trivial indulgence. But this is missing the point. True comfort food isn’t sticky toffee pudding on a cosy night in, or sausages and mash on a crisp cold night. It’s the deeply personal flavours and textures you turn to when life has punched you in the gut. Comfort food should really be called trauma food. It’s what you cook and eat to remind you you’re alive when you are not entirely sure this is true. At least, this is how it has been for me.

When you feel you are falling apart, cooking something familiar can remind you of your own competence. I have cooked my way through many bleak afternoons, but it was only cooking for months in a state of heartbreak during the pandemic that taught me just how sanity-giving it could be. No matter how miserable I had been the night before, or how much my appetite had faded, I needed to get up and make breakfast for my son. The ritual of cracking eggs was grounding. My whole body often felt shaky but the act of flipping his pancake proved to me that my hands were steadier than I thought.

With hindsight, there were warning signs. Then again, when you have been together for 26 years and have three children, it’s hard to tell the difference between a warning sign and the normal imperfections of middle-aged coexistence. I thought we were OK. The week before he left, he walked into the garden and said, “Your hair looks so beautiful in the light.” It was June 2020, just as the first lockdown was easing, and we had been eating a lot of asparagus: his favourite vegetable. Until the week he left, every text he sent me ended with five kisses. After he left, it went down to two. Then in September he dropped off a letter coming clean about the woman he had fallen in love with and all the kisses stopped, like a candle that sputters before it goes out.

Among the many griefs of separation, one of the lesser annoyances was being stuck doing all the cooking (and laundry and all the rest). I felt like a needy child who wanted someone to cook for me, except now this person had to be me. The surprise, though, was discovering the kitchen was actually where I wanted to be.

I can’t pretend I always felt up to making dinner; we ate many takeaways. But I found picking up a knife and a chopping board would make me feel better. So many other things I tried to comfort myself with – from alcohol to books to films – reminded me of him. But cooking was one of the few things that could transport me to the person I had been before I met him aged 19, taking me away from my ruminating mind – and the compulsion to look at my phone. I started baking potatoes the way my grandmother used to when my sister and I were tiny, and chicken stews that reminded me of the ones my mother made, heady with the scent of parsley.

I’m aware it might sound glib to suggest grief can be alleviated by cooking. Not everyone has the privilege of access to a kitchen and fresh ingredients. Not everyone – as my ex-husband used to remind me – enjoys cooking as much as I do. In this wretched world, there are also levels of grief. Being left is one thing. But would I still be comforted by cooking if I were suffering from terminal illness, or bereaved, or had been forced to leave my home? I started wondering how cooking could help with such traumas and set out to talk to people who had lived and cooked their way through these losses and more.

During the loneliness of the pandemic, many people turned to cooking as a coping mechanism. One is American food writer Emily Nunn who in the autumn of 2020 created a cult newsletter called The Department of Salad, celebrating the joy of making it. Salad might seem a surprising comfort food, but Nunn says that, much as she loves doughnuts or fish and chips, they don’t feel like a comfort because they make her want to “go to bed for three days”. Salad, on the other hand, is like “fairy food or a magic potion … The tendrils and the beautiful colours – they make you feel good.”

In 2017, Nunn published The Comfort Food Diaries, the single best (and funniest) book I have read on the subject. She recounts how she suffered multiple losses in just a few weeks. Her brother killed himself and her fiance left her, which meant she also lost her relationship with his daughter. As she wrote on Facebook: “I have almost no money, no job, no home, no car, no child to pick up after school, no dog to feed.” After a few glasses of wine – another of her problems was alcoholism – Nunn decided to go on a Comfort Food Tour, visiting friends and family all over the US to eat different people’s idea of comfort food: pot roast and pumpkin soup; corn muffins and onion rings; sour cherry pie and cheesy eggs on toast. By the end of the book, Nunn was sober and had discovered “even when you have no faith in it, food can save the day, surprise you, change you”.

But life resists happy endings. After The Comfort Food Diaries was published, Nunn found she still had a huge amount of grief and pain to process. And then she got cancer. She locked herself away alone in a house in North Carolina belonging to a family member, thinking if she could stay away from other people, she could save herself from “the pain of bad relationships”. Then when the pandemic started and she saw on Zoom how upset friends were about not going out, she started to recognise how crazy it was to be locked up when she was living in farm country surrounded by “beautiful, beautiful food”.

Salad became Nunn’s way to get through the “hellish, lonely summer” of 2020. A few times a week, she would go to the farmers’ market, buy whatever looked good and turn it into a salad. “I would buy plums and blackberries and gorgeous tomatoes and little soft mozzarella balls. I squeezed lemon juice on it and olive oil and salt, and it was like eating the Earth.” Having been a near-recluse, she developed friendships with many of the people who sold her produce. When “the blackberry man” waved at her with his purple-stained hands, she waved back.

For an anxious, tired person, the comfort of salad is that it is immediate. As Nunn says, “You just take what’s there and assemble it.” In the first issue of her newsletter, she wrote: “I won’t lie to you. I have been using salad as a drug. And it works.” The person she was when she had her nervous breakdown was “like a bag of old rags. I didn’t have a heart or a soul or a brain.” She sounds as surprised as anyone that the thing that has brought her back to life is salad. What began as a personal obsession has become something shared. People send her pictures of salads they have made and she finds it “endearing” to know she is making them feel less alone.

It might seem that cooking would be the last thing a person would want to do when they are in a state of life-or-death trauma. But that hasn’t been the experience of Ryan Riley, a 28-year-old food writer from Sunderland who co-founded Life Kitchen with his best friend Kimberley Duke. Life Kitchen is a cookery school for people who have lost their sense of smell or taste during cancer treatment or from Covid. Riley was inspired to set it up after seeing how depressed his mother, Krista, was to lose her interest in food when she was dying of lung cancer. At the end of her life, almost the only food Krista could enjoy was ice lollies. Giving a person with cancer the chance to spend a sociable afternoon cooking delicious food is “a spark of life when everything else is very dark”, Riley says.

He works with scientist Barry Smith to develop recipes that can still be enjoyed by those whose sense of smell or taste is impaired, for example by boosting the levels of umami in a dish with miso or Marmite, or by adding a squeeze of citrus to cut the sweetness in dessert (many cancer sufferers lose their sweet tooth, yet they also yearn for the old pleasure of sharing sweet things).

One of Riley’s proudest moments involved working in Sunderland with 73-year-old Mike, who had cancer and whose wife had more or less given up on getting him to eat. Mike came to the cooking class reluctantly. Riley showed him how to make pineapple tacos (a recipe from his book Life Kitchen: Recipes to Revive the Joy of Taste and Flavour): prawns seasoned with chilli, lime and spring onion on top of a thin slice of fresh pineapple with a handful of coriander leaves. It’s a combination of juicy textures with spicy, savoury, sweet and sour tastes. Pineapple contains an enzyme that helps eliminate the metallic taste that can be a side-effect of cancer treatment. “That recipe changed Mike’s life,” Riley says. Learning to cook the tacos made the difference between “not wanting to eat and wanting to eat”.

The potential comforts of a cooking class to someone with cancer are as much social as they are about flavour. When they start to share experiences about how their appetite has changed, “they realise they are not alone”, and an afternoon of cooking can bring a rare moment of lightness – the fun of learning a new skill. “In the kitchen you have freedom and excitement,” Riley says, and for the family member who brings them, cooking together can be like receiving “a future memory”.

“No one who cooks, cooks alone,” wrote the late food writer Laurie Colwin (author of Home Cooking, one of the great texts on the consoling qualities of cooking). A wooden spoon is one of those rare inanimate objects that seems to be able to keep us company. When I hold my mother’s battered old spoon, the one she used to stir white sauce, it is as if I am holding her hand.

One of the comforts of cooking is the connection it gives us with other people, alive and dead. This is something Lucy Antal feels acutely. Antal works in Liverpool (where she grew up) as a project manager for Feedback Global, a campaign group working for a more sustainable food system. Antal’s work involves helping “people in difficult circumstances to rekindle food as a comfort”. The families she sees are struggling on such low incomes that food can seem joyless and utilitarian: “The food bank sustains you but it doesn’t nurture you.” Feedback Global gives people fresh fruit and vegetables, and what Antal calls “enhancers” such as lemon juice, spices, oregano and stock cubes. She finds that having these, along with nice vegetables, can make cooking feel like something happier and less desperate again. She once spent a couple of hours eating soup and talking about Egyptian food with an Egyptian woman who lived on a council estate. “She was so lonely but by talking about cooking, we had a real connection.”

The question of comfort cooking is personal to Antal, who is recovering from cancer. As she has written on her excellent blog Finom – the Food of Hungary, before she had made it to 42, “I’d lost a sister, parents, grandparents and two close friends”. Cooking the Hungarian food of her father is one of the most meaningful ways she can live with these losses. “When he died,” she wrote, “I made cauldrons of gulyás [goulash soup] to feed visitors from Hungary. We ate it by the bowlful, salted with our tears.”

People seek different comforts from cooking. While Nunn is soothed by salad, Antal seeks out dishes to make her brain “go away”, such as risotto and noodle broth. One of her longest living relatives was an aunt, Klari, who died aged 91 last November. When she visited her in Hungary a couple of years ago, they could barely speak because Klari had little English and Antal only basic Hungarian. But they communicated through cooking. Klari’s neighbours taught Antal how to make a proper Hungarian strudel. “You roll out the pastry so thin you can see your fingers through it,” she says. It takes three hours. When Antal recreates this at home in Liverpool, “it immediately takes me to her”.

Cooking has not always been such a solace. Antal had to take over most of the cooking in her household from the age of 10, looking after her two younger sisters. Her Scottish mother was an alcoholic. Her father – a Hungarian refugee – was an excellent cook but as a GP (and Olympic pistol shooter) he was away from home a lot. Much as she loved her siblings, she felt resentful. But after leaving home, she found cooking for other people was something she wanted to do and it makes her feel better. “I like the distraction. If I’ve had a difficult day, I find it soothing and comforting to make something.”

Cooking your way out of a stressful day might sound a mild kind of pleasure. But I am convinced these are comforts that can go as deep as the heart. Chef Faraj Alnasser is a young Syrian refugee who has endured far more suffering in his 26 years than most people will know in a lifetime. Yet cooking is the one thing that calms him down and enables him to “sleep peaceful”.

Alnasser was 17 when his family was forced to flee war-torn Syria for Egypt. He left there because of family difficulties and went to Turkey, where he experienced homelessness and hunger, then spent time in a refugee camp in Serbia, where he was forced to sleep in a muddy pen with animals, and in a Hungarian jail for refugees (“They gave us one piece of pork meat a day, knowing that we were Muslims and could not eat it”). Later, he thought he would die travelling to the UK from Dunkirk in the back of a refrigerated truck. Such traumas are not easily forgotten, even though Alnasser now has a happy home life with an English host family who took him in through Refugees at Home when he was 19.

I first became aware of Alnasser in February 2021 when the UK was still in lockdown. Someone mentioned a young chef in Cambridge, where I live, making extraordinary vegetarian Syrian food through a one-man business called Faraj’s Kitchen. My children and I ordered food from Alnasser and the memory of his feast is a bright spot in that sad winter. We ate tabbouleh with blood oranges and pomegranate; smoky baba ganoush made from roasted aubergine; kibbeh baked with mushrooms and pine nuts; and glossy, celebratory challah bread. I did not fully realise then that the vibrancy of Alnasser’s food was an attempt to recapture happy times from a state of deep trauma and dislocation.

When we met in October, Alnasser handed me a tiny jar of jam made from Syrian apricots. He said he missed his mother, who is in Egypt with his six siblings, but when he cooks her recipes, it’s as if she’s there with him. When he asked for her jam recipe over the phone, she said, “Do you have sun?” Back in Syria, she would leave the apricots and sugar outside and after a couple of days they cooked themselves into jam. In England, Alnasser soaked the apricots overnight in sugar and lemon juice before cooking in a very low oven for two hours. It was the best apricot jam I’ve ever tasted.

For him, cooking the food of his childhood is healing, making him feel “better, like a good person”. He is proud to present his dishes to the world as a way of celebrating his culture and telling the story of his life as a refugee. “After they taste the food, they say: tell me more.”

Perhaps the greatest comfort of cooking for Alnasser – or anyone – is that it is a form of time travel to happier places. Proust’s madeleines are a cliche for a reason. Alnasser said cooking was the most immediate way he could remind himself that “Aleppo is still inside of me”. The Aleppo he goes to when he cooks is not the bombed-out city of today but the peaceful place he grew up in, where he ate luscious figs and pistachios, where everything in the market was seasonal, where people ate kebabs with cherries, where in summer the bazaars were full of shiny aubergines. In summer 2020, he was walking near his current home when he smelled damask roses that took him straight back to Syria. He begged the man who owned the garden to let him pick them and made them into a deep pink jam – his mother’s jam.

If cooking can transport you to your own childhood, it can also give you a new home, one that tastes like a fresh start. A few weeks after my husband left, I took off my wedding ring and put it in a bowl in my bedroom. For ages, that finger felt weirdly naked and looking at the ring gave me the shivers. Yet I couldn’t quite bear to give it away. Then one day, I was rereading Syria: Recipes from Home by Itab Azzam and Dina Mousawi when I came across a lentil recipe called Burnt Fingers (because it is so delicious you are in danger of burning your fingers). The lentils are sour-sweet from tamarind and pomegranate molasses, and you top them with fried onions and croutons, and green coriander. Azzam and Mousawi explain that Mona, the Syrian woman who taught them to make the dish, cut the croutons out with her wedding ring. I knew I had to try it. It took me ages to cut out the tiny little circles of dough but as I sat and ate the delicious sour-sweet lentils, it felt as if something important had shifted. Afterwards, I looked at my ring and saw that it was no longer the ring of a sad, rejected person. It was a very tiny pastry cutter.

Serves 4

One of the annoyances of life is that the times when you most crave stew tend to be when you feel too wiped out to make it. This is my answer. It’s much easier than most casseroles because, instead of laboriously softening onions, you just throw in chopped leeks, carrots and potatoes, which happily cook in the broth without sauteeing. But it tastes better if you can spare the time to brown the chicken in butter before the veg go in. It has the same garlic-wine-and-parsley flavour palette as moules marinière, and when I eat it I am a child again, at my mother’s table (she put parsley in everything). It tastes restorative and comforting; make a big batch and you can live off it for a couple of days.

500g boneless, skinless chicken thighs (organic and/or free-range, for preference)
25g unsalted butter
400g leeks
700g carrots
500g baby new potatoes
250ml white wine
6 garlic cloves
30g flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Salt

To finish
A squeeze of lemon plus some zest, and a spoonful or two of double cream

Trim any big pieces of fat off the chicken thighs and cut each thigh into four or five pieces (or skip this stage and just chuck the meat from package to pan). In a large, shallow pan for which you have a lid, melt the butter, then add the chicken and a sprinkle of salt. While the chicken is browning, clean the chopping board and knife, and prep the veg. Cut the leeks in half lengthways, rinse, then cut into 1cm pieces. Peel the carrots and cut into thick coins. Halve the potatoes. After each job, turn the chicken so it browns on all sides. Pour in the wine. It will create billows of savoury steam and pick up all the lovely brown chicken bits. Add all the vegetables, the unpeeled separated cloves of garlic, plus half the parsley, a teaspoon of salt and 400ml water. Cover and cook for 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. Taste to see if it needs lemon, then add cream and remaining parsley. Eat in bowls and feel restored.

Serves 4-6

There is nothing more satisfying – some might say more thrilling – than an enormous mixed salad. This one is all about tartness and crispness and lightness, with no extraneous ingredients, such as croutons or dried fruit, to weigh it down.

For the salad
1 bunch watercress – cut off any really large, woody stems but leave the rest; they’re delicious
1 butter lettuce (I use red butter lettuce, but any kind of soft lettuce will do), torn into pieces
1 medium-small radicchio, leaves separated and torn into pieces
6 large basil leaves, thinly sliced
3 large navel oranges, the zest of 1 finely grated and reserved for the dressing, and all 3 peeled and pith removed, then cut between the membranes to release the individual segments
1 medium-small fennel bulb, trimmed and thinly sliced (for this salad I like slightly thicker slices for the crunch, so I use a knife rather than a mandoline)
140g pomegranate seeds – you may use less or more, and no one ever says no to more rubies!

For the dressing
1 tbsp orange juice
2 tbsp red-wine vinegar
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp maple syrup
3 orange segments (see above), finely chopped
1 scant tbsp finely grated orange zest
1 small shallot, finely chopped (about 2 tablespoons)
Tiny pinch of cayenne pepper and salt and pepper

Put all the dressing ingredients in a jar with a tight-fitting lid and shake to combine. Taste for salt, etc, then let it sit on the counter for at least an hour before using. If it’s to be used much later, pop it in the fridge and bring out just before serving.

To assemble the salad, gently toss the lettuces and basil in a large bowl. Transfer to a serving dish, then decorate with orange segments, fennel and pomegranate seeds. Drizzle with a good amount of the dressing, toss gently, taste to see if it needs more dressing, and serve.

Makes about 20

Fresh pineapple contains the enzyme bromelain (which is lost when the fruit is tinned), which breaks down proteins into amino acids and tenderises meat. In Ryan Riley’s Life Kitchen classes, the most significant feature of fresh pineapples is their power, for some people, to eliminate the metallic taste that can occur as a side-effect of their cancer treatments.

100g cooked prawns, shelled
1 red or green chilli, finely chopped, plus extra to serve (optional)
1 lime, zested and juiced, plus extra wedges for squeezing (optional)
1 spring onion, cut into rough matchsticks
1 pineapple, peeled and cut into wafer-thin circles
1 small handful coriander leaves

In a bowl, mix together the prawns with the chilli, lime zest and juice, and spring onion. Fold each pineapple round in half to resemble a taco shell. Fill each shell with an equal amount of the prawn mixture, sprinkle over a few coriander leaves, squeeze over some extra lime, if you like, and serve immediately with optional extra chilli on the side.

Serves 2

This isn’t the goulash some folk will be familiar with – it’s not a thick beef stew, but a hearty soup with chunks of potato, meltingly tender beef and a spicy paprika kick designed to feed, soothe and invigorate.

1 large onion, peeled
1 red pepper, halved, pith and seeds removed and discarded
1 dssp lard
1 tsp caraway seeds
250g beef shin
2 tbsp paprika
Salt and white pepper
1 litre beef or lamb stock

2 large baking potatoes
Soured cream, to serve (optional)

Halve the onion, then thinly slice until you have a tangle of fine half-moons. Do the same with the pepper halves. Heat the lard in a deep, ovenproof casserole dish, add the caraway seeds and, once they start to pop and release their scent, add the onions and cook over a low heat for five minutes.

Cube the beef, add to the pot and stir to brown all over. Add the paprika and sliced red pepper – keep the heat low, so you don’t burn the paprika – and season with salt and white pepper. Stir well, add the stock and bring to a simmer. Cover and transfer to preheated 160C (140C fan)/325F/gas 2 oven to cook on a low heat for an hour.

Peel the baking potatoes, then cut them into thin chunks. Stir these into the soup, cover again and leave to cook for another hour, until the potatoes are tender. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.

Serve steaming hot with a hunk of bread for dipping. If you feel the need, add a heaped tablespoon of soured cream to each serving. Eat and feel much, much better.

Serves 2

For Syrian refugee Faraj Alnasser, food is one thing that has “no borders, no association with all the craziness and politics”. When he gives people Syrian food, it is, he says, a way into his history.

80g fine bulgur wheat
100g very thinly sliced red cabbage
A handful of finely chopped parsley
A handful of chopped mint leaves
2 chopped spring onions
2 blood oranges, peeled, flesh cut into thick rounds – squeeze one to get 1 tbsp juice for the dressing
50g pomegranate seeds, plus a few extra to garnish
½ tsp sea salt
30ml olive oil

Put the bulgur wheat in a small bowl, cover with 85ml boiling water from the kettle, cover with a plate and set aside for about 10 minutes, until the bulgur absorbs the water.

Meanwhile, put all the other ingredients in a large bowl, then add the soaked bulgur and toss very gently. Sprinkle with the reserved pomegranate seeds and the tabbouleh is ready to eat.

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