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Who Said Comfort Food Can’t Be Plant Based?

Comfort Cravings and How To Manage Them on a Plant Based Diet

 If you’ve ever tried giving plant-based eating a go – or tried your hand at flexitarianism – one of the first things that probably popped into your head was, “But, what about my bobotie?” or “I’m going to miss my chutney chicken.” And that’s totally normal, these are fair questions. We all know comfort food doesn’t usually equate to health food, and you know what, it doesn’t need to. We all need a bit of comfort sometimes. The thing with embracing plant-based cooking is that, while it can be a healthier way to eat, the main push towards a plant-based lifestyle has more to do with its environmental benefits. Comfort is comfort. So, who said plant-based food can’t be comfort food, anyway?


The first thing the experts will tell you about comfort food is that it’s addictive. Sure, there are plenty of reasons we probably shouldn’t do it, but we’ve also heard about “everything in moderation”, right? When you eat comfort food all the time, it’s just food, and is no longer special – or less so, at the very least.

What makes any food addictive are fat, sugar and salt, which all occur in plant-based food as well. (Plant-based pot pies, anyone?) In fact, the only comfort ingredient out of those three that might not always come from a plant is fat, but all three of those ingredients – especially in combination – trigger the brain’s reward centre, which makes you feel treated.


Okay, so there’s what scientists classify as comfort food, but if you’ve never had miso soup in your life, it won’t necessarily trigger the same depth of emotion in you as, say, vetkoek and mince. The thing is, it’s also culture bound.

Comfort food instils a sense of belonging, whether it reminds us of time with our nearest and dearest or in a greater context, reminds us of where we come from, like when we get a craving for malva pudding in the middle of the Champs Élysées. On a purely emotional level, we tend to crave comfort food whenever we feel lonely, stressed, or simply out of our comfort zones. Hello stress eating!

But we don’t always realise just how much of what makes food comforting comes from flavour. To many South Africans, cinnamon is a hugely comforting fragrance, as is lemon, but to someone from France, cinnamon is a polarising spice. It’s either your thing or it’s not. The point is, whether using a meat or vegetable base, the most comforting thing about a dish has a lot to do with flavour, which is why so many vegan alternatives are made to taste like meat. I’m not a huge proponent of the idea, though, especially when it involves artificial flavourants.


Oh, the nostalgia! It’s enough to throw anyone off their New Year’s Resolutions in a moment of weakness. What makes nostalgia even more powerful than a sense of belonging is that it’s so personal. It’s not so much about a sense of belonging than the fact that it taps into specific memories you associate with those moments when you were happiest. Where nostalgia and a sense of belonging overlap, in my opinion, is flavour – again! Tapping into those flavours that make you feel like a child again (in the best possible way) can be applied to any ingredients, even the plant-based ones.


Picture it: you’ve invited a group of friends over for a birthday dinner, you’ve got your seating plan sorted, your dinnerware sparkling and your drinks trolley fully stocked. Only, you haven’t given your menu enough thought. Whether you opt for catering, beautifully styled deli counter fare, or plan on cooking everything yourself, chances are, you’re not going the Sunday-night leftover route (otherwise known and chef’s surprise). This is a special occasion.

And special occasions call for a little summin’ special. Dinner parties are no time to “challenge” your guests by recreating Karoo ecosystems on a plate. You want crowd pleasers, the kind of food someone might be tempted to ask the recipe for… comfort food, in other words. And while not all your guests might be hardened vegans, times have changed, and there’s no reason you can’t do a fully plant-based shindig. Let those hot-blooded carnivores know there’s more to this than salads and rabbit food.

In the end, there’s a reason why more and more people are cutting back on meat. It’s not just a shared sense of responsibility, it’s the fact that in the end, it’s not only do-able, but actually a great lifestyle choice – and as it turns out, not by any means a compromise on comfort.