Home Therapeutic relationship How can food help people heal from trauma?

How can food help people heal from trauma?


French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote about two centuries ago: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.

What story would white flatbread be? bolani, or the nourishing scent of Uzbek pilaf from Kabuli, tell Brillat-Savarin today? It can be conflict, because the Afghan conflict triggers colossal cultural trauma. It can also be about memory and nostalgia, as people use their culinary traditions as a way to keep the bond alive. Sadia Badiei, an Afghan YouTuber, found herself unearthing recipes she grew up with, like Aushak (Afghan meatballs) and Banjan (a dish of eggplant). “I believe there is no better way to forget our differences than through food,” she said in a video.

The ritual of eating exists on an emotional level; its foundation is firmly held by memory, identity and affection.

Food rituals are intergenerational, as are trauma. So perhaps food traditions hold the key to healing emotional wounds.


As with many others, the Covid19 pandemic and containment brought isolation and a worsened cycle of depression for Monica Gyamlani. While stuck in the UK doing her masters, “Dal Pakwaan was my solution, ”she says. “The manufacturing process [dishes] helped me remove this alienation / trauma from my body by engaging with food.

Like peeling an onion, dealing with trauma through food is a sensory experience with each new layer.

Physiologically, studies link the sense of smell most closely to memory, with taste coming next. The touch and texture of food further merges these senses and connects them to a comforting nostalgia.

The researchers noted how Holocaust survivors spoke of happy associations with bread. During a genocide that starved people, bread was the most accessible option and thus became a rippling symbol of survival. On Jewish holidays and on Shabbat, baking Challah bread remains a symbolic gesture of healing as a community for many survivors. “No matter how many twists and turns [in the lives of people] in the end, they all come back together for healing, ”noted Monica Welsh of the Glazer Institute.

Related to The Swaddle:

Therapy that explores our deep and dark relationship with food

“Because food memories are formed without any conscious modification, they take on all the attributes of the situations in which they were acquired,” Susan Krauss Whitbourne, professor emeritus of psychology, told BBC Travel. These visuals disappear in memories like apparitions, but food is a powerful agent in evoking them, a kind of gastronomic déjà vu.

Ask Vaibhav how delicious it is Nemona is, and it will rhythmically wax the tasty sauce. This mixture of peas, cumin and Garam masala; yet it evokes a distinct memory of a leaky roof, of a tight space, of his family eating together. “I clearly remember the abuse and toxicity in my shared family’s ancestral home,” said the 22-year-old. But when his family served food, no one shouted, a semblance of peace reigned.

“The food gave me refuge from it.”

Food and care

The most vital care rituals – between friends, lovers, family – develop around the preparation and sharing of food. In The year of magical thinking (2021), author Joan Didion remembers a flood of lasagna, pasta and other “comfort foods” friends and relatives dropped off at her house. The food could not counter the grief of her husband’s death, but she recalled that her people still loved her.

Likewise, the star of Irfan Khan The Lunch Box (2013) explores the relationship between Ila, a young housewife whose husband is having an affair, with Saajan, a man who recently lost his wife and is about to retire. Ila and Saajan never met, but the dabba between them – often filled with dal, paneer kofta, grape raita, and a note, becomes their medium of love.

As an action, the kitchen carries a patina of tranquility. People often describe it as a meditative ritual and the kitchen as a space for reflection. Especially during the “containment of Covid19, a lot of people found therapeutic value in the kitchen”, Simi Malhotra, professor of cultural studies tells me. Any act of food preparation is a creative endeavor, and its connection to stress relief is well studied. The proximity of food to the body and its omnipresence in daily life explain this dynamic.

When Shubhra Chatterji’s grandfather died of a heart attack, her mother found solace in doing mooli ke paranthe. But the wheat flatbread, stuffed with a garnish of radish, did not surprise anyone. His love for mooli has been told. So Shubra feels like he’s doing paranthas on her birthday “helped her [mother] to tend to.”

Related to The Swaddle:

Tell me more: Talking about the influence of caste and gender on access to health care with Dr Sylvia Karpagam

Food and social identity

From a cultural perspective, trauma accumulates in response to conflict, oppression and displacement. Lisa Cromer, an associate professor of psychology who has studied the connection between food and memory in the context of loss, notes that “exploring, revisiting and reconnecting with food traditions and oral food stories could be an additional way to heal d ‘historical trauma. ”

Healing from cultural oppression requires recognizing and understanding historical trauma in order to overcome them. As we link food to the memory of social identity, it becomes a response to trauma. Any trauma, individual or cultural, heavy or light, alters the sense of identity. People often pursue their lost selves through eating rituals.

A 2018 study noted that people were more resilient to trauma when their social identities felt intact. “When people travel thousands of kilometers, they take food and their food identity with them. Familiarity and comfort are therefore key elements here, ”explains Malhotra. Eating out is one of the most important ways to connect with your community.

“In a country that seemed so alienating to me, the solace I found in the food I cooked and the familiarity of its taste made me feel a little less uprooted,” says Monica.

Shubhra fully agrees. She is half Punjabi, married to a Tamil, born in Gujarat, lived in Maharashtra for 20 years and now lives in a small village in Uttarakhand. “What’s on my plate faithfully reflects my identity,” she says.

Shubhra’s maternal family fled British-ruled Pakistan in 1947. They left everything behind, not a single photograph to signify their identity or heritage. “The only thing they brought with them were the recipes that we still prepare at home, usually recipes from Lahori, Punjabi,” she notes. It is through food that their identity – once shattered by trauma – still lives.

As with Afghan cuisine, Iranian culture has also used its cuisine to tell stories of loss and trauma. The cultural heritage of Iranian coffee shops in India – infused with the aroma of maska ​​bread, chai, and bay pulao – is attached to the identity of the Iranian community. “Cafes are not only restaurants, but cultural spaces where Iranians have preserved their collective memory of Iran in the form of newspaper clippings, flags, family photographs…. Aakriti Chandervanshi noted in Sahapedia.

Food as a force for recovery carries a lot of hope. Sudershan Devraj, 27, was 10 when the 2004 tsunami hit Puducherry, Tamil Nadu. He remembers how everything disintegrated into a pile of dust. “Where I found hope,” he says, “was with the gurudwara, who served lunch and dinner for over a month. People gathered in the open space – out of necessity, out of fear. They fed anyone and everyone regardless of class or creed, ”he says. “[Sewa] helped in every way possible.

Resistance on a plate

If food is a marker of identity, its rituals open avenues for amplifying cultural oppression. This is gendered (because families exist in a predominantly patriarchal space); in Vaibhav’s family, her mother could cook non-vegetarian dishes for others, but was never allowed to eat them herself.

For Dalits and other oppressed communities, food options developed not out of choice but out of necessity. Caste hierarchies and untouchability have deliberately denied communities access to food, further compounding the sorrow of oppression. In his essay Cultural studies and culture of everyday lifeJohn Fiske noted: “The social order constrains and oppresses the people, but at the same time provides them with resources to fight against these constraints. Food is at the heart of this.

The preparation of rakti (animal blood coagulated with onion and oil) or chunchouni (sun-dried pigskin that could last for months) in some Dalit communities in western India testifies to their resistance to these hierarchies. “Eating meat itself, by its subversive and subordinate nature, is an act of social and political unrest,” Kshirin Rao Eshwara noted in Medium. These food rituals subvert the dynamics of power, becoming “a source of contestation, coercion, resistance, subversion and negotiation,” notes Malhotra.

Inside the ongoing farmers protest site on the outskirts of Delhi, the scent of butter, milk and jaggery hangs in the air. Large stoves line the highways and campsites. Srini Swaminathan, who spent days volunteering at the Singhu and Tikri border, says: “The first thing they asked me was not my card or my name Aadhaar or anything from me. other… but “have you eaten? ‘Would you like something? “He was presented with the carrot halwa and flavored hot milk before he could respond.

With these acts of nourishment, the grounds of protest become a colosseum of healing. In the face of all the pain, there he was, the antidote – food like love.