The Comforts of Bowl Food


What is it about a bowl of food that’s so comforting?

Is it the contour of a warm dish cradled in the curve of your hand? Or is it the promise of wholesome nourishment inside?

Bowls allow for ease of eating — you can hold them in your hand and curl up on the couch. They are one-dish meals that clean up quickly. The comfort bowl food offers is comparable to being swaddled in a favorite hoodie.

As millennials settle into careers and families of their own, bowls represent clean food that is good for our bodies as well as the planet. Thanks to this generation’s recognition of the environmental impact and humane implications of thousands of animals being raised in confined feedlots, they prefer vegetables, grains and beans easily prepared and served in a bowl.

They have replaced their parents’ comfort foods like macaroni and cheese with bowls of quinoa with roasted sweet potatoes, spears of steamed broccoli and a yogurt dressing. Açaí bowls, made with pureed berries of the açaí palm tree, along with toppings ranging from sliced bananas, fresh blueberries and toasted coconut, take the place of Cheerios.

Comfort equals feeling loved. If we are sick, a bowl of chicken soup assures us we are on the mend. It’s not just the warmth of the broth and the savory aroma that is inviting. It reminds us of Mother, who tended to our fevered foreheads. When I was sick, my mother prepared a broth with whole chicken, carrots, celery and parsnip. She’d let it simmer for several hours, strain it and temper my serving with a fortifying egg yolk.

The simple act of holding a bowl in our hands that brings us comfort

Many comforting bowls of food take the path of ease and simplicity. Chili and stew need few ingredients. They require only a few hours on the back burner. Pintos over rice are economical, and when the beans cook low and slow, a heady aroma fills the home.

“Personally, a bowl not only acts as a container for objects, but also symbolizes a receptacle for the thoughts of myself or someone else,” reflects Joungmee Do on Powerhouse Museum’s website. Do, a Korean-Australian artist, uses the concept of the rice bowl to explore personal memories and meanings associated with food and tableware in the context of Korean culture and tradition.

Across Asia, the rice bowl is a daily utensil. Ceramic bowls in China date back as early as the Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 BC). As bowl shapes morphed with succeeding dynasties, ornate embellishments such as hand-painted cherry blossoms or dragons added to their beauty, and over time, specific uses became standard. Today, deep and wide bowls are used for soup while smaller bowls that are tapered at the bottom are used for rice. Ceramic tea bowls are mentioned in “The Classic of Tea” the first major text on tea compiled between 758-60 CE by Lu Yu of the Tang Dynasty.

Several Japanese longevity practices start with a bowl. These include sipping green tea, savoring soup, noodles or rice, and creating sound vibrations for chanting and meditation. Many designs are modest, such as a few green bamboo leaves painted up the sides of a white bowl, which evoke a type of dignified and elegant comfort.

In the Middle Ages, peasants ladled stew or porridge into trenchers, or hollowed-out bowls cut from loaves of stale bread. In Canada, bowls were often carved from a single block of wood and emblazoned with wildlife or mythological beings. Those who possessed a kihle were expected to bring it to a feast, eat from it, then fill it with food and take it home for relatives.

Ancient Romans of high prestige ate from silver and pewter platters that were decorated with elaborate designs. Citizens with less esteemed stature likely ate from wood or imported pottery. Saxons and Vikings ate exclusively from wood-turned bowls. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, communal serving bowls were used.

Hawaiians shaped gourds as they grew. Once harvested, the flesh was scraped out and the gourd was dried in the sun until it hardened into bowls.

Wood bowls were typically made of koa or milo, which are soft grained, and therefore, less prone to cracking from repeated wetting and drying. Pumice, shark or sting-ray skin were used to smooth the outside, before the surface was polished with green bamboo leaves and kukui nut oil.

Saimin, possibly Hawaii’s ultimate comfort food, is influenced by three cultures that immigrated during the plantation era. Saimin is a combination of Japanese ramen, Filipino pancit and Chinese mein. Sai is the Chinese word for “thin” and mein means noodle.

Saimin includes a broth, typically made with fresh ginger as well as dried ingredients, including kelp, shrimp and mushrooms. The noodles, which are unique in that they contain eggs, are slightly chewy when cooked. Saimin is garnished with an assortment of toppings such as a halved hard-boiled egg, sliced green onions and rounds of kamaboko (fish cake).

There’s a primal tug when food is served in a bowl. We wrap our hands around the bowl’s warmth and tuck our nose into the heady steam. In the summer, cool bowls of chilled soup refresh and invigorate. At the height of summer in Hawaii, a bowl of crisp salad with ripe mango is all the comfort I require.

In the end, maybe it’s the simple act of holding a bowl in our hands that brings us comfort; the hefty weight reassures us that there’s something substantial inside.