And by that we don’t mean only the taste but also the comfort that provide when the going gets tough.

By Madhulika Dash; Images: Thangabali, JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar & Imly

Fried food. There are only two ways about these special group of deliciousness: Either you love them, or you like them. And in very few situations where you do not like them – and even then chances are it isn’t the food per se that you don’t like but the surroundings like the hygiene, the way the food is made, and the oil which has reached the beyond redemption hue.

And yet, there are times when nothing makes the world and the situation more palatable than a few French fries, a handful of pipping hot pakoda and chai, a jalebi or chenna jhili or even a fried pomfret. These are times when we aren’t just looking for that one small bite or piece but quite a few servings or packets. Time when the mind (and you) loose track of when the stomach is full or satiated as one gradually gets into a zone that nutritional therapist and psychoanalyst around the world have started to define as “Food Bliss”. Or simply put, a kind of cuddle zone when the neurotransmitters in the brain are comatosed enough to effectively segregate between feeling happy and gluttony. Thus, resulting in you reaching for one more pakoda, fries, sweet or any fried or high-in-fat dish with the brain counting it as one more rather than the actual number.

Result, the brain that has been oversupplied with one ratio of food group- namely, sugar, salt, and fat – goes into Oxidative stress. It is a phenomenon caused by an imbalance between production and accumulation of oxygen reactive species (ROS) in cells and tissues and the ability of a biological system to detoxify these reactive products. A response that is usually seen in the case of addictions, especially to psychedelic drugs.

This explains two things: First, why we like fried food – even before they get associated with a certain kind of memory and make their debut as “comfort food.” And second, why most of the processed food that we see in the food aisle these days are tagged “junk food” by nutritionist. After all, most of these products including those energy bars and protein shakes that claim healthy, are often designed keeping this ratio of “food bliss” in the forefront. A quick check of the labels is enough to prove how each of the produce uses sugar, salt, and fat (in the same priority) to create products that fit into the popular category of tasty food that are easy to get addicted to.

What happens when we eat fried food? First the sugar and starch spur serotonin, a neurotransmitter that enhances a sense of well-being, then sodium kicks in the oxytocin, or the "cuddle chemical," which is a hormone that makes you feel the same way as you would if a loved one hugs you (and in some cases orgasm too). For the brain that survives mostly on fat, fried foods are like the morning cup of joe that kicks in a sense of happiness and the required nutrients to not only give that boost of energy but trigger the taste buds that leads further activate pleasure receptors in the brain. A phase that neurologist define as the “reward zone”. Such is the effect of regularly reaching this zone that eventually the foods start bypassing the normal fullness mechanisms, and with the sensitiveness to these foods reducing eventually, one simply increases the quantity to match the initial dopamine rush.

And yet, our culinary ledger is replete with dishes that are either fried or has an element that has been fried. What is the reason?

Traditional wisdom and modern science, both agree on one fact: when it comes to cranking up the energy levels, few match the ability of a fried foods that have this insane ability to affect the three-way recharge – of the tastebuds, brain, and stomach. Given its right composition of the three neuro-receptors inducing elements, fried food in ancient meals aided in giving that dopamine punch that made people more active, willing, and productive. This was the reason that most feast pre- and post-war were always heavy on food that were high on salt, sugar and fat: incidentally the three ingredients that were hard to come by and usually reserved as winter food and celebrations. The bonus then was that people lived a physically demanding lifestyle – and all that hunting, war, foraging for food, agriculture ensured that all the Oxidative Stress or the high dopamine levels and excess calories were all utilised without letting any residue sit on the liver linings.

This was the reason that people could digest high on fat, salt or even sugar food with ease. It almost took a decade for Elizabeth to lose her teeth and suffer from high BP and sugar following a large slice of reign dedicated to desserts and sweet made with sugar (white sugar that was a gift of the Tudor dynasty). Likewise, was the case of the Ranas of Mewar and the Rajas of MP and Ujjain who in spite their fat, sugar and salt rich food did survive to a ripe age thanks to the active lifestyle.

Of course, there was another reason for their longevity with such food: most traditional fried foods were made fresh with the right quantity and quality of natural salt, sugar, and fat instead of the flavour enhancing chemicals that are added today. This made the dishes inspite of their high calorie and mood enhancing capabilities a better choice for wellbeing. Secondly, none of the fried food was presented with another set of fried food. Thanks to the hakims, vaids and others who worked on the cuisine, most fried food played the three crucial roles of a taste and texture enhancer, a way to enjoy tender produce and meat and for making the meal wholesome.

The technique of frying – at least in India – was mastered for two reasons initially: it made food, especially meats safer to eat (anything vile would die at this temperature) and to make this little pocket where tender produce would poach cook keeping the nutrients intact. This was the idea behind creating a slew of batters across different cuisine.

What scored for fried food was the quantity of sugar and especially fat that was higher than any other food. This worked in making fried food popular and with the same chemical response in the brain a part of socialising too. It was its popularity that not only brought it to the street, but egged cooks to decipher new products to add to this slice of food bliss. Result, with years, while the want for fried food that worked as Prozac during the low time increased, the active life that would nullify its side effects dwindled drastically. Thus, causing a certain Nawab of Lucknow to lose his teeth and another his appetite for other food.

With nothing to counterbalance the cons of a crispy fried Andhra Chicken or Amritsari Machchi, these once makers of mood and taste were relegated to the coterie of infamous “junk food” – that happens to be a whole different category of good food made worse.

So next time you want to try fried food…