Culinary therapy: how cooking can help alleviate anxiety

There’s a growing body of research to suggest that cooking (and I’d say repetitive or slow cooking processes in particular) can function as a form of mindfulness meditation and improve mental well-being. I’m particularly interested in how cooking can help to calm an anxiety-frazzled mind.

Carrying out a step-by-step process forces you to focus on the task at hand, keeping you in the present rather than allowing your mind to wander into ruminating on the past or worrying about the future.

Following a recipe successfully also provides a sense of control (often sorely lacking in the anxious) and of achievement at a time when you might be feeling as though nothing is going right. And while half an hour’s meditation may have the same benefits, with cooking you have a very tangible — and hopefully delicious — reward at the end. It is also a way to nurture and show love to those close to you, which in turn makes you feel good yourself.

And while anxiety can numb your senses, cooking brings them to life: it’s a multi-sensory experience stimulating sight, sound, taste and smell. Try cutting open a pomegranate without marvelling at the jewel-like colour of the seeds, or baking cheese scones without feeling comforted by the homely aroma filling the kitchen.

Some recipes are more therapeutic than others. I think the trick is to avoid anything too complicated so you don’t get disheartened, while challenging yourself enough to feel a sense of satisfaction with and pride in the result.

Here are my favourite kitchen calmers.

Preserves

Squirreling away food for a later date gives you a satisfying sense of virtue that lasts well beyond the time you spend in the kitchen. Look up preserving ideas for whatever you happen to have an abundance of; you could make jam with a glut of plums or preserved lemons with a backyard bounty. Preserving by Ginette Mathiot is a great book to get you started.

Pasta 

Homemade pasta is my ultimate comfort food. My favourites forgo the fiddly pasta maker — think thick rustic ribbons of pasta, which are just rolled-out pasta dough cut into strips. If you want to get a bit fancier (and therefore more meditative, in my book) you can make filled pasta with a veg, meat or cheese filling. My pici carbonara recipe is here.

Dumplings 

Dumplings seem to be universally adored, and so many cultures have their own version of them — probably because they’re comfort food at its best. The repetitive process of filling and sealing a pile of dumplings might seem tedious, but if you let yourself get into a little rhythm you might find it becomes a pleasurable exercise. You can find my recipe for very simple pork, shiitake and ginger dumplings here. Afghan mantu are stuffed with a beef and onion mixture and served with yoghurt and a tomatoey sauce and are totally delicious.

Risotto 

Risotto requires your full attention for the entire cooking time, with frequent liquid additions and stirring (again, quite meditative), and it’s so satisfying to see it come together and become creamy, while retaining an ever-so-slight bite. My favourite risotto is of the spring veg variety, bright with peas, mint and asparagus. There’s a good recipe here.

Bread 

There’s nothing quite like the aroma of baking bread, and making it from scratch is a calming and satisfying process. You can get pretty technical with bread, but there are also very simple recipes for no-knead breads. I’ll be making this potato and rosemary focaccia this weekend (to serve with a glass of nero d’avola, as suggested, because a glass of wine can also help with anxiety . . .).

Cake and other baking 

Baking soothes the soul. There’s something deeply ritualistic and therapeutic about weighing out ingredients and getting the proportions, consistency and cooking times just right. My go-to cake at the moment is this pear, dark chocolate and pistachio cake from Gourmet Traveller, which I usually make with almonds.

I realise that none of these foods would be described as health foods, and I’m not suggesting that any of them contain ingredients that help ease anxiety — it’s the process I’ve focused on here. There’s lots of information online about foods that are said to help with anxiety, as well as information about anxiety itself. I’m also not suggesting that cooking provides a cure for anxiety, just that, alongside other positive practices, finding recipes that you enjoy making may help you to achieve a more content and relaxed state of mind.

 

Dumplings for perpetually hungry gannet-nieces

Today my visiting nieces requested dumplings for lunch and instead of going for the supermarket variety (Waiheke may be well-served when it comes to wineries but it is sadly lacking in cheap and cheerful Asian joints), we decided to make them ourselves. Of course that really meant me filling and pleating countless little parcels myself while they sheltered from the rain and watched a movie. It may take a little while to make up a decent number of them, but the other prep is quick and simple and I like the meditative quality of this kind of repetitive cooking task.

These dumplings are more like Japanese gyoza than the Chinese ones eaten in their dozens on the Balmoral dumpling strip. Half frying/half steaming them like this results in dumplings that are toothsomely crispy on one side and soft and chewy on the other; the best of both worlds.

Makes 30–40 with leftover filling

 

Dumplings 

500g pork mince (free-range, of course)

2 cloves garlic, very finely chopped

1 spring onion, very finely chopped

2cm piece of ginger, peeled and finely grated

5 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked to soften and finely chopped

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 tbsp sesame oil, plus extra for frying

pinch of salt

30–40 dumpling wrappers (available at Asian food stores and some supermarkets)

neutral vegetable oil for shallow frying

Dipping sauce 

soy sauce

rice vinegar

chilli (fresh, oil, or sauce), optional

toasted sesame seeds

finely sliced spring onion, for colour

 

Put the pork mince in a large bowl. Fill a small bowl with warm water.

Add all other dumpling ingredients except the wrappers to the pork and use your hands to mix everything together well.

Clean and dry your hands thoroughly (so the wrappers don’t stick). Place a dumpling wrapper on one hand and put 1 teaspoon of filling in the centre of the wrapper. (Don’t be tempted to use more or the dumplings will bulge and burst when cooking.)

Dip your finger in the warm water and wet the entire circumference of the wrapper, around the filling. Fold the wrapper in half to form a semi-circle and pinch the edges to form crimped, fully sealed little dumplings. Make sure they are sealed well, or they’ll open when you’re cooking them. If making 30–40 dumplings, you will probably have filling left over. You can freeze it for next time you have a dumpling-making craving, or if you’re more organised than me, make up extra dumplings and freeze them for a super-easy future fix.

Place one very large or two medium-sized frying pans over a medium-high heat and add the sesame oil and enough of the other oil to shallow fry. (Depending on how big your pans are you may need to cook the dumplings in batches; you don’t want to overcrowd the pan or they won’t go crispy.) Once the oil is shimmering, add the dumplings and cook for 3–4 minutes, until golden and crispy on one side.

Add 3 tablespoons of water to the pan and immediately cover with a lid. Cook for 6–7 minutes, until the wrappers are translucent, the meat is cooked (cut into one to check) and no water is left in the pan. Remove the lid and cook for a further minute or so to ensure the bottoms are crispy.

Mix together the soy sauce, vinegar, chilli (if using), sesame seeds and spring onion. Taste and adjust the ingredients as desired. Serve the dipping sauce alongside the dumplings and try to resist burning your mouth in the rush to get some before your nieces devour them all.

Although I’d like to say I always make my own wrappers, I’ve only done it a couple of times. I figure dumplings are fiddly enough without adding another step to something that I see as a simple meal, and the wrappers you can buy, such as these ones, are pretty good.