I told my dear friend Chris during a particularly dim period in my life a few years ago that he would know I was okay again when I resumed cooking. By that point in our unexpected friendship, I’d started having him over for dinner at least once a week but the practice had fallen by the wayside as I found myself having to concentrate on putting my broken heart back together. The last thing I wanted to do was cook. Chris and I went back to meeting at various Melbourne restaurants after work instead. Ours is a friendship formed over bowls of ramen and plates of dumplings and nasi lemak.
I don’t live in Melbourne anymore (for now). These days Chris is a presence in my text messages -- there when I wake up, and then there again halfway through my work day when he wakes up. And I’m cooking again. I have been for a while -- my San Francisco life lends itself very well to prolonged periods in the kitchen, more so than my life in Melbourne ever did for reasons both physical and emotional (nothing much interests you when you’re depressed). I don’t make anything particularly fancy: spaghetti alio oglio with more garlic than is strictly required, lots of chili flakes, and turkey bacon; seasoned pasta shells generously coated in Boursin garlic and herb cream cheese; a baked potato with sour cream and cheddar cheese, seasoned with chicken salt because I’m Australian, dammit; roasted brussels sprouts; Annie’s organic mac and cheese out of a box. Left to my own devices, I regress into the picky eater I was as a child -- I am not above eating the same dish for days in a row.
I’ve also been cooking Malaysian food lately. My cousin came back into my life about two years ago not long after I moved to San Francisco -- my best friend Ika is a mutual friend of ours and I think she took it upon herself to make sure that the two of us cousins were kept apprised of each other’s lives: she texted me when Dee delivered her son via emergency C-section, and so it follows that she would tell Dee that her wayward cousin had upped and moved several oceans further away. We’re not communicating with any regularity but the texts arrive frequently enough that I have come to rely on them and the accompanying (requested) photos of Dee’s little boy, who is now three and already half his mother’s height (while Emran’s looks suggest his father wasn’t in the room when he was conceived -- that child is the spitting image of his mother -- his height puts to rest any concerns about his paternity). We’ve repaired the foundation of our relationship -- blood ties and a genuine friendship -- enough that I could tell her that I’d been meaning to ask if she’d send me my favorite snacks from Malaysia, plus some of the fixings required to make rendang, fried rice, and Hainanese chicken rice. I miss the dishes of my childhood.
Her response: “Why didn’t you ask me sooner?!”
A care package arrived a few short weeks later along with a phone call from my uncle. It was the first time in over five years that I’d heard the voice of someone I share DNA with and it was a surprisingly lovely exchange. Same old uncle -- he checked in on how I was doing; nagged me about eating junk food for breakfast; asked what I’d gotten up to on a Sunday afternoon. It has been a very long time since anyone checked in on me like that and I was about as awkward and delighted as one would expect after a prolonged absence of anything remotely resembling parental concern. And the care package! Brahims and Adabi pastes for making rendang and fried rice; a jar of whatever that stuff is that one uses to make chicken rice with; two large packets of keropok keping -- a throwback to my childhood as a grandchild of Terengganu. I have spent the last few weeks creating a facsimile of my childhood kitchen, making note of future adjustments to be made to each dish as I read and followed the instructions on the packet and remembered old lessons learned at the feet of mothers both mine and others’: less water added to the rendang paste to make a thicker stew; more attention paid to the dry version of beef rendang in future lest I burn the meat and gravy again (oops); alterations to my schedule so I can have leftover rice and keropok already fried up and ready to go for the next weeknight’s dinner of fried rice. I even made kerisik (toasted coconut flakes) to go into the rendang the other day and on a last minute whim saved some of the coconut milk to make nasi lemak (coconut rice) to go with it. This version of my self who is gleefully trying her hand at the dishes of her childhood would be unrecognizable to the younger woman I once was, the one who couldn’t be lured into the kitchen under any circumstances.
Which is all to say: I’ve been cooking heaps lately; ergo, I am happy. I’ve felt this way since Melbourne last July -- I spent three weeks there visiting, and it was enough time to finally understand just how loved I am. This, apparently, is what everyone who has had the benefit of a happy childhood full of love and stability feels like.
It’s pretty fucking amazing.
I am full of joy these days, so much so that I don’t have the words to describe it and have fallen into silence. I read the words of others -- reading voraciously at that -- but can’t find my own. Because that’s what happiness does to me. I lose my words; I lose the need to find my words. It’s strange. I miss the words. This is my attempt to find them again.
But more importantly -- Chris, I’m happy.