Detours from home: Cooking, in search of home

[Editor's note: Detours from home is a Rappler column where readers can share about the new things they've been doing while in quarantine. A Filipina PhD student shares what it's like to be in Spain, one of the countries with the highest number of COVID-19 cases. You, too, can share your own Detours from home story.]

Time passes differently during a pandemic.

In the earlier weeks of the lockdown, days seemed to go by very slowly. Having to adjust to a new way of living, I was reeling from the disappointment of having all my upcoming plans cancelled. I had been looking forward to traveling to attend conferences abroad, take a vacation and have friends visit me here, but with one cancellation email after another, I crossed them out of my calendar and accepted that I had no control over these matters. It’s a different kind of heartbreak letting go of the things you had worked hard for, but heartbreak nonetheless.

Flying back home to Manila to be with my family was tempting but with Spain having one of the highest numbers of COVID-19 infections, the safest option was clearly to forego any travel. As a PhD student, I could just continue my work here, even if it meant enduring the loneliness of this lockdown in a foreign country without going out and seeing friends and colleagues. With everything in uncertainty, staying put could be something I could feel sure of, at the very least.

However, beyond my personal worries, I felt a deep sadness and anxiety for the rest of the world facing this pandemic. Everything and everyone is in a state of crisis and watching it all unfold left me stunned. I think what makes the quarantine so difficult and painful is having to mourn everything we've lost — lives, communities, milestones and plans, a sense of normality and even the most mundane parts of our day like simple interactions we take for granted — all while continuing to go on with our lives in an entirely different way. The never-ending grief is exhausting and paralyzing.

Cooking through it

The one thing that I have done every single day of this quarantine period is cook. No matter how awful I’m feeling, I would eventually have to prepare my meal and eat it, so I thought I might as well make it something worth enjoying. Although cooking was already a hobby before, I’ve never cooked as much as I do now: I fill my days chopping, mixing, sautéing and baking away, and I spend my nights dreaming of what to make the next day, watching endless Youtube videos from my favorite chefs and cooking channels (Any fellow Bon Appétit Test Kitchen fans?).

Detours From Home Nathania Chua

COOKING THE BLUES AWAY. No matter how awful I’m feeling, I would eventually have to prepare my meal and eat it, so I thought I might as well make it something worth enjoying. All photos by Nathania Chua

As the days and weeks flew by, cooking evolved into something more than just an activity of sustaining myself. It's been tough trying to work or even just stay sane while a deadly virus ravages mankind, and I’ve learned that the time I spend in the kitchen helps. Food became more than a hobby for me, it was a coping mechanism. It is both my survival and my joy. I found comfort in the idea that regardless of what happens, tomorrow I can have a good meal.

Beloved Filipino food writer Doreen Fernandez once asked, “Who can think of food without thinking of their mothers?” My mom knows how much I love food and would always comment about how enthusiastic I get about whatever dish I had in front of me. “Ang sarap mo kumain,” she would always say. These days under quarantine, I think of how she'd look if she were sitting across me as I happily ate my lunch or dinner. Sometimes, I send her a picture of the food I've made. I’d tell her how my spinach lasagna turned out and how she could make it too since she’s vegetarian. Despite being thousands of miles away from home, I can share these moments with my family, as if I were still at our dinner table. 

Good food, better days

As of today, I’ve hit the two-month mark of this lockdown and I’ve learned to make so many new dishes, most of which I share on social media and exchange recipes with friends. I’ve improved my technical skills as well; I can cook my steak medium-rare with confidence, and I can count on my chocolate soufflé to rise. Without breaking a sweat, I can poach an egg that oozes its bright yellow yolk when cut on top of toast. Even when a dish doesn’t turn out the way I want it to, at least I had fun and won’t go hungry. It’s also exciting imagining my next culinary challenge, the toughest ones typically saved for the weekend.

And while food helps me look forward, it also takes me back. Every dish I prepare is seasoned with nostalgia — for a memory, a time, a place, a person, a feeling. When I make sweet and sour pork and fried rice, I think of one of the countless Chinese restaurants along Banawe my family would eat at on a Sunday evening. When I chop away to make pad thai, I think of the time my friends and I ordered too much at a food court in Kuala Lumpur.

Detours From Home Pad Thai

PAD THAI. When I chop away to make pad thai, I think of the time my friends and I ordered too much at a food court in Kuala Lumpur.

When I eat the food I’ve made, I am taken to a fond moment, while also creating a new one for myself.

Cooking through this quarantine has reminded me of better days. Through food, I continue to hope for these days, and for the world to see them again soon. – Rappler.com

Nathania is a PhD student and educator currently based in Barcelona, Spain. She does research on how we can imagine a better future for everyone, sometimes from her kitchen.