kitchen rituals

Home becomes the word

at the end of a pen,

You have to lick

to coax the ink out.’

– undated journal entry, 2021

Ok you get it, I write about the idea of home a lot. I can confidently pun(ish) anyone reading this with the completely unnecessary use of the word homage because of all the content I have spat out into the universe on this (but I won’t).

The irony is of course, that the prolificity makes me no expert and I suspect if I had a firm, applicable grasp on the word – I wouldn’t write about it so much. 

Just like growing up can feel like a slackening of the self from societal coils –  my definition of home gets more fluid with time, and each wave rinses more sand from the accumulation of hermit crab shells.

my definition of home gets more fluid with time, and each wave rinses more sand from the accumulation of hermit crab shells.

There are obvious ways to recall a feeling of home – many of them are nouns; the people and places and things that ground us. A long Phone call, a Movie. Sights. Smells. Photos. Then there are the rituals, inherited or otherwise, the things that we do that fine-tune that feeling of home but also lay breadcrumbs back to yourself.

I recently upgraded my home coffee situation. It requires an apparatus that puts me uncomfortably close to ‘coffee bro’ territory. One of the said items is a coffee bean grinder which I have also been using to make my own spice blends. Sri Lankan curries often require a base spice mix made up of roasted curry powder or unroasted curry powder. Roasted curry powder is a mix of several spices dry-roasted in a pan until fragrant and then blitzed into a potent, rich curry powder which marinates the life back into meat. I made a Sri lankan beef curry last night that took me to several of my aunty’s tables which will have to for now as long-haul travel remains off my table. 

Sri Lankan roasted curry powder in the making

Unroasted curry powder is a lot simpler – four ingredients instead of 13, blended and used in a range of dishes. I have most often used this on vegetarian side dishes, like in the carrot and green bean veggie accompaniment to yesterday’s meal. Raw curry powder lent its flavour recently to a Sri lankan jackfruit curry on the advice of the virtual diaspora i.e I asked on Insta stories. I have not spent much time in Sri Lanka as an adult and so chasing dishes and flavours – some that I didn’t even appreciate as a child, has relied on a hell of a lot of reading, watching and tapping into the collective knowledge of other third-culture kids like myself. 

Sri Lankan raw curry powder

The Jackfruit charmed my childhood memories long before it was declared a superfood. These hunking beasts would hang like alien skin tags on trees in many domestic gardens in Sri Lanka. They are terrifying from the perspective of an 8 year old not keen on getting bopped on the head by one.

 My mother was raised by her aunt and the families were close so that I was lucky enough to have two maternal grandmothers. I did not realise until I made jackfruit curry for the first time in my kitchen in Zürich, how much this dish linked to my memories of them. In order to get the best use out of jackfruit – they are picked whilst still green and made into savoury curries. Those that are left to ripen on the ground are kept out of the way – these are massive, boulderlike and aggressively tropical fruit. When ripe, the fruit is a bright mustard yellow and incredibly sweet. Jackfruit seeds are also edible  – these would be boiled to remove the outer husk, sun-dried and roasted, then finally sprinkled with chili and salt. 

Jackfruit curry, Pol (coconut) sambol, and Leek and potato curry, served with rice

The turmeric has already stained the see-through plastic of the coffee grinder. It makes me happy to look at it. It feels like a small victory for all the times I tried to hide the curry stains on my plastic containers growing up in Hong Kong. Now my pantry is a colour swatch for decolonization. If I start making my own cold brew coffee though, please send for help. 

Cooking connects me to the places I call home, but my true kitchen-love is baking. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that this was an accumulated skill. This is not to say this was also not demonstrated by my legions of aunts and cousins in the kitchen. Having a butter cake or ‘short eat’ savouries that could be sliced or fried at a moments’ notice whilst a visitor parks their car (who really would drop in unannounced at any time –  the actual stuff of nightmares for me) is a non-negotiable in many Sri Lankan households.

I suppose you could say that whilst cooking feels like a celebration of where I have been, baking is an open road.

Baking relies on chemical principles that over time, become second nature and leaves a lot of room for creativity and experimentation. It gives me the same satisfaction as picking up a pen and writing what happens next. I suppose you could say that whilst cooking feels like a celebration of where I have been, baking is an open road.

The rituals that feel like home when it comes to specifically baking are numerous (licking bowls, anyone?) but what I find most gratifying is making any kind of dough – breads, pie crust, quiche, pizza, roti, dessert – actually, the yeastier the better. Making dough by itself is satisfying, but after a few years developing a feel for – adapting to a preference, being able to read it and adjust based on how it feels that day. There’s a sort of muscle memory that comes with the repetition that makes it feel ritualistic. 

Quiche dough

So, in short, to add to my many definitions of home – it is true that home is where the heart is, and this is especially true when coupled with the adage that the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach. 

footnotes on existence

I moved to Zurich from Hong Kong in September 2020, and have since become severely algorithmically challenged.

From almost the very beginning, my social feeds were a disaster to wrangle. My first social networks consisted mainly of ex-classmates migrated off chat programs from three different countries.

 Then came the friends and family furthering that geographic sprawl, add colleagues, folk from the literary community, and the different social and interest groups as life took its course, including several dreadful parenting groups for the Schadenfreude (and occasional restaurant recommendation.)

In recent years, for better or for worse, we have all observed politics splinter the superficial veneer of our lives online. In 2020 this reached a fever pitch with the plague of our times and a litany of public opinion amplified in the absence of physical places to gather. 

I started dropping platforms despite an intense desire to ‘stay in touch’ remain ‘accessible’ and only be ‘one whatsapp away.’ Scrolling made me listless, everything I encountered felt mildly chaotic and a list of connections built up over a decade was unmanageable. It made me yearn for those top 8 days. Posts competed with ads in different languages, time zones, and news cycles leaving me somewhat bleary eyed in the blue light.

The algorithmic shift was a circuit breaker to lifelong digital habits.

My corporate life had springboarded with the advent of social media, and quality content remains part of what forms my professional identity today. The algorithmic shift was a circuit breaker to lifelong digital habits. As a digital native, I was raised on blogs, and cut my teeth on the ‘content economy’. It was not just a way to consume content but to participate and make sense of the world. All milestones had their pixelated counterparts, and became a digital undercurrent to life – over time, and as my family grew it became my scrapbook. Despite this, I have been ruthlessly editing where I spent my time in the last year. 

My most used social network is currently causing waves as older millennials bristle at the way it is changing. I am one of them – constantly irritated at not being able to listen to music as I scroll because of the barrage of video content. I am mortified at how much space this thought takes up in my brain but oddly it’s this, and a comment from a friend about reverting to older digital habits that brought me back to this blog. I had given up the domain and was happy to include it in my platform purge –  until now. 

It’s fair to say I have an unusual name, so the fact that I could never claim the domain was a little bizarre. By strange coincidence, somebody with the last name Gallagher who was in local government in Nashua, New Hampshire had driven the domain price into four figures even years after it was retired – that is, until I checked this week. Even more coincidentally, somebody with the last name ‘Nash’ contacted me for the ‘aDashofNash’ domain for years, and in my lofty ideas of what I wanted previous versions of this blog to be, I held on to it longer than I should have. 

A little bit of domain roulette reminded me that it doesn’t need eyeballs or reach for me to want to exorcise white spaces with words. It’s nice to own my own name, and have a place for these footnotes on existence. 

WRITING

The remains of my many childhood journals are in various stages of decomposition in landfills in at least four different countries. I have preserved very little, and what I have kept I cannot bear to read. Nor for the most part can I make out the handwriting or the knotted thoughts I was trying to unpick underneath the writing. As an adult, if I take pen to paper, it’s generally in response to some other symptom that can only be sweated out, purged in whatever metaphoric fever I find myself fighting. Some may call this inspiration. 

The thought of leaving out a journal that could be read, (judged, really) – childish scrawls, ideas shallow and new, shocking punctuation et al caused me to panic-rip pages and dispose of them immediately. My subconscious regrettably came to some sort of conclusion that I wrote in order to be read and therefore all my words had to be read-y.

It’s embarrassing to think about now. As though every sentence I wrote began with a shot from the muses’ well, as though folk would be interested in again, the diaries of a _child_, whatever success I would go on to have in later life. Is it any less self-indulgent than your average aspiring writer?  Perhaps even on-the-nose considering my particular poison is poetry. Thankfully, this writing-to-be-read feeling didn’t last. If it did, I doubt it would have ever moved beyond a feeling. 

It took me ten years to publish my first poetry collection and I have a blog that averages one post per quarter on a good year. This is hardly the behaviour of a rational person who primarily writes to be read. Having actually experienced the pleasure of having my work published and read – even taught (!) I can confirm whilst thrilling, it was not the motivation behind the work. It’s clear now that wanting to publish a book so other people can read it, is like wanting to get married just to have a wedding. To abuse this metaphor further, I find that just like a dress that may not fit years later, there is a stylistic statute of limitation on a piece of work too. This is likely the main reason I will always write. To hear what I sound like, on the outside. It is not elegant or inspiring and is hardly less self-absorbed – but I feel a little bit better that it doesn’t presume perfection, or even an audience.

For years I would chide myself for not being prolific enough. Being a part of a spoken word community helped maintain the habit on a good day, and produced bad poetry on a bad one. I would often grasp at whatever was happening in my life at that time, ram it into the shape of a poem so I could show up on a stage and prove I had something to say, which is in itself the quickest way to say absolutely nothing. Then I would edit it within an inch of its life and find the thing that caused the poem in the first place. Sometimes, several years later. (This is why I have a particular distaste for poems that are forced to rhyme. A natural rhyme is wonderful, a forced one conjures images of a baby straining against a swaddle – parents are told it is the natural order of things, contrary to the wailing evidence in front of them.)

I also loved the extra-curriculars afforded to a writer. Reading feels like a side-hustle, participating in literary events, long conversations dissecting books, performing my work, workshopping with other writers, writing reviews and generally having a space to talk about all the parts of life we have collectively dog-earred. This also serves as a brilliant distraction from writing, and when I grew sick of reading the same poems out loud over and over again, it eventually became the fastest one-way ticket to imposter syndrome.

It’s been a couple years since my first book came out. I have made some big swings in my personal life, shed miles of skin – real, metaphorical, other – and needed to lie down a lot. I am no longer a part of a wonderful spoken word community as this is now on the other side of the world. The pandemic has meant that my goodbyes here sort of petered out, no dramatic farewell, just life that had to be gotten on with. 

The pressure to write is gone. The good kind is always within reach, but I am glad to let go of the bad kind, which would often detract from the point of it all. Some of this has to do with having scratched that childhood itch. I wrote a book, people have read it, some have even liked it, but the dream wasn’t the book. The dream was to keep writing.  

I do not regret the journals I have thrown out. The words I have deleted. Poems that start in the shower or as I am falling asleep that never get written. The times I have forgotten my notebook, or a pen, or simply forgot to think about it. I am no longer desperate to only archive the things that make me look best, because writing is a true thing, and the process is the point. I do not feel guilty when life gets in the way. In fact, for my kind of writing, life HAS TO get in the way. Just living is passive writing. In many ways I don’t ever stop. In my head, on social media, when I tell stories or write emails.  So perhaps, what I am really trying to say is that writing is the way I know true things. This is how I know there will be another book. A truer book, to reflect the next writer I am, and the next, and the next.

At Home in a Bookshop

One of my poems calls home a four-letter word.

I write about that four-letter word a lot. Often through a nomadic lens. A longing, or a feeling, as brittle as an idea, as tight as a knot in your stomach, a noun passing as a verb. My various interpretations of home is the poetic equivalence to being strapped on a mediaeval torture device and having it stretched beyond its means (and meaning.)

Having recently relocated to the other side of the world, my homesickness is of a peculiar kind. Mostly tied to people and food, and not just from Hong Kong. From Sri Lanka too, where I was born, and the Philippines where I spent several formative years. Sometimes the longing is to travel back to places I have only visited. I had the most decadent vegan (!) feast of my life during a stay at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand. Another recent desire was to go back to Siem Reap and meander through the temple ruins of the Angkor civilisation. I was bewildered to learn of an overlap between the Angkor and Mayan civilisations. I knew considerably more about the latter, though the former was a mere 90 minute flight away. The bizarre familiarity of Singapore, a casual extension of Hong Kong because of friends and loved ones scattered across both cities. Adjusting my peripheral vision to Melbourne, and then eating my way through the city. The many shades of green, and warming hospitality of Ireland. Business trips to London. Reading poems on a stage, anywhere.

I feel far away, further every day from many of the places I have known and loved, a common feeling as this pandemic bleeds into the second year. We are discovering, albeit slowly (because safety first) the many delights of our new home in Switzerland, but COVID has also cheated us from the goodbyes we owed and hellos we are yet to have.

There is one particular pining for an at-home feeling that has become an itch I can’t wait to scratch, and that is, quite simply going to a bookshop. Or more accurately, finding my bookshop here.

There are few simple pleasures I find as thrilling, and have been wired like this ever since I was a little girl when my mother would deposit me in the nearest one whilst she shopped. (Something I secretly hope my own family would do!) I never found the time I ‘killed’ at a bookshop wasted. The excitement and low-grade anxiety at finding ‘the one’ for the weekend, or as a present for someone else (I don’t need the hand-wringing that comes with this but is still my favourite thing to gift people.) I miss it all.

Here are some of my favourites from around the world… starting with my home town of Hong Kong.

Bookazine is where you would find me cross-legged on the floor as a child and popping in often on my lunchbreak as an adult. It’s been very cool growing up with Bookazine, although I would concede that their glow-up has been far snazzier than my own. Younger me would be delighted to know that I eventually launched my own book there, and I will admit openly and self-indulgently that seeing it in their branches all over the city remains a personal highlight. I have seen people glance over it, pick it up, give it a once over and put it down, and thrillingly, once someone took it to the counter. I considered saying something for a nano-second and was so embarrassed by the thought I ran out of there to the relief of my bank balance.

Bleak House Books is effortlessly cool, an indomitable spirit and a literary light in the city. They sell both new and second-hand books from all over the world with enviable curation prowess. Some of my most treasured books originated from their shelves – a vintage copy of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and the graphic novel ‘Rosalie Lightning,’ for instance. They also carry the largest collection of pocketbook Penguin classics I have seen in Hong Kong. In normal times, Bleak House Books host multiple events in support of the literary community and are a real asset to and amplifier of the Hong Kong literary scene.

Flow Books is a scavenger hunt disguised as a second-hand bookshop. The floor-to-ceiling gravity-defying tetris of books is a wonderful visual metaphor for the Central/Soho neighbourhood it is based in. There is extreme danger of doing some damage to your neck as you crane horizontally and vertically looking for a gem amongst the bestseller duplicates of the last two decades. I have knocked over more towers of books than I should publicly admit, but have also discovered some real gems. Oddly, a 700+ historical account of the Vietnam War is one of my prized possessions from Flow.

Onward to Singapore!

Books Actually – I have never felt so gobsmacked by the sheer volume of Asian literary talent and how front-and-centre-shout-from-the-rooftops celebrated local authors are. I made a rather non-human sound at the poetry section alone, which was prominent, well-stocked and expertly sourced. A browse around the shop is an education in how diverse bookshelves can be. Brain candy, wherever you look. The most prominent feature (for me) was a book vending machine in front of the shop. The books in the vending machine are uniformly wrapped, with only the briefest of lines about them to entice you to purchase. I regret not doing so, convinced it wouldn’t be long before I returned (with a bigger suitcase.)

Finally, to London where pleasure always mixed with business, certainly where books were concerned.

Persephone Books is justifiably a cult favourite. Both bookshop and publisher, Persephone re-publishes 19th and 20th century books from predominantly female authors whose work gets a second life where they may have been under-appreciated the first time around. The books are limited, numbered, and printed in signature cool grey covers, and walking into the shop is a minimalist, feminist dream. The end papers are unique to each book, and comes with a matching bookmark which as you can imagine, is deeply satisfying. Their free catalog is sent all over the world and has become a favourite way to spend an hour or so with a giant marker and an even bigger cup of tea. They aren’t just beautiful books. The variety is wonderful, and there really is something for everyone. Outside of lockdown, the staff are extremely knowledgeable and though I have never visited at 4’o clock sharp to confirm this firsthand – the shop stops for tea and cake precisely at this time every day. I could do a whole series just on the books I love from Persephone Books, but will save that for another time.

Daunt Books is old-world wanderlust meets the most marvellous dark wood panelled library of your dreams. I have only been to the Marylebone shop but enter and you will see what looks like a modern-edging-on-chic bookshop – transform – or rather transport its patrons around the world by way of its ground floor galley. Think ‘Fox Books meets The Shop Around The Corner‘ from the movie You’ve Got Mail, but British, and rather grand. The books downstairs are organised by country of origin and it is easy to be completely enthralled and taken in as you peruse the shelves. There are few – bordering on no bookshops I have visited outside of Sri Lanka with more than just travel guides about the country. Outside of the county-specific selection the general fiction and nonfiction shelves are also rather excellent, or so say the number of cloth bags from Daunt that I possess..

Writing this was a rather cheering, or at the very least, settling. To have stumbled on so many wonderful bookshops in multiple countries suggests it’s not unreasonable to hope that I will be able to add to this list before long. After all, book sales are currently booming the world over according to multiple reports. Looking forward to the day where we can do more than add-to-cart, although having said that, I know at least three of the shops above offer book subscription services worth checking out.

Chunky Triple Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies

This is my ultimate bake. Simple, satisfying and has at times functioned in place of an emotional support animal. Get right down to the recipe below + a mobile friendly version, and keep scrolling for tips and more.

All you really need to know is that my love for the humble chocolate chip cookie is a borderline obsession. If that’s enough to convince you to make this recipe – here you go:

…..Or save this quick reference image on your phone.

This recipe began its life fifteen years ago (!) as the Best, Big, Fat Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe on allrecipies.com. I’ve spent the last decade and a half tweaking it to taste. A note on some of the ingredients:

CHEWINESS There are several components to this recipe to maximise on chewiness. Using two kinds of sugar, an additional egg yolk and softer butter all help with this. Using white sugar as well as brown sugar keeps it crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside. Win/Win.

BUTTER You may notice that I’ve specified a weird half-melted state for the butter. This is because I live in the tropics and melting the butter completely leads to a greasier cookie and doesn’t hold shape as well as I’d like, even after refrigeration. I have a 700watt microwave, so a quick 15-20 second blast helps achieve the below. It’s definitely liquid in places, but has a thicker consistency than completely melted butter.

SUGARS Any packed (fine-grain) brown sugar works. I’ve used Light Brown, Dark Brown or Muscovado with success. The darker the sugar the deeper the flavour, so if you don’t want a deep molasses after-tase, opt for a lighter brown sugar.

CHOCOLATE I’m not a fan of ready-made chocolate chips as they vary greatly in flavour and quality. Chocolate is the star of this cookie so you want to use something that will help it shine. My go-to is Lindt 100g bars of milk, dark and white.

REFRIGERATION Do not skip this step! Once you’ve beaten the everlasting life out of your softened butter, you’ve got to help it solidify in order to hold all the ingredients together when it goes into a hot oven. Don’t risk a goopy sad cookie after all that effort. Refrigerating cookie dough helps control spread. Keeping it in the fridge for at least an hour ensures that you won’t end up with a thin, inconsistent batch. This is especially true for this recipe as it calls for the butter to have such a soft consistency. I also keep my ‘dough snake’ it in the fridge between batches for consistency.

I’ve even made the batter a day or two in advance and baked cookies fresh as needed! (But I stopped doing this because we quickly found out that ‘as needed’ was all the time in this household…)

VANILLA is also sort of optional. I cannot believe I’m saying this, because I put vanilla essence in every bake, whether or not it’s called for, but a recent shortage at the shops has led to this discovery. I still recommend it because of the nostalgic pull of the scent and flavour but yes – not actually essential for this recipe if you’ve run out!

WALNUTS are optional, but texturally required in my opinion to add some crunch to an otherwise heavenly-soft cookie. You could also try any other kind of nut, or oats.

BAKE TIME varies based on your oven, cookie size and chewiness preference. A longer bake yields a crispier cookie. Play around and see what works for you. For my oven, 9-10 minutes is the sweet spot. For years, I used a smaller table-top oven, with an optimal bake time of 7 minutes. I know the cookies are done when they look like they are about to get crisp edges. They don’t look wet, but are still a little puffy.

When they first come out of the oven they will be pale and fragile so it’s important to leave it untouched on the tray to harden before transferring to a wire rack.

This cookie is a family staple and has doled out the yum for friends, family and neighbours over the years. If you make it, I’d love to know how it turned out for you.

Coming of Age in Hong Kong

Coming of AgeAn Asian Cha reading series event.

Join me and David McKirdy as we discuss poetry, writing, growing up in Hong Kong, and the ever elusive idea of ‘Home.’ Discussion will be moderated by Cha’s illustrious co-editor, Tammy Ho Lai-Ming.

I will be previewing excerpts from my debut collection of poetry; ‘All the Words a Stage’ (Chameleon Press) out in May.

More info on the Asian Cha event page.

Hope to see you there!