‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.