Cooking as an antidote to alienation

At eighteen, I left my home smelling of crushed cinnamon, cardamom and star anise. I stepped into Australia in the intense summer of 2013. The air smelled of eucalyptus and rosemary – a smell that I still pick up in the summer. The apartment I moved into had a co-share kitchen full of bumbling mice. It smelled strongly of detergent and ammonia. I felt at odds in the kitchen and the first meal I cooked turned out bland and uninspired. I hadn’t explored the city yet and I couldn’t find the right ingredients. Melbourne did not feel at all “livable” and I felt out of place and deeply alienated.

Walking into my family home is a sensory experience. There are sandalwood incense sticks and lamps full of coconut oil for the Hindu gods. This is topped by an intense smell of spices roasting in the kitchen. My family has a spice mill so my grandmother dries thatched carpets full of peppercorns and cinnamon sticks on our roof. The smell is deeply rooted in our house – it is inescapable. Right outside, there is an enormous frangipani tree. During the monsoon season, the breeze sends the flowers twirling into our house.

Back home, food is cooked in enormous tubs to feed our hungry family. We usually have a lunch of dahl curry peppered by mustard seeds and dried chilli, potatoes stir fried in spices, gotukola salad full of red onion and lime juice, pol (or coconut sambol), chicken curry and rice cooked in a turmeric, cardamom, clove and cinnamon broth. This is topped by a dessert of curd (buffalo yogurt) and kithule treacle (think of a maple syrup that has a more intense flavour) that helps the body cool in the humid afternoons.

Those first days of Melbourne, I got up to quiet and serene mornings. Melbourne and Colombo are very different – even at 6.30 in the morning, Colombo is alive and full of cars, people and religious mantras flowing from people’s homes. Insomnia has plagued me all my life, especially in never-before-slept-in rooms. My agitated mind was full of dreams and counterproductive thoughts. I yearned for a piece of tough Sri Lankan bread – so tough you have to pull hard to pull it apart, dahl curry and coconut sambol! This is the simplest of Sri Lankan meals.

My home in Sri Lanka is packed full of people. There’s my grandmother, my mom, my dad, my aunty, three cousins and me. Walking into a house in another country is strange because there are no arms full of love to hug me!

The first time I returned home after a year in Melbourne, I was jetlagged and could not sleep in the humid air. My mother took me to see the morning sky. Orange light spilled across the sky like egg yolks that had been cracked all across the sky.

My second year in Melbourne, I moved into a larger share house with more people and more life. I delicately picked spice after spice to forge my identity in this space. I still hadn’t perfected my cooking skills, but one of my housemates incorporated a red-hot chilli paste, the type that burned your tongue and scorched your throat, into his curries. With this paste in hand, I improved my cooking, until I finally cooked up the perfect pea and chickpea curry on a winter’s night, and made the large house feel finally feel like home.

At the start of the next year, I moved to Scotland. My room felt cold and surgical. The kitchen smelt empty, like nothing had been cooked in it for months. I arrived early and none of my housemates were there yet. I couldn’t catch a trace of spices. On my first night, I made mushroom pasta for sustenance but it just did not feel “right”.

My grandmother makes a delicious chicken soup that has celery leaves, carrot, potatoes, shredded chicken and egg. It is peppery and delicious. To help fight the cold, she boils coriander and ginger together. She adds sugar to this concoction and it really is a miracle cure. To fight my winter blues, I made soups and coriander tea.

I would rush home after work as a kitchen hand in the middle of Scotland’s dark winter nights – so dreary the sky hung right above my shoulders. I would get home and make a pot of rice, a simple dahl curry and a red hot coconut sambol. Eating rice and curry made my cold, surgical student house and demanding job feel homely and bearable.

Every time I set foot in Sri Lanka, my parents have a special biryani in our fridge. It is absolutely delicious; the rice scented by a mixture of cardamom, star anise, cloves, fennel and garlic; and accompanied by a piece of charcoal cooked chicken. The rice and the chicken are then baked in a big tub. Devouring this meal, I immediately feel at ease – my home feels close and familiar. My mother makes me a steaming cup of black ginger tea and I feel comfortable.

For my third and final year in university, I returned to Melbourne. The air smelled heavily of eucalyptus but no biryani, cup of tea or family greeted me.  During the evenings, I yearned for some short eats – little snacks consumed with a cup of tea, a couple of hours before dinner.

Evenings in Sri Lanka are another opportunity for a meal. We have a humble pastry shop near our house. As the sky is tinted by the evening’s spell, they unleash their evening menu – jackfruit cutlets, steaming hot fish rotis, kottu (rotti, vegetables, meat, egg and cheese stir fried together to perfection) and Mongolian rice fried full of celery, soy sauce and chilli. I long for these snacks in the evenings. During Melbourne’s hot evenings I made myself a generous pot of black tea and sugar but I miss the short eats and the burn of chilli.

Movement and change has become second nature to me. My life has been a practice of acclimatization and non-attachment. I come into a country and I make routines, I find comfort and build relationships but as the clock ticks to the end of my visa, I leave. I stayed in Melbourne for 2 and a half years, but it is time to leave again.



Devana Senanayake is currently based in Melbourne, Victoria. She is a journalist, radio producer and photographer. She focuses on race, immigration, colonisation, diasporas and food. Devana has been featured on SBS, Meanjin, The Quo, Archer Magazine and Writers Magazine. She can be found on her website and on Twitter: @dsenanayake16

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