I arrived in Amsterdam without any real idea of how utterly unfriendly the weather would be. My ill-equipped Australian sneakers slipped all over the icy pavement, and when I walked into the foyer of the University of Amsterdam Law School the pulse of blood in my face had slowed to a dull ebb and I could barely tell them my name.
The place was not my friend in the first weeks I was there. I was lonesome, cold and hungry. Mum had always cooked me real food. Food that was worthwhile eating, not just something you did at the end of the day. But I just couldn’t seem to get it together enough to cook myself a decent meal. I didn’t really know what cooking a decent meal looked like either. And I’d forgotten my laptop charger; home seemed further away than it had ever been.
The outer suburb of Diemen, where my student container apartment was, had the charm of a soviet bunker and because I had no laptop, and therefore no internet, I couldn’t find the local supermarket. I lived on milk and cereal for three days, supplementing my meals with the jellybeans and stroopwaffles found in student orientation tote bags. About a week after I arrived, I mustered the courage to ask the bored looking apartment block caretaker where the supermarket was. The concrete-fronted shop front was strangely familiar and exceptionally different at the same time – fluoro lit and half empty. I bought so much I couldn’t balance the bags on the handlebars of my bike, and riding unsteadily along a damp concrete path I crashed into the icy grass and sat there with tears in my eyes until the wet started seeping into my undies.
All I had to cook with in those months was a pot, a pan, a blunt knife and a wooden spoon. The pot was so thin it was like it had been beaten out from a tin can. I didn’t want to buy anything for the same reason I couldn’t make myself a decent meal. For some reason all the things you learn how to do as an adult, like look after yourself in the most basic ways, were just that little bit too far out of reach for me.
In a sullen attempt to beat the mood dampening effects of the cold climate, with lonesomeness at my ear and some cheap plastic plates in the cupboard, I tried to cook my favourite dish from home. It’s called Creamy Chicken. A hand-me-down from my Mum’s best friend consisting of two key and unsurprising ingredients, chicken and cream. The surprise is oregano, dried and sprinkled through the creamy sauce. Served with tinned corn. About as supremely homemade as you can get, this meal works on me in ways that I can barely describe. It’s like a relief, a consolation and reassurance in a hot, salty bowl of food. It was also probably number one of the three things I could actually cook. When I got home to Melbourne six months later, Mum asked me what I wanted to eat and the only thing in my mind was creamy chicken.
Around this time I had broken up with my boyfriend of two years. I was drinking too much, though often surprised to wake with nary a hangover, a state that I most unscientifically attributed to the “air” and the “clean” beer. I’d met some other exchange students and was spending a lot of my internal monologue-ing convincing myself that if only I was a little less me, they’d probably like me a whole lot more. And in the midst of all this, during wild sweaty late nights in clubs, too much booze and not enough real food, I met a new person. He was named after an Austrian composer, he was about as European as they come, but one calm fresh day at his apartment he sat me down in front of a plate of nasi lemak.
As I ate, a warm sense of relief pulsed in the back of my head. Nothing else was really relevant until I had finished this and had sat back, staring at the empty, fingerlicked plate. He turned to me with a smile on his face, looked down at my plate and said, “Have you watched Masterchef?”
There’s a special type of relief that food gives me from being lonely or alone or tired and sad. I’m not afraid of food, or ashamed of what I eat, and I don’t revel in the professionalisation of food either. Two years after eating nasi lemak with that boy, streaming an entire season of Masterchef from our student container apartments, and moving 16,535km back to Melbourne, I discovered that there was often nothing else I wanted to be doing than cooking and eating. It started with looking over his shoulder at dinner time, watching how he effortlessly chopped coriander, cucumber, spring onions and garlic, mixed them all together in a hot pan with some sesame oil and served it by the side of chicken poached in ginger and rice wine. When he started to ask me do little parts of each meal myself, I’d start slowly, often finding it more intuitive than I had expected. I can’t quite remember how or when this process started to hold such importance to me. But it never seemed hard, or frustrating – just effortless.
And even after this boy, who had introduced me to nasi lemak, broke my heart and I couldn’t do much more than sob, wide-mouthed and howling into the sheets, I could still bring myself to cook a decent dinner. Some kind of encouragement from my unconscious, a gentle nudge towards what I knew would soothe the ache. That first meal was a chicken schnitzel with coleslaw. The next one after that was eggplant risotto with fresh lemon zest and more butter than the recipe advised. I started going to the market with my new housemates. Returning laden with vegetables, stalks attached, bursting with dirty verdant scents. I’d come home from work, my mind alive with ideas for the evening’s meal. After a while my housemates knew not to interrupt or ask if I needed help. Perhaps they could see that in cooking I was finding a way to slow down, take the break they were always counselling me to enjoy. Maybe they also saw my determination, my desire to do it all by myself and on my own, because I’d learnt to cook when it was just for me. That, and I can be a chronic only child sometimes.
Now I often find myself in bed with a cookbook instead of a novel. I still watch Masterchef with religious intensity – not for the competition but for the complete satisfaction I get from seeing an ordinary person turn an artichoke and some lemons into something brilliant and unexpected. There’s something about the endeavour of cooking and eating that draws on the excitement of creation, the anticipation that builds when you know something is going right. The feeling you get when you’re in one unbroken and glorious steam of experience.
There’s an element of newness to it all each time, discovery of some new way to deal with the ingredients at hand. Freedom within constraint. Being able to focus and unfocus at the same time. To let my hands do what my mind knows they can, without my consciousness getting in the way and niggling at that knob of fear. To travel along just below my surface thoughts for a while, deliberating on whether the sprouts are tender or the flavours are combining in the best way. A part of my life where I can rest when things get tricky and that I know I can turn to when I’ve had that kind of day, or when I’ve been eating takeaway every meal while working 15 hours a day.
Neither is cooking just about sustenance, or good ingredients or the oft avowed “passion” or “love” of food. For me, cooking and eating sparks a feeling that is deeply personal, something I find hard to articulate. The process of gathering a meal together makes me feel entirely self-possessed and bold in a way no other practice in my life does. I know how to boil an egg and I’ve never made a souffle but I read a recipe and think, ‘yes of course, why wouldn’t you do that?’ In so many other parts of my life I’m critical beyond constructive, telling myself that I can’t to it, and that I’ve proved to myself that I can’t because of every time I’ve failed. I dread sitting down to my laptop, writing essays and composing emails. I don’t get that with food. I know, with real conviction that I can just complete these 10 tasks and after that there will be something in front of me that works some kind of magic on my insides. It’s just that easy.
Food for me is a recognition of what I need to stay sane. It’s a practice of becoming centred, immune from my own criticism and assured of myself.
For a while I’ve been dreaming about something. And I’m going to tell you what it is so that I hold myself to it for you. Next year I’m going to make a feast for Chinese New Year. I’m not Chinese and the day has no special significance for me, but it’s something I want to do. Pick a day, take time off work, hole myself up in the kitchen and bliss out on the whole thing. Watching a boiling pot with half an eye, wiping my hands on my track pants and brushing my fringe across my forehead. Completely there.
Image: Dominic Lockyer
Adelaide is an arts producer and community lawyer, living in her favourite place in the world, Canberra. She loves bicycles, speculative fiction and delicious dinners. @Adelaide__R @ScissorPaperPen