Cooking Home and Complicating Nostalgia
Cooking Home and Complicating Nostalgia
Home isn’t real. Home is wrapped up in nostalgia, and nostalgia lies. As much as it is a space of sinking into the good times, home can be a violent memory that shelters fear and loneliness. Home is the sweat of an onion in a heating pot, and the scent of a freshly squeezed lime.
We look to fix home, to give it roots, and we create rituals as floorboards for our identity. When we build home and make meaning in new spaces, we look back to a past or a time that we felt a sense of belonging and try to re-create those moments. Ideas of home can be what keeps our migrant bodies solid and whole in the spaces of now. It is this nostalgic approach that these notions of home – routines, textures, scents, tastes - allow us to cocoon ourselves and our family in, from the newness around us.
But by looking backwards to static notions of home, we are in danger of simplifying our ideas of home and those that are in it. We are in danger of erasing people and of perpetuating a narrative that ‘home’ is always a place of safeness where, for some, that might not be the case.
Within the UK, I have watched the recent language of nostalgia create harm and otherness – friends have been violently and verbally abused in public. Since the Brexit referendum, the history of the UK was described in static terms, a staid war-winning nation that is now dealing with swarms of migrants. The long history of diversity in the UK, including that of its troops during the world wars, is erased, painting a picture of past white-ness and success. This rhetoric of erasure is using notions of home to define a nation as a place to get back to and an idea to re-create nostalgia. But, in the words of feminist political theorist, Iris Marion Young, “nationalism is an important and dangerous manifestation of this temptation, in romanticizing “homeland””. This is language that has been utilised in post-colonial spaces when trying to recapture a time before colonialism; in both spaces, it creates a dangerous idea of home, one that was never real.
Academic Doreen Massey talks about how the past isn’t static, and how nostalgia can manipulate space and time and that this “robs others of their histories”. When this happens, we need to rework and rethink what nostalgia is.
Food has been my poetry of nostalgia, of creating my space of home and belonging. But have I used food as nostalgia to make a static past? Have I been romanticizing my past, to find a way to belong in my present? How am I able to complicate my nostalgia?
In an article for Taste written by food writer and chef Soleil Ho, the concept of ‘assimilation food’ focused my thinking on creating home through cooking and a way for me to think about my nostalgia. As a child, Soleil’s grandmother combined foods from a past, with available ingredients. Soleil describes this as “new cuisine, forged from sensory memories and new ingredients”, allowing for a past and a present to co-exist. And so, in a quest to further untangle my relationship with nostalgia and belonging in my chosen home, London, I spoke with two chef friends with migrant backgrounds about how they cook at home.
Elizabeth Haigh was born in Singapore and grew up in the UK, raised by a Chinese Singaporean mother and an English father. She told me of two food memories that are imprinted on her. One is of her family sitting on the marble floor of the Singapore flat, eating durian on newspapers. Her dad is in the corner of the room, as far away as possible place from the smell. The other is a scene in England, her family cooking bread and butter pudding in England for Sunday roast dinner. Her mother is teaching her how to make custard. Both of these memories have very physical and sensorial aspects to them - the distance of her father from the fruit, the act of teaching and learning, and the specificity of location.
I asked her what she wants her son, who just turned one, to think about when it comes to food, and what knowledge she would like to impart on him as a chef, as a mother, and as someone who’s grown up with two cultural identities. “I like to prep fish myself because I like to have the head on,” Elizabeth says. “And, it takes me back. I can hear my mother scaling the fish into a little plastic bag”. She wants her son to know the noise of preparing meals, of being intimately a part of all of the ingredients. But this act is also part of a cultural identity, of passing down a Chinese food heritage that involves cooking with fish heads.
MiMi Aye is a British-born to Burmese parents. We spoke about how food feeds our space to belong, as MiMi cooked lunch for me. The Nan Gyi Thoke (warm chicken noodle salad) was my first taste of Burmese food, which she made wearing a htamein (sarong). Cooking in a sarong brings back memories of watching my aunties cook in their sarongs, and me on my own on hot summer nights staring at an empty fridge in my London flat. And so, this new dish came with connotations of home. Home can sneak up on you.
For MiMi, it has been important to normalise the strong flavours than can be in Burmese food for her children, such as ngapi (fish or shrimp paste), by making them part of their daily life. But she also fondly recalls eaten modified versions of Burmese food in the UK. As a child, she would have spaghetti pasta in dishes as noodles weren’t available, something she still does out of nostalgia and ease. Burmese food isn’t well known in the UK, but the her upcoming cookbook, Mandalay: recipes and tales from a Burmese kitchen, will hopefully be a tangible building block for a Burmese identity in the UK.
Personally, I have been researching Sarawak pepper to find a current space of home and facing my past. The spice is integral to my history. My father is Iban, which is an indigenous people in East Malaysia in the state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. During the colonial period, they were dramatically known as the Headhunters of Borneo. Ibans are rice farmers but have also been growing pepper since the British Empire; it is considered high-grade in the global marketplace and pepper vines are a clear memory of my childhood.
My early childhood was in Sarawak; later, I lived in New Zealand, my mother’s home, and now I’m a British citizen. I felt that if I could understand this spice, as a flavour and as an economy, I could better understand my place in the world. Travelling back and forth between Sarawak and the UK, I have stood in the spaces where I remembered the pepper vines to be, on my family farm; yet, they no longer exist there. The heat and the sound of the river by the farm makes me feel instantly like a child, but the scenery is different; I feel too tall for the space. When I use it in London, the earthy smell of the pepper, feels less like an ingredient and much more like an emotion. And the shared London kitchen - with one flatmate’s KitchenAid and another’s toast crumbs taking up the bench space - feels more like a real space of home than standing in the absence of pepper vines.
My memory of home is one of smoke and heat of Sarawak. It’s of rivers and the smell of petrol from the longboats. The fire is burning, there is smell of food cooking; this is the space of home, permeating through memories, stable, consistent and familiar.
The shadowy figure of my mother is always present in this imagined place of home, permanently positioned within the space of nostalgia. I hold another version of my mother in my memory, one that’s situated in the New Zealand sunshine. Her white skin is burning and she looks like all of the other mothers, yet my sister and I look so different to the kiwi kids.
My mother gets to be a shadow in Sarawak and in flesh in New Zealand. Both versions of my mother sit separately, and therefore I don’t allow for a version of her that is fluid. She is a complex individual exiting in multiple spaces.
But if I take a way a sense of time and space and think about the food I ate and learnt to cook, through food I can hold multiple homes in both hands, at the same time. Through food, I can make conflicting identities whole. Through food, my mother gets to be both the woman who taught me to be Malaysian and my white New Zealand mother who built me a new home in a strange cold country. If I think of her continuous hunt for the perfect rendang recipe, her great chicken rice, her mouth-watering chicken liver pate and her familiar, warming gravy as being part of the same person, she gets to be in both spaces of my nostalgia and my present at the same time.
Cooking nourishes and pleases, its smells coat a space making it yours. The tangibility of it makes home a reality.