Food tells stories. Food is tied to our culture, our family and our identities. Food is what nourishes us. Food carries stories and for so many of us, it’s the unfailing crutch to get us through hard times.
This isn’t only about energy entering our bellies, comfort food can reaffirm how we understand ourselves. It demarcates our self-care methods, it signals to ourselves and to others how we might be feeling.
My favourite podcasters (the Read) often talk about being the ‘mama to your six-year-old self’, and that’s something I think a lot about.
Not only because I, in the grand scheme of things, often feel like a child, but also because self-care is hard work. I imagine being a mother is hard work— I can’t speak from experience, but my actual Mama never shied away from telling me that I was a pain to raise.
In an attempt to continue raising myself, and some sort of semblance of surviving intact, I often turn to food in hard times. It’s my act of self-care.
1. Potato gems and hot sauce: to get me through my bouts of depression
Like anyone with a mental illness, I have ups and downs. Being depressed, there are many downs. Some downs go deeper than others, and the deeper they go, the harder it is to crawl back to a surface that resembles “doing okay”.
There is a blurry six months in early 2017 that was a deep ‘down’ for me. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep and my body was fading.
During these months I ate little else but potato gems. You know, those one-kilo bags you get at the supermarket. I would have one in the freezer and fill a whole tray up every once in a while, and smother them in hot sauce (or BBQ sauce if I was feeling really down).
I would curl up in my bed watching anime like I did as a teen, with a bowl of potato gems on my belly.
I wouldn’t say I am proud of these moments, but I know this rhythm, it’s a part of me. Not only have potato gems kept me going, but there will be many times where someone important in my life can just see me, and know that to help me they need to turn the oven on.
2. Indomie, fried egg and bok choy: my “unfortunately you have not been successful this time” tonic
I haven’t been able to land a job lately.
I’ve sent countless applications, written cover letters in the hundreds, and have had cringey conversations with friends looking over my resume.
After every ‘unfortunately…’ email, I cry and make mi goreng. It's the stock standard Indo comfort food. The movements between the kettle boiling, frying an egg, fishing for the garam masala and sambal in my aunty’s kitchen makes me feel like I can at least do one thing. Even if mi goreng is not something I’m about to put in my skills section.
Between mouthfuls I toss up the usual fears I have about job searching. How am I supposed to get more experience if no one hires me? Is it because of my name? Is it because I’m too outspoken and angry online?
I pull the Indomie from the shelf. I get a bowl. I get the strainer. I get the tiny pan for one egg. I remember that this is something so many people do, something so many people experience, and that I am about to have some makanan enak and let my mama voice take over.
It soothes all my insecurities, if only until my chopsticks scrape the empty bowl.
There may be many barriers in the world, but I have found that for me, Indomie makes those barriers seem easier to overcome.
3. Mama’s lentil soup: my homesickness therapy
My mum lives in Germany and I am grateful that I still get to see her once a year.
We have a rocky relationship; she’s my mother after all. Though we disagree on many things, and misunderstand each other all the time, she loves me, with the condition that I am me.
Sometimes my own mama voice isn’t enough to help me back up, sometimes I just want go home, mope and be looked after by someone else. Self-care is hard work and sometimes going home isn’t an option.
My mama makes a mean lentil soup. She would make a huge pot and we would fry bread in copious amounts of butter to sprinkle on top.
I used to have it after school, for dinner, when I was sick, when I was tired and whenever I needed a pick me up.
Mama’s lentil soup is what makes me feel warm inside. Though it is probably the healthiest of my three comfort foods, it is also the heaviest, the most profound.
I show myself that I see what I am going through when I turn the oven on, boil the kettle or soak lentils. I am recognising and acknowledging my feelings in a way that only the mama in me can. This validation and nourishing of myself is what truly comforts.
Sumarlinah Winoto is a freelance writer. Follow them on Twitter at @smr_win