Finding refuge in cooking during this period of confinement

Finding refuge in cooking during this period of confinement

Who knew chopping and deep-frying could make my anxieties feel non-existent?

Art by Charmee Yu

 

On a regular day on the internet, I’m intermittently greeted by reminders of the implications of this pandemic to our mental health, which will then be followed by well-meaning suggestions to deal with confinement.

When the situation in our country began spiraling down, it didn’t hit me at once that long days of isolation would force me into a confrontation with my anxieties. The idea that I’d be dealing with a newcomer to my long-time companions only brushed my mind, dismissing it with, this probably won’t last long but the illusion of the disruption being short-lived only lasted briefly. Shortly after the quarantine was implemented, daily news of increasing deaths, rising cases, the delayed action (or lack thereof) of the government, and the constant gaslighting of our officials have placed the platter of my anxieties right in front of me. 

What I felt wasn’t exactly anything new. The uneasiness, the worrying that can feel paralyzing, and the seemingly lack of control were feelings I’ve already learned to live with, but there’s definitely an added weight to my load. There’s a pressure I can’t particularly find the origin of, but it exists, and it becomes more noticeable as days of the quarantine drag on. Then there are also hours spent asleep with hopes of it becoming a respite, only for it to be consumed by vivid dreams I could do much without.

Time spent in my own head has been directed towards either trying to address my emotions or just feeling it altogether. I try to keep it in check, no matter how difficult it can be to unpack. Problem is, trying to pinpoint it now feels pointless. Everything feels like it’s been mashed together like our new concept of time.  It might be the thought of endless days, plans that can no longer be concretized, or how my go-to ways of dealing with my anxiety wasn’t working as it should. 

Whenever I’m desperate for relief, I’d often wonder, does it make it easier that we’re going through this as a country? Is there even comfort from the thought that it’s a shared experience?  Some days there is ⁠— and I try to find it, but truthfully, when you’re like me whose emotions are usually bottled up, it’s mostly days upon days of discomfort. 

 

The uneasiness, the worrying that can feel paralyzing, and the seemingly lack of control were feelings I’ve already learned to live with, but there’s definitely an added weight to my load. There’s a pressure I can’t particularly find the origin of, but it exists, and it becomes more noticeable as days of the quarantine drag on.

 

So, it only made sense to find alternatives where I can channel my restlessness. As we all adjusted to stay-at-home orders, I also found a shift in my online feed. There were more plates of creamy pastas, jars of bread starters, and canned goods-made-gourmet tempting me from my phone. It seems like as we were deciding on a new routine for ourselves, most of us turned to our kitchens.

I’ve never been much of a cook. I could narrow the recipes I know by heart with one hand, but this quarantine had me scouring our fridge to gather ingredients of recipes I found online. The appeal of it is it makes people feel good about themselves; studies have shown that cooking offers instant gratification. It’s harder to cook in this circumstance, mostly because ingredients aren’t easy to get unless you line up for hours at the grocery. But every successful attempt gives me doses of endorphins I’ve been craving, and another if it gets my mother’s validation.

On top of having a meal to fulfill myself, my focus being averted from my distress was addictive. Now, instead of aggravating my anxious self by forming unlikely scenarios in my head, I’m now folding batter to make souffle pancakes or deep-frying breaded chicken.

I savor the time when I’m able to distract myself with the smell of butter and frying onions, the initial sizzle when raw meat touches the pan, when I mince my garlic to its tiniest bits, and when the pasta sauce starts to thicken. When my first attempt to cook carbonara sans any cream didn’t turn into a stir-fry noodle, which the Italian gods have been warning of, it made me feel like I could survive even when life goes even more haywire.

I categorize the dishes I cook in three. One, is where I try to recreate cravings. The ones I usually order from restaurants or dishes I’ve spotted in a K-drama. So, even if my chicken katsudon or my kimchi/bagoong fried rice might warrant some curses from TV chefs, I’d take it if it means I’m able to funnel out the waves of panic inside my head.

Two, are easy ones, particularly for short breaks from work and my laptop screen. It takes 15 minutes tops and it’s usually anything tuna, name it: pasta, sandwiches, pies, and spreads. 

 

Now, instead of aggravating my anxious self by forming unlikely scenarios in my head, I’m now folding batter to make souffle pancakes or deep-frying breaded chicken.

 

And three, comforting dishes that are, for me, foolproof. Involves a lot of mushrooms, garlic powder, ground pork, and noodles. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, it could be an instant ramen with boiled eggs on top, ground pork rolled into meatballs, or mushrooms swimming in a ginger-chicken soup. 

By the end of every session in the kitchen, I would share photos of what I cooked to family members away from home, and in response they’d do the same, like our tiny online version of communal dining. In these moments where I get to put newly-cooked food on our table, I am still and continually reminded of the luck and privilege of being able to fill our stomachs despite the situation. 

While making food I’ve been missing with my mediocre cooking skills has done wonders to my anxiety, albeit temporary, I continue to look forward to days when going to malls for groceries wouldn’t feel so strange anymore — and when our daily lives will no longer be defined by the pandemic. For now, I could only create mental lists of where I want to go and eat out after all this.

It’s comforting to know that I’ve found a reliable remedy to take the spaces occupied by my inner demons. When overwhelming thoughts persist, you can catch me in our kitchen finding new recipes to try, poring over promises of a tangible escape from the worries in my mind.

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