When we lose a physical connection to a place, we tend to replace it with other connections – new relationships, friends, nightlife, or beaches. No matter what it is, we attempt to find signs of familiarity in the new road we have chosen to tread. In my case, I found romance in Thai cuisine. I had fallen head over heels for it that indulging in a bowl of phở gà (chicken noodle soup) here in Vietnam feels very much like adultery. In my two-week love affair with Thailand, I learned how central food was to my travels, and how I viewed life through the food that I ate.
I like food that engages the senses. When I eat, I notice not only the taste but also the aroma of food. At times, I look for simplicity. Sometimes, complexity. I seek contrasts. I yearn for flavors that strengthen one another as they compete for attention. I want my food to be a microcosm of my daily realities – colorful, romantic, and mindful. When a dish involves all the senses, it’s a gift of love. Thai food embodies this quite visibly through its numerous pleasant qualities – aroma and spiciness (smell), heat and piquancy (touch), vibrant colors (sight), and sweetness and tang (taste). Add a teaspoon of kitchen chaos and one measure of the cheerful chatting of fellow customers and you’ve got the perfect soundtrack to accompany your meal.
Like life and love, Thai food evolves with you. Your first bowl is bliss. Your second is comfort. Your third is familiarity. But the succeeding servings become an exercise in rediscovery, in going deeper, in tasting new layers of flavors you did not notice when you experienced your first kiss in a hurry. Food here has become a crossroad where flavor and nutrition meet after a prolonged long-distance love affair. The extensive use of basil, coriander, kaffir lime, and lemongrass creates a complex flavor profile that is easily adjustable.
When you’re homeless, food is probably the only reminder of your being alive. I happened to be “homeless” in Thailand when I began my quest to feed myself with decadently spicy food. Since then, it has become a powerful connector between me and Thai people. I was a returning customer to many family-owned restaurants, and the homey feeling that welcomed me was often coupled with genuine conversations. I visited a coffee shop where I could sit comfortably in a sofa and chat leisurely with the owner.
Thai food had become an extension of my spirituality. I told my family and friends that, since I left home, I had been more prayerful and I had been sensing a stronger connection to the world. In my country, Thai food is extremely expensive in spite of being relatively more vegetarian than Philippine cuisine. Since the latter rarely incorporates strong herbs and spices, most Southeast Asian dishes appear too exotic in the Philippines and, thus, are offered at higher prices. In Thailand, I was inundated with chances to savor the kind of meal I was reluctant to pay for at home. The act of smelling the herbs is akin to noticing the consoling scent of incense in an empty temple. Every bite was chewed mindfully.
Last, Thai food reminds me of our kitchen cupboards and the orchestra of spice jars that take shelter in them. At home, seldom do we cook dishes that allude to patriotism. My family is quite cosmopolitan, and I had been gratefully eating dishes from around the world as a kid. I miss my family terribly. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to go back to Manila yet, but I do get homesick, too. Despite the novelty of my experiences on the road and the thrill of discovering more about myself, I am sometimes on the lookout for familiarity. And it is through food that I experience home.
So, my dear readers, I encourage you to cook for your family. When words fail you, it is food that becomes the thread through which love travels. The time you spend preparing a meal – chopping and peeling, boiling and steaming, and carefully measuring the amount of spices – is time spent expressing love. I hope you, too, will discover your own love affair with food. <3
Is there any specific cuisine that you fancy? What makes it feel like home? How often do you treat yourself to this kind of food?