Kitchen Woe

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Oh yeah, hey Blog. How are we, besides feeling a little abandoned?

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It’s been a while since I last posted. And honestly it’s been a while since I sat down in front of a meal and whipped out my trusty iPhone to obsessively photograph my food from three separate angles before enjoying it. Old habits die hard so I of course have a few snapshots, but my restaurant/street-side/table-side photography has seriously waned in the last couple of weeks, and my blogging has headed the same way.

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It isn’t that I haven’t had anything delicious in this time – in fact I’ve had some great meals in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Bali – but to be perfectly honest, I’m not as excited about the food as I was in the beginning of my time abroad. Don’t get me wrong; I am still pleased as punch with my food adventures here, and can certainly recall some major deliciousness I’ve experienced over the past couple of weeks. The hot-pot stands in Kuala Lumpur are amazing, and I filled myself up (OK, more than just ‘up’) numerous times with a variety of grilled meats and seafood, grilled broccoli and eggplant, steamed bok choi – all doused in hoisin and chunky peanut sauce. I’ve enjoyed numerous rice-flour crepes filled with sweet toasted coconut, and bowls of shaved ice covered in sweet red beans and palm sugar became a daily necessity (the sweets here are so irresistible…I foresee serious withdrawal symptoms when I return stateside).

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While in Singapore for two days (all I could afford) I inhaled a variety of fantastic dim sum items, grazed through endless hawker stalls, and do finally understand why Singapore is considered street food heaven. And Bali has been very far from disappointing as well. I’ve had satay, stir-fried bean sprouts with morning glory and baby coconut, banana fried in rice flour batter, whole grilled fish and the freshest calamari I’ve ever had…it’s been good. My ever-insatiable appetite for tasty things has not been left unattended. And I’m embarking on a mission this afternoon to find babi guling, the famous Balinese suckling pig, so I have a feeling I’ll have a post on that one. We all know how well I get along with pork.

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But something is missing. My stomach is full, my palette content, my camera loaded with photos of beautiful cuisine from all over Southeast Asia, but I don’t feel entirely satisfied. Like no matter how much deliciousness I subject myself to, there is still something absent. Is it a flavor, a spice I haven’t had in a while? Herbs I love, fresh greens, grass-fed beef, hot wings from the pub, Mexican food? I’ve run through all these in my mind over the last couple of weeks. Telling myself ‘oh, it’s definitely Mexican food I miss so much! That’s why I feel dissatisfied’, or ‘it’s the pub food I can’t get – burgers, wings, Cobb salads’. And where available I’ve gotten these things in Asia, just to see if the void will be properly filled by western foods. But that’s not it. None of it has been truly what I miss. It finally dawned on me that what I am missing isn’t a cuisine, a certain salad, a flavor or a spice.

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It’s the kitchen. I miss, more than I could have imagined possible, the act of cooking. I ache for the feeling of a knife in my hand, slicing smoothly through stacked leaves of green kale, rhythmically chopping bell peppers, crushing waxy garlic cloves under the blade, breaking down a whole chicken. I’m dreaming about mis en place laid out on the counter top, recalling the smell of butter melting in a hot skillet, yearning for the feeling of pulling ingredients from the fridge and laying them out, wondering what I’ll end up with. I have thought a lot about my kitchen in Santa Fe. My big butchers block, the farm house sink, the wonderful gas stove, my knives lined up on their magnet strip, the cork board I hung above the butchers block overflowing with tacked-up clippings of recipes, photos cut from the glossy pages of Saveur and Bon Appetit magazines and ideas for recipes scribbled on pieces of paper or napkins from work. While I realized at the time how lucky I was to have such a great kitchen, I never understood until now that it wasn’t only a kitchen – it was my studio, my creative place, my drawing board.

For at least the last few years or more I’ve spent time in the kitchen nearly every single day. Even if it is just fifteen minutes – fixing something quick, frying up a couple eggs and throwing them on a pile of greens, even doing the dishes. It’s taken a couple months and countless miles of distance to fully understand how therapeutic that time is for me; how important it is in keeping me sane.

As it turns out, my love for food is only partly about the eating…which is a shock to me. More integral to my life is the process, the experience of being in the kitchen – any kitchen, really – and creating as I go. Experimenting with recipes, playing with flavors and textures, trying new things and enjoying old favorites. I truly miss all of that.

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But I know I’ll have it again, and I am not letting my gastronomic heartache get in the way of my enjoyment of this fantastic trip. I have two months left before I return to the U.S. and there is no doubt in my mind that I will continue to find amazing food and meet amazing people along the way. I will enjoy myself and my surroundings while I’m here, do my best to be exactly where I am in mind and body, and taste everything I possibly can.

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But I also know that my yearning for the kitchen will not go away. It will wax and wane as everything does, but there will remain a slight ache as long as I’m abroad. My kitchen fantasy will be always present in the back of my head, only exacerbated as I stand sweatily next to food stalls and watch the locals chopping, sautéing, braising and grilling all number of delicious things. Throwing handfuls of water spinach and cubed pork into a hot wok with fresh ginger and garlic, hacking fresh tilapia perfectly in half before slathering both sides with an electric yellow coconut curry sauce and throwing it onto a coconut-husk grill. The results are of course, tasty as all hell, and I am always overjoyed when my plate arrives. But the reality is I don’t so much want to be on the receiving end of the process anymore. I miss the other side.

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Until I find myself back in the kitchen, I know a part of me will be dissatisfied. Until a fresh countertop is in front of me, a clean cutting board and chefs knife laid like a perfectly blank page and pen awaiting my direction, my expression – until I slip that knife back into my hand and begin meticulously slicing vegetables, mincing shallots and dipping my fingers into pots of spices, I will hold onto this yearning.

I know these things are waiting for me. Of course seeing my family and friends when I return is top of the list – I’ll be thrilled to reunite with my people after so many months, to see my parents, my sister, my niece, my home…but after all the excitement has subsided (and I’ve taken a shower and dumped everything including non-clothing items into the laundry), I will slip into the kitchen, get that knife back into my hand and cook. That’s when I’ll know I’m home.

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4 comments

  1. Betsy Brown · · Reply

    Miss you, Kate.

    1. Miss you too, Betsy. I miss you way more than I miss your kitchen – though I of course miss that as well 🙂

  2. Kato this is so lovely. Your writing is as wonderful as your cooking WHICH I’ve never tasted but just know is the beez kneez. So envious of your adventures… esp since so much of what you’re eating is veg like I am. KEEP GOOOING. So proud of you.

    1. Thanks so much, India! We’ll have to get together and make some Thai food when I return 🙂

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