daily life · food

From the Kitchen to the Heart

It’s been a bit more than 1.5 months since I left Davis. I’m getting the hang of things in my new/old job and have created a comfy work space on my desk. I got my first two freelance projects to supplement my sad little paycheck that won’t budge until I get my diploma (Yoohoooo…UC Davis…can’t it be December already?!) Parents are still driving me crazy, but I have now learned how to be more patient. Just kidding, I’m still short-fused as ever.

One of the things I missed about my life in Davis is my cozy kitchen in our old apartment. It’s located in a nook next to the living room, just enough to fit two people. It has peach countertop tiles and white classic walls. The drawers were lined with light blue contact paper with batik-like motifs I personally chose on Amazon. I had an arrangement of colorful pots of bird’s eye chili and catnip by the window, which overlooked into the parking lot, allowing me to see if Sean has arrived. Everything was organized efficiently within reach. From that little kitchen, I have produced hundreds of meals – most of which were probably responsible in landing my man.

A lot of people assume that my mom is a good cook, that she’s the one who taught me how to cook. This is actually not true at all. My grandma implanted the idea in her mind that as woman, she doesn’t need to know how to do housework as long as she can make a living on her own. As a result, she rerouted to sewing instead. She went all the way to London to study tailoring and fashion design, and opened her own sewing school upon returning. She has now retired and spends her day doing small amount of housework, but cooking is never on the list. At the upmost, she’d heat up food she bought from the street vendors.

She really doesn’t care about cooking. While I was gone for graduate school, our maids, who used to do all the cooking, resigned because they were getting married (to their husbands, not to each other). The kitchen was left unused that when I came home over the year end break we didn’t even have a working knife. She had one dull knife that was good enough to peel mangoes but useless any other way.

Despite that, there was one dish I particularly love that she used to make when I was a kid: instant noodle. Mom’s instant noodle was the best. I don’t know how she did it. It was always the perfect chewiness and never too salty or too bland. She didn’t even put any topping on the noodle because I used to be a picky eater. I can’t remember when the last time she made instant noodle for me was.

My Grandma was the cook in the family. Her soto banjar and sate banjar are so legendary, many of her friends asked her to make the dishes for their children’s or grandchildren’s weddings – something she said no to at all times. However, she would not teach me how to cook. Well, I tried asking her to teach me several times, but she thought I wasn’t doing enough of a good job, or I didn’t cut the chicken according to her liking, and she ended up kicking me out of the kitchen.

So then how did I start cooking? It was around the time I was waiting for the results of my Fulbright application. It was December 2009, I had a break from my uni job and nothing to do. I grew so anxious I decided that I need something else to keep my mind off the darn scholarship. I can’t remember why I picked this recipe in particular and where I found it, but the first thing I made was raspberry cheese pie. My parents went nuts for it.

cheese-pieHere, here. The raspberry cheese pie that started it all. This blurry picture was taken on my long gone Blackberry.

From then on, I made something new every day, often times stepping out from the dessert category. I ended up taking pictures of the end products and created an album to document all the treats I made. Then I started bringing food to work. If you were my lab assistants or students sometime around the end of 2009 –August 2010, you should thank Fulbright for making me so nervous I had to cook that much.

I was hooked. I couldn’t stop coming up with new things to try. I love cooking because it’s similar to working in the lab. You need to figure out what you are supposed to do, step-by-step, and make preliminary plans. Things may go wrong midway, and you need to think on your feet and troubleshoot it. One of the professors I worked for in UC Davis agrees with me – he often says that a lot of students nowadays don’t have a good sense of time management in the lab because most of them do not cook. They are not used to looking at the big picture and planning things ahead.

Aside from the cooking aspect itself, I discovered that I LOVE feeding people. It makes me happy. I think it’s the same way people are happy when they see a tiny hamster eating a tiny burrito. Not that I’m saying you guys are hamsters. Burritos, though, everyone loves burritos.

Being used to cooking has an advantage of its own when I lived on my own in Davis. I did not have to worry about how to feed myself. Unlike for most people, cooking is not a nuisance for me! I kid you not, the first thing I bought in the US was a Kitchen Aid stand mixer from Target. At some point I was the self-appointed Secretary of Late Night Food in our little international student community in Davis. Oh, the glorious days of making takoyaki, okonomiyaki and noodle pancake using whichever ingredients I could find in my friend’s kitchen.

It was only sensible that I started hosting an annual Indonesian dinner. Indonesian food is not that well known in the world. Granted, some people don’t even know where Indonesia is. My own professor thought it was near Bali – a common misconception. Finding the ingredients was easy. Finding the right flavor balance was not. Often times, my cooking was too spicy for my poor friends.

Oh, and Thanksgiving! It makes me sad thinking that I won’t be able to create my own Thanksgiving menu this year. For four consecutive years, I had my elbow up a dead bird, all because I love my friends dearly. More details about it later.

Despite that, I haven’t been cooking as much as I did before. It’s cheaper to just buy ready-to-eat food from street vendors here. The availability of certain ingredients is also limited. I still need to find my way to create a menu that won’t break your bank using local stuff. A lot of things that were easily obtained in the US have now become a luxury. For example, two small pieces of salmon tail that is not even equivalent to a portion in Ranch 99 Sacramento cost $10 here, which is a lot of money considering that sometimes my lunch costs only 80 cents. Making risotto is almost out of the question. Arborio rice can be bought online yet it’s rarely in stock and the price could make you choke. Don’t even bother with the white wine…hell no, I’m not forking out $25 for a bottle of Yellow Tail sauvignon blanc. That’s blasphemy.

In the present time, I have slowly collected my cooking utensils from the storage. I’ve made a couple of dishes for Sean and my parents, and can gladly say they still taste similar, if not the same.

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4 thoughts on “From the Kitchen to the Heart

  1. I do not know how to cook until I moved to Ireland. Situation forced me to learn to cook. No complain thought, except for the fact that bumbu dapur is expensive.

    Instead of cooking risotto, why not trying to make soto Banjar? Or perhaps bingka?

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    1. I’d love to explore new options that is more economical and more suitable with the available ingredients here. However, I’m cooking for my husband, too. He’s so used to the type of food I typically cooked in the US, and for him it’s kind of a remedy for homesickness while he’s still adapting in Jakarta. He likes Indonesian food but he still can’t eat it everyday, so I have to keep alternating our menu.

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  2. Ya, problemnya begitu. Ada empat selera bercampur jadi satu dalam satu rumah. Yang satu mau mengusir rasa kangen sama makanan Indonesia, yang satu bosenan, yang satu nggak terlalu cocok sama makanan Barat, yang satu lagi nggak enakan dan akhirnya malah memperumit keputusan mau makan apa hari ini 😀 Tiap hari di rumahku itu diskusinya soal mau makan apa, Mbak.

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