Room of Requirement

Karen_beach_Miraflores

Karen en Playa de Miraflores, photo: @stevesnotlost

I explore between the spaces that take up space. I left a place I pinned as Home. The “to” and “from” on the plane tickets mirror each other, but the place I left is not the place I am going to. The sun at the beginning of summer that set on the left of the island now sets to the right. My center shifted. The modern world seems more foreign to me than ever.

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Travel used to define a temporary distance from home. Return would greet me with: water left in the tea kettle, books bookmarked for a quick erasure of time, a pantry of salts from travels, plants cared for by friends, wine aging until the next celebratory dinner. They say travel opens your mind, your palate, your creativity, your idea of the world—it changes you. You return with an expanded self.

I set aside a year for The Lima Project and I am at the reflection of leaving and the opposite of leaving.

There would be no returning. The Lima Project has erased the concept of return. I dream to enter a place that bathes me with familiarity. I remember the name of the Houston streets, how the rain showers the Blacksmith windows, the people, and the erratic weather, but knowing is a distant thought compared to crawling under the sheets as you left it and laying your head on a pillow that knows how you want to be cradled. Houston—a defined location—always there, but its quality, unfamiliar, like Lima, guised under the desert humidity.

Lima Horizon_foggy Malecon

Desert humidity. Lima, Peru

I never thought about what it was like for my parents to leave their everything behind and move to a new country and adopt new customs and beliefs, new food, new language, and new rituals. It must still not be familiar. They live separated from both of their families and foods that feel familiar to their bellies. Their daughters do not behave like their nieces or nephews. My sister and I are either too American or not American enough. At least I like stinky tofu and thousand year old eggs, my aunt in Hong Kong tells me. She says this means I am truly a 香港人 (“Hong Kong person”).

Lima has accentuated my even more introverted self. The people I work with don’t live in the same district as me, so we all just go home after work. Lima took away dining out from my list of things to leave the house for. The Peruvian diet of potatoes, dairy, corn, and meat do not agree with my body. The MSG in the ceviche gives me major thirst and headaches. My body would need more than a year to adapt. I would need new gut flora. I would need a different set of genetics. The traffic makes everything close seem really far away and I don’t find comfort in break-and-accelerate cab driving. My idea of travel shifted. I spend time learning dance and music and cooking at home, without shoes. I joined a gym. (I have to wear shoes there.) I fill my time with things that help me express more of me. As a 香港人 with an American passport, living in Lima, I had a lot of self-studying to do.

Lima is a beautiful place that I will never forget, never attempt permanent residence, but always hold dear, and cherish it for the gift that is has been to my life. Its chaos is without order, pattern, or repeated experiences. Expected outcomes is not a concept here. The Lima Project would become a practice of self-care—the only way to survive, to emerge with a strength, resilient against the mind. It is hard to remain present here. One honk and you forget you were mid-breath.

Breathe would be my Maashang. I won’t hurry it.

“Maashang is a unit of time you can swim in. It’s not like the seconds we count out on a U.S. clock, each yielding some new headline or digital update. It’s more elastic. It expands, then compresses.” – Emma Goldberg

Karen_beach_chorrillos

Karen en Playa de Chorillos, photo: @coraimavr

The Lima life has been all the emotions: Difícil, Demasiado, Toto bien.

I do not know how to verbalize how I am feeling. You call to tell me you missed my voice, that everyone’s sound is unique but that it was mine you missed. For a moment, this provided me warmth against the morning breeze, but like everything else in Lima, I let it move past me, without attachment. I must. I’m at the mirror of no return.

My heart space aches—the front of it, the back of it, around it. The breaking of past patterns have opened me to vulnerable strength. I could cry, smile, be sad, be happy, be grateful, be a space-cadet, be clear all in the same breath.

When I fly to the States later this year, I will travel to a country that claims my nationality, that is written on my birth certificate, that speaks the language I am most fluent in, but it will not feel familiar. I have gotten accustomed to the greeting of kisses on the cheek so any other greetings will feel distant. I fear my change will loosen our ties, but I do not fear change. I find comfort in letting things be. It’s my reflection in the Mirror of Erised that I see. Dumbledore would be proud.

—-

*I am between spaces.

cooking sola, discovering soup

I hoped to connect to my Chinese roots in Lima. Peru is home to the third-largest Chinese community outside of Asia, many from the Guangdong province (which Hong Kong used to be a part of before the British, but didn’t go back to after her 1997’s “return” to China). I could speak Cantonese in Barrio Chino and get by better than I could Spanish. My Cantonese even proved helpful at the immigration office when extending my visa. This promising start and enthusiasm faded as I realized “chifas” were Chinese food meets greasy American diner with loads of MSG. At least there was garlic, ginger, and hot tea.

I’ve spent a third of my life cooking for more than one and sometimes thousands, but this somehow didn’t translate into knowing how to cook for myself. When I cooked for myself, I rushed through prep, didn’t wonder if sharper knives would enhance my experience, ate before giving thanks, and picked any herb I could identify without wondering if it needed that extra leaf to continue giving.

Lately, I often question the nationality my birth place assigned me. This, a weekly (if not daily) topic of discussion with a dear friend.

During a year in a hemisphere I had never seen before, visiting altitudes my body had never experienced, surrounded by mostly foods that don’t digest easily for this Cantonese body of mine, I studied how to cook for me. I peeled away the Western cooking methods I learned in books and in kitchens. I searched for words and traditions I had never heard of. It would be a chinkana, a tunnel from which to go into, get lost, and find my way out. I revisited memories of the kitchen with my grandmother, the way she smiled through the river-ing pillows of steam, the way she sat on low stools, the anger in her voice when she found the bowl of bird’s nest soup I hid in the back of the fridge that I lied and said I finished. I would ask my father for the brand of rice we grew up eating, hoping the internet could provide me clues on finding a local Peruvian rice with textures of familiarity. I would become overwhelmed in Gamarra by the abundance of rice varietals and shy away from using my still-not-so-great Spanish to ask questions, so…..

Super Nikkei would be my source for tofu, short grain white rices, soy-pickled vegetables, kombu, rice vinegar, tamari, and Japanese snacks my grandfather adored.

I learned how to move as steam would, if el vapor was la vapor. I found pleasure in how the knife would meet the cutting board, the sound of the knife piercing through thin skins, in sharpening my own knives. I relished in the bare feet that held me as I cooked, in being able to feel the ground, free to experience my toes. I took note of how my arm and shoulder stirred the contents of the pot, wondered if I could also stir my hips, practiced stirring my hips (at Peruvian dance classes). I reminded my breath to travel deep into my belly, into the spaces I used to shut out feeling to. I embraced breaks as part of the process and not a description for laziness, often the experience when I made jook (粥, rice porridge). In being, I learned what type of nourishment my body preferred.

Why are Cantonese people so obsessed with soup?

Drinking soup played a central part of my experience when young and living with my parents. In Guangdong, where Cantonese people call home, where my family is from, we believed that drinking warm soup helps dispel heat from the body, even if when the temperature is hot and humid outside. Meals started with a bone broth of some sort and a vegetable like Chinese winter or summer squash (sometimes peanuts or gogi berries).

The benefit and traditions of soup got lost inside my young soul. I thought soup wasted space. My classmates never had soup at meals unless it came in a can with alphabet pasta. I thought the liquid would restrict my ability to eat more. I thought the sound of my parents slurping soup was bad manners no thanks to Emily Post‘s influence on fitting in with the establishment.

Melissa, an elementary school classmate and science fair partner, reminded me recently of the first time she heard my father slurp soup. Her mother had to explain to her that slurping was a compliment in the Chinese culture. My parents never felt the need to explain why they slurped—they just did.

Soup bore more importance than an often, unordered appetizer on a restaurant menu. The bowl of soup served at my grandfather’s 80th birthday meal would be a topic of discussion for weeks leading up to the celebration. The smell of humid aroma would fill our home each night. Soup brought my family to the dinner table, an announcement of sorts. The way my father said, 喝湯 (“drink soup”), had its own invitation. This cultural tradition hydrates. It comforts. It warms. It strengthens. Sitting down and having soup requires the use of both hands. Having soup first gives the body time to relax so that it can prepare for the additional nutrition it is about to receive. Empty soup bowls would then be passed around the dining table to the designated rice distributor. The clicking of chopsticks grabbing at dishes would commence. Soup could always be revisited.

The Cantonese have a soup for every occasion and weather. It doesn’t surprise me that Peruvians have over 2000 variations of soup! I even found a website dedicated to Chinese soups.

I mostly enjoy simple, undocumented soups with variety of local Peruvian vegetables like olluco, mashua, and caigua. I’m also in love with all soups zapallo. Here are recipes I’ve been inspired by:

Kitchari combines my love for soup and rice porridge.

Fesenjan, a Persian walnut pomegranate stew. I replaced the pomegranate molasses with algarrobina (mesquite) syrup and carrots with caigua.

Peanuts are relatively inexpensive here, so I’ve been exploring the expanse of peanut soups. My favorites were these: African groundnut soup and Indonesian peanut soup.

To make this recipe of Locro de zapallo dairy free, I replaced the queso with tofu and dairy with coconut milk.

All time favorite sweet soups: black sesame and snow ear fungus with papaya.

It was a simpler time when we dined at home as a family. I think that’s why I was meant to come to Lima, to find that part of me that got lost when being an independent woman: soup.

quinoa soup, at 4500m

Fäviken

The sun would barely set that day. It would kiss the horizon but never darken the glow that held its light.

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I shared, I rode, I laughed, I saved this experience with four other women. We all have different passports. I will never forget this meal, where two of the courses will hold its place in my top ten dishes that altered my palate.

Earlier, we dipped our bare bodies in the a small ways above freezing summer lake. Our bodies taut with laughter, with freeness. The sauna rid us of any past tensions. We filled our bodies with the slowest of foods, the most intentions of foods, preservation that lasts several seasons of foods, the food that never sets.  My friend Lisa, aka Tigermom, had just turned 30. A chorus of that evening’s dining companions serenaded Lisa in a Sweedish “Happy Birthday.” I chose to prolong this day as the sun also would. It would delay the fear I had for tomorrow’s unfamiliar adventure. Tomorrow, I would be chasing Lisa down a Swedish mountain on my first ever mountain bike.

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In the interview Magnus gave to LA Times about his decision to close Fäviken, he says,

“I’m not leaving because I’m discontent with the restaurant. I’m just leaving because I’m done with it. Because I want to do other things.”

Magnus’ decision to leave Fäviken resonates. I flew away, cried away, swam away, ran away, danced away—a ways from the rituals that coveted my daily life for most of a decade. Now, living in Lima, baking some of the time, I do not worry if or when I will bake all the time. I enjoy the other things.

FourSixtyFour

Number of hairs that left the area of my scalp since I washed my hair last night with a carefully portioned amount of one year’s supply of Aēsop shampoo. The water in Lima is incredibly hard and I was determined not to let what happened to my scalp in Belgium happen here. The transition of living in another environment would be challenging enough and my scalp would not need to be part of that lesson.

Sundays have become a day of deep rest, where I set no alarm, where I can do absolutely nothing and be proud of doing nothing, where sometimes I don’t open or close any doors, where sometimes I give myself permission to spend time counting how many fibers no longer want to travel the world on me.

This Sunday I warmed up to the conscious hours with subtle movements and read love letters written to beloveds, wearing unicorn tights gifted to me from J.Jopling and her equally amazing partner and a Mingus t-shirt with the collar cut out so it hang-dries quickly enough to not mildew in humid Lima, wondering if I would play Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s Shallow on repeat, again.

FourSixtyFour also happens to be how many days since I’ve left my temperature-controlled tea kettle, Celan’s Hanging Ferns, my sister’s TT bike I trained on, 100% cotton towels, and a compost I turned for the last time. If I had known that day was going to be the unrepeated moments for an undisclosed amount of time, I would have spent more time thanking them for what they give me. When I left home for New York January of 2018, I had every intention of re-rooting in Houston—the tea kettle and water bottle on the bike still had water.

Navigating this modern world meant being caught between the cultural practices of my grandmothers and grandfathers, the constantly changing household expectations set by my immigrant parents who too still figuring it out, the input of those less and more Eastern than I, and the movement of the Heavens. Every year—and even still now—I ask when we will celebrate my father’s birthday. Growing up we celebrated both his Lunar and Gregorian calendar birthdays. Some days we lived by the calendar they taught me about in school and other days we lived by the calendar of my grandmothers.

In solitude, I look for freedom from being between.

Words cannot answer why Peru or why not Peru or even if I chose Peru. This adventure, this chapter, would be one of undoing and no expectations. The past lies in another hemisphere. Looking for the other half of the world would be like looking for the horizon on a foggy day. I practice trying to see more than I want to see.  Memories are just chosen fragments of part of the truth, selected by a lens, holding bias. Isolation teaches me to feel the voice of internal wisdom. There is always more. I learn to feel around my space of emptiness, an expansive container for light, love, and gratitude.

Inhale. Exhale.

Returning to my breath. That is my rhythm. 

The serpent that slythered within: exploring its new passageways, refining its movements inside new spaces. I taught myself how to look at my own reflection, loving the woman standing in her own presence. Self-care allows for no comparison.

—-

side notes: Angel number 464.

The energy of the White Solar Mirror, pulsing in order to reflect, realizing order, sealing the matrix of endlessless, with the solar tone of intention, guided by the power of Timelesness.

Two days after the Full Moon in Libra, at the Waning Gibbous in Scorpio.

21 April, 2019

100 days in Peru

Sitting on the rocky beaches of Lima, the waves push the sound of cars away from earshot. For a moment, I forget I share the city with 10 million others. There were obvious reasons to move to Lima: ceviche, varieties of corn and potato, fruits from the jungle, proximity to Cusco, more temperate climate, learning Spanish, baking in a bakery setting again.

The question “How are you?” offers a moment of self-evaluation. I attempt to respond in an unmeasurable length that is similar to how I should practice drinking tea,

“slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

or how I should eat toast: mindfully.

Breath became an internal reset, a cleansing ritual that the intelligent body gifts, a regalo to be received.

2018 taught me what I needed to call home. I changed directions and moved more times than some do in a lifetime. Things I’ve collected would occupy 100 square feet until I needed them again. The physical self felt unsettled as defined by others before me, but I wasn’t as ungrounded as I thought. As a wood Ox, I find comfort in La Tierra. I needed to learn about and take care of the soil I wanted to grow in.**

Living with my things stored away cleared my head. It was a vacation from my stuff, a constant reminder of the past, memories that reinforced who I believed I am. I would pack my non-fluffy pillows. The rhythm of Lima would require a familiar place to lay my head every night. It would be my pensieve, abstracting into dreams when I was ready for them.

If I had known how difficult adjusting to life in Lima would be, I might have preferred to remain in a known cycle of comfort just a while longer. The home cooked meals with friends, paychecks from the same zip code, the yoga classes, the celebrations, the full moon rituals—this blend of my world fed me and exhausted me at the same time. Familiarity would be an escape. Lima would be like a silent retreat except that I couldn’t communicate verbally with the sounds around me. I would feel trapped and free at the same time.

Freedom from my stuff wasn’t enough. I needed a vacation from the past that I thought would define my future. As a baker and owner of a restaurant and bar, others extrapolated that the next root in my homecity would be to open a bakery/cafe. My gut would tell me that the only patterns in my life would be the ones I wore. In the years past, I jotted down what a menu of baked goods resembling me then would be. The now 4.0 drafts will prove to be useless and resemble more a diary I intend to lose the lock to. I hadn’t learned how to breath and lived for the breaths of the year after next.

Like an Etch-a-Sketch, Lima has shaken and erased Me. My life as a blue monkey would be free from the iron gym of concrete cities.

The 5-12 week mark challenged me real good. I feel like I belonged nowhere. I’ve lived away from the States multiple times before, but nothing had prepared me for the emotion of emptiness. The Peruvian diet of cheese, corn, and potatoes would not sit well in my digestive system. (In Denmark, the traditional foods also gave me digestive issues.) Stop signs: merely suggestions for drivers. No matter how much I slept, my body never felt refreshed in the morning. Inertia could no longer battle its way out of physical exhaustion. My wrist started to hurt: increased use of my hands and wrist triggered past carpal tunnel symptoms. I hadn’t come to live in gratitude of the cold showers, the traffic in Lima, the three day water purification process, the sound of being profiled by taxis unaware of the woman walking in confidence to the place that awaits her, the Monopoly game of bank visits necessary to pay monthly living expenses, or the array of flying insects that established forts in separate corners of the apartment. Feelings of defeat would test my resilience and I wondered how or if I would break its cycle.

I had to learn how to tune out my mind when it wasn’t in harmony with the natural self.

From the hardest weeks of adjustment, I could either return to a place I couldn’t call home anymore or decide to make the place I lived in home. I started listening to the internal sounds that too had no way to verbally express themselves to me. I cook most of my meals: rice with veggies and avocado. I drink an infusion of herbs to tonify my digestive system. I navigate a roundabout with 10 potential crossings and no crosswalks. I give myself permission to sleep early or sleep in. I have become more diligent in my yoga practices to eliminate sensations in my body I no longer wanted to bother me. I envision the cold showers as me being outside under a mountainous waterfall. These showers don’t actually have to be cold (as I finally figured out how to turn on the hot water boiler), but are actually necessary to cool my body down and to keep my house from heating up or adding more humidity to the apartment during the summer months. I visit mostly places I can walk to and use Uber for treat-yo-self moments. I place boiled-after-sitting-out-for-24-hours water in the sun so it also gets solarized as it’s being additionally purified with charcoal. Since phone use in banks is prohibited, I’ve gotten really good at calling to stillness to help me wait in line. I’ve considered collecting all the shedded wings to remind me of this moment when it becomes a distant past.

As I journey in collecting, unlearning, softening, abolishing, and concluding, only mySelf can measure and define output per input. I cannot look to others to tell me how to best spend my resources. I was drawn to baking and cooking because I could define the quality of time: parts of the process can’t be rushed without loss of nourishment. I’ve been adviced not to waste my time here, but I shouldn’t rush it either.

Small rituals would shape the days. They would remind me that I get to do this. I sharpen my knife so that cutting vegetables would be more enjoyable. I stopped looking at sharpening my knife as a chore to be put off. Lima will teach me to extend this lesson to more aspects of my life. I wake up earlier than I need to leave the house so I can warm up without rushing and to have rituals that set the tone of not rushing.

The ocean view sunset and the Andes shelter this concrete jungle. Here I could escape the thoughts in my mind.

 

Because I will be asked where to eat in Lima, when I’m not eating pan y palta from El Pan de la Chola, here are my list of favorite places for physical nourishment: Al Toke Pez, Amaz, El Mercado de Rafael Osterling, La Picantería, Mo Bistro, Siete.

** With each move, I learned what I needed in a space. The Lima home would draw from the 4 other addresses of 2018. My daily movements would revolve around: a stack of books next to the bed, a carafe of water with charcoal, something fermenting on the kitchen counter, a morning tea set-up, a spot to move my body in the morning, house-plants.

prologue to now

Love is everything.

Sharing my thoughts in The Art of Baking: Oxheart added an element of voice I didn’t know how to exercise during the Oxheart years. There was a deeper connection that expanded past the nourishment on the reclaimed pine tables and the four walls that sheltered us. As I revisited the first drafts—created under streams of salty droplets of memory—that didn’t stamp the book with legible pigment, I knew I was ready to continue story-telling.

Freedom remained aloof. I hadn’t learned how to recognize my own consciousness.

Oxheart’s notoriety confused the timid voices inside me. I didn’t know how to breathe deeply, how to find my center, how to embody success, or how to speak from my heart. Much of the time, I existed, pressed against the ceiling of my mental and physical capacities. In the belly years of Oxheart, the daunting task of entertaining a full dining room could not distract me from very hidden internal struggles. All exit plans would change me, leave marks in my heart and on my body.

Justin would become the primary face and name to a place that we co-created. Our equally responsible endeavor did not match the frequently published image of a singular set of eyes. I didn’t know at the time how this would impact me. I would angrily vent to Justin that he didn’t consider correcting those publishings. He would remind me that I said many times I didn’t want to be in the media’s eye, that he could handle the limelight better than I, that he was protecting me. He was half right. I was half right. Together, we weren’t fully right.

I only successfully avoided having my photo taken half of the time. I felt like most images would not capture the truth within me, because, I too, could not see my own truth. These photos would live on the internet forever, portraying me separate from my spirit. I rarely gave interviews because I had not yet embodied the vocabulary and syntax of my voice to accurately portray the answers to questions. I made the mistake of letting others fill in the blanks.

The thoughts of divorce plagued me during and after. I kept many aspects of my life private for a few years after. Justin is one of the most important relationships in my lifetime. I would not be any part of this known version of myself if it wasn’t for us. Justin introduced me to cooking when he was applying to The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. I knew my parents would say no. Justin encouraged me to quit my corporate job when I hated it 22 months in. Justin got me my first baking jobs in Houston. Justin left his job here in Houston when I got into pastry school in Chicago and again when I got an externship at The French Laundry.  Perhaps Justin knew me best. He knew I needed to be released to fly.

We helped each other achieve our conscious and unconscious desires. Justin always spoke of being a restauranteur of multiple concepts. I always wanted to redefine the familial label of ‘stubborn’ and to be labeled as someone that powered and followed her own soul. When the pages of this chapter came to an end, I wanted to remove the titles others used to describe me: pastry chef, baker, wife, ex-lover.

Only my closest friends and sister really knew how I struggled. My burnout was physical, emotional, and social. Mornings greeted me with intense pain in my back, feet, and wrists. I hobbled to my toothbrush and sometimes sat on the floor to brush my teeth because standing before my body had a chance to warm up was too painful. I started going to yoga because I couldn’t run or swim anymore. I found slight comfort in moving slowly, having found teachers who would nurse me back to health. I traveled as escape. The more I lived in the future, the less the past mattered. Eventually, I would learn that I needed to find the present.

I staged a lot again, returning to Denmark and Belgium where much of Oxheart began. I took ceramic classes at Glassell because I missed working with my hands and because we once had this sweet idea for me to make all the plates for Oxheart. I took a graphic design class to build on the skills that I You Tube’d to create the first book I published. I put my things in storage, summer after summer.

Many of you ask when I will open a place of my own. You also offer help and I believe that you will. The truth is that for a long time, I was scared at the thought of repeating lessons of the past. I kept telling myself next year, which meant I told you next year. Who will I have to lose in my life? What expression of love will I have to suppress? Will I fear for my life while driving because I cannot stay awake? Every time the talks fell through, I would sigh with relief. The truth is that this year always found a reason to become next. I needed to devote time to friendships, to learning my expression of love, to self-care, to know my physical limits, to exploring other creative disciplines, to studenting again. The universe granted me space.

Next year tallies at three years. I tired of saying, “Next.” Living for next (year) obviously didn’t work for me. 2020. That equals 4. Beyoncé rocks 4. I’m in for that ride, with lemonade.

In releasing control of 2019, I gave myself a year to do any of the things I’ve always wanted to do: learn Spanish, study plants, travel without an itinerary, re-acquaint myself with romantic love. I’m not afraid of loving you, that your spirit is tied up, that you can’t love me back. This year “off” is so I can look inside my soul, feel two planets away, and let myself be in things I don’t understand. Locate me in Peru. In less than a month, I will join the team at El Pan de la Chola, take Spanish lessons, navigate my way through Peruvians plants, and read through a small, highly-personalized library of books.

I need this year to learn how to be fully in love with myself. I have never felt so sure about anything else.

Everything is love, so love endlessly.

On baking

Baking has been a very defining part of the previous decade. Culling through hundreds and probably thousands of photos, it evokes a spirit that I carry daily: patience.

It’s not been easy to be away from the kitchen, Photos are not always what they seem and my posts rarely coincide with what is happening at the moment. Baking and cooking have taken me places I never thought I’d go. It’s where I’ve found humans that I will call friends, forever. It’s where I’ve met my most humbling moments and deepest failures. It’s where I fall into a meditative state. It’s when my most attractive and/or natural look is having flour in my hair and on my face.

 

 

I belong in a space where an apron is sometimes an appropriate tool.