cooking sola, discovering soup

I hoped to connect to my Chinese roots. 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 with Spanish. My Cantonese even proved helpful at the immigration office when my visa needed extending. This promising start and enthusiasm faded as I realized “chifas” were Chinese food meets greasy American diner with loads of Ajinomoto or 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 varieties 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, and 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, we believe that drinking warm soup helps dispel heat from the body, even if when the temperature is hot and humid outside. Meals start with a bone broth of some sort of 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, recently reminded me 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

Room of Requirement

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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. A center has shifted. The modern world seems more foreign to me than ever.

<space>    I   <space> *

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, wines aging until the next celebratory gathering. They say travel opens the mind, the palate, creativity, understanding of the world—that it changes you. You return with an expanded self.

I set aside a year for exploration 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, 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 truly am 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 often just go home after work. Lima erased 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 deep 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

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Karen en Playa de Chorillos, photo: @coraimavr

The Lima life has been many of 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 together 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 converses 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. Quantifying time here is just a suggestion of space. 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.

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.