I love a good meal. Then, I become too dependent on it for happiness. Mind you, I’m enjoying life, but I like little bursts of joy to brighten up a sluggish day. So, I fulfill my food desires even if it means making an elaborate Vietnamese summer roll in a weekday afternoon. No, taking the bus for a carrot cake better than the one selling downstairs is no trouble at all.
But whenever my sunny side up sticks to the pan, or a packet of chicken rice is missing its chilli sauce, I become upset and frustrated. My husband, who can usually live with small mishaps like these, also dread them in anticipation of my disappointment. I knew then that I must look for more reasonable emotional returns from a meal.
Considering the other reasons we eat may be a good start. Some of my most vivid food memories, I realised, were about negotiating relationships. I have pleased and appeased or, soothed anxieties through eating. Joy was the last thing in my mind in those instances.
I was 9 years old when I ate an entire pot of rice meant for my parents, maid and I. The first helping was dinner. The second was greed. The rest was a game of dare I played with myself. I sat alone in front of the TV as usual, probably looking for attention when I think about it now. I wet the rice with the herbal broth of bak kut teh and drank it like a porridge, a competitive eating technique (so I learned later).
Dad came home first. Our maid explained why a new batch of rice was cooking. He let out a “wah”, but looked more baffled than impressed. It was anti-climactic. Nobody fussed over me like I wanted. Also, I was suffering from the grains bobbing up and down my throat. Next time I wanted my parents to be proud of me, I just did my homework instead.
I pulled a similar but more modest stunt in my teens. This time I was trying to hang out with my friends while getting my father off my back. We no longer had a maid, so he had been cooking dinner and I was expected to be home after school. I obliged because he was fierce. Only when I was much older he told me the symbolic meaning of those meals: they made us a family, rather than mere roommates sharing a place to sleep.
Not knowing this then, I was resentful to be made to skip Long John Silver’s with my classmates. Dad had no idea that after-school gossips cemented the friendships of teenage girls. I feared becoming dispensable to my clique if I wasn’t around much. So I ate out, and then again at home. I tell my husband today that this was how I stretched my belly too big.
When I was 20, I landed in the hospital with typhoid from meals that I still might not reject if given another chance. I was an intern covering a story in Arughat, Nepal, a small village in the hills. For three nights I lived with one of my interviewees, Satrughan Shrestha, in his two-storey mud-coloured house. We ate dal bhat (rice and lentil soup) prepared by his wife and teenage daughter.
Dal bhat was a typical meal of the common folks so I was surprised when they offered me fish on top of that. I ate it with mouthfuls of rice and swallowed quickly because it was fishy. My hosts could be offering me the best that they could afford and I did not want to hurt their pride by rejecting it. Alas, we had fish every day.
To go back to Kathmandu, I had to take a five-hour bus ride to Gorkha to transit. Shrestha took me on his motorbike to cut short the journey. Despite having rode three hours through winding roads and rivers where he had to dismount and push the vehicle across, he insisted on buying me lunch before I journeyed on. He didn’t speak English and neither do I speak Nepali. There couldn’t be a more proper goodbye than a meal together. I just wished it wasn’t the fish.
We ate it at a tiny but crowded restaurant beside the bus station. As we tucked in, I felt a wave of nausea and pain in my abdomen. I wanted to get through the meal without alarming Shrestha, so I took a bite whenever I could bring myself to. After lunch, I went to the toilet thinking that I should pee before the long ride. Instead, I threw up the entire meal, but felt much better after that.
Two nights later in Kathmandu, the pain came back and even moved around my torso. I was admitted to the hospital, where I learned that I contracted typhoid. Maybe I became complacent since I recovered quickly, but it felt good that this happened because of a meal (or meals) I ate to show others gratitude, rather than for my own joy.
I also eat when I don’t have much to say to others present. I don’t fancy melon seeds because it is too much work for a tiny bit, yet I always reached for the ones at a Chinese wake. Experts could crack the shell and pull out the seed with only their teeth. I do that unsuccessfully, and then battle it with my fingers.
But struggling buys me time to think what else to say to strangers across the table. Even in the company of familiar faces I sometimes would rather space out. Pretending to be keen on melon seeds allow me to do that without being rude. I’m not sure why it’s a tradition for people to provide the snack at wakes, but it sure is useful for breaking awkward silences.
There have been other reasons why I eat — to heal, to fulfill or understand — each of them more desirable in many circumstances than gaining pleasure. I still look forward to a good meal, but maybe not expect joy, because it is overrated.