I was never a cook. Not that the kitchen was an inhospitable and mysterious environment but as the youngest of the family, I was responsible for drying and storing the dishes. Later, I was promoted to washing duty, too. The stove was always far away (depending on the size of the kitchen we lived in), so I usually just watched my mom cook and tried to understand how she baked cakes and pies and added “by eye” measurements. She said that with time I would understand and do the same, but time passed, and I didn’t dare.
In college, I lived with three other girls, all older and all had more cooking experience than I did. As I said in another text, some days of the week I had classes at night, but they didn’t. So, they cooked, and I did the dishes. I didn’t dislike getting home and having food ready, and I never complained about having a pile of dishes to wash. Anyone who has lived in a republic knows that it is not always easy to align different personalities and habits in a house, and it seemed that in the kitchen we had found a system that worked for everyone most of the time.
Then I moved to China, alone for the first time. I had no more excuses; this was my chance to take over the stove. I won’t deny that though I cooked almost every day at first, later, finding out how cheap it was to eat in smaller restaurants and because Tianjin is a city where food is not spicy, I soon gave up on the idea. When I finally cooked again for some friends, they were just as surprised by my cooking abilities as I was.
In Guiyang, at first, pepper caused me to suffer a bit, but my biggest problem was that my quantity was off when cooking for one, usually I ended up overcooking and, ultimately, overeating. It didn’t take long for me to find restaurants I could trust that were on the way to the college I studied at (yes, I studied Chinese for six months at university) and my job. In conclusion, I didn’t cook much my first year.
In 2017, I was no longer alone, André had much more difficulty adapting to the food here and I, once again, turned to the kitchen. He, and the Americans we were friends with, loved the day-to-day food of Brazil. Whether it was rice, pancake, chicken, mashed potatoes, or savory pie, it didn’t matter. Everything they ate, they would tell their mother how they had had something amazing for dinner. A year later my brother and my brother-in-law came to live with us, and it became much easier and more natural to have meals at home. After all, now there were four of us.
My brother once again took over the kitchen and the tedious task of supermarket shopping. Because of my routine at work, at first, it made sense for him to take care of us and cook his recipes. A curious fact that a lot of people may not know is that in the last 17 years I have barely lived with my brother Thalles. After he went to college, he was braver than me and didn’t come home until a job opportunity arose where my parents were living. Shortly afterwards, after my first year of working in China, I came home to Brazil for a stretch of time, when I got back to a work schedule, his and mine didn’t match up. Then our schedules changed again, and soon after, I returned to China. So, when I say his recipes, I mean he followed the basics of what we learned at home but with a twist—his own personal “spice” sprinkled into the preparation of every meal.
In the end, it didn’t make much sense for him to stay in the kitchen. Some days I had more time than he did, but our routines kept me from taking chances. What’s more, it’s not every day that you express your wishes, and they get granted. If someone at home said they wanted sweets, my brother went to the kitchen. If someone wanted to follow a healthier diet, he would prepare carrot and zucchini pasta. For birthdays, it was forbidden to even consider buying a cake, and for each occasion, the cakes had different flavors and looks.
Finally the day came when my brother made a confession: “the kitchen is my therapy.” I, with my inexperience in cooking and therapy, barely understood what it meant at the time. Gradually, I began to notice that the number of hours Thalles spent in the kitchen varied according to his emotional level, a few times I ventured to share the space of his therapy and try to hear a little of his anxieties and share mine, but most of the time I just enjoyed and savored the results of those sessions.
After the first few months of the pandemic, Thalles and his partner decided it was time for new challenges. André and I were alone again and, even more significantly, in a post-lockdown world where leaving the house seemed like an unhealthy idea. With more time at home, cooking just got a lot easier. I still erred in proportions a little, but with André entering his teens, his appetite grew and grew. I was never one to invent much in the kitchen, so I followed and still follow my mother’s recipes. My son also loves his grandmother’s food, and every time I got close to my mother’s spice and flavor profiles, it was a cause for celebration.
When cooking became routine, and I didn’t need to spend a lot of time thinking about the menu or how to prepare a particular dish, I had the time and curiosity to be adventurous. My brother-in-law introduced us to different savory recipes while he was here, and maybe that’s one of the reasons I wanted so much to try new things. And, so, my therapy sessions began.
I don’t remember what recipe I tried to make first. Maybe it was a recipe from some YouTube video, but I know it worked because it encouraged me to keep looking for new recipes. Every time I had time to spare or was tired of eating the same thing the same way, I would sit in front of the computer and type in the ingredients I wanted to use and/or added words for a vague recipe into search engines. It didn’t often take long to find something interesting.
As I was preparing the recipe for the first time, I had little time to think about my problems, my focus was on the next step, next ingredient, the textures and consistency of a dish, etc. I found that in my therapy sessions I wasn’t dealing with my afflictions, I was letting go of them. I allowed myself to forget about everything that bothered me and the obligations I had to prepare something I had never done, try something new, or challenge me to reproduce something I had already eaten but never prepared.
The culinary result was not always what was expected, but cooking allowed me to breathe without the usual worries. This strange therapy also helped me recover my energy so that I could face issues better: sometimes it even gave me a different perspective on a problem, and I was then more willing to find solutions.
Maybe this type of therapy doesn’t work for everyone, maybe even for my brother that’s not how he saw the kitchen, but I believe that’s the beauty of kitchen therapy. You are the one who chooses the best way to treat yourself, there is no judgment, there is no doctor-patient confidentiality, and you learn to deal better with yourself. Though I might note that one of the biggest contraindications of kitchen therapy is weight gain and the constant desire to prepare new recipes. But if that doesn’t scare you off it, good luck and bon appétit.
Proofreader Liz C Jacquinot
Bonus: Andre in the kitchen.