Essay

In Isolation with Lauren Cerand

Location: Florence, Italy

It was only last summer I believed I was moving to Italy for the rest of my life. But less than a year later, I’ll have to leave in August when my visa expires and my savings are gone. This has overlaid my time here with a certain melancholy as well as a tangible sweetness; the rush of juice in the last bite of the last peach of summer, hiding in the shadow of the first bite of the first one that hasn’t even come yet; licking the spilling drip of gelato that rolls down the cone; the race to satisfaction in the face of time. I don’t know yet where I’ll go from here, and even that loses a certain heft every time anyone asks if I’ve bought my plane ticket yet. Lately, I say that there are no planes. But soon, even that will give way to something new.

For now, I stay grounded in Florence, the most exquisite of cities, a butterfly under a glass bell, in which the houses seem to be the same colour as the food and the light, pink ham and rosy terracotta (“cooked earth”), a golden glow like aged cheese and dreams during naps. I had a Plan A, B, C, and D, and they all fell through, and the so longed-for home is only a resting place. I spent more than a decade in Manhattan and the last few years in Brooklyn, and never really felt like I was there to stay. Somehow, I just didn’t leave. Three years ago, I came to Florence for the first time, and as I crossed the Ponte Santa Trinita over the river that hellishly hot afternoon, I had the sudden jolt that I would live here at some point in my lifetime, a feeling I had been hoping to have about anywhere since I stopped thinking, as the train would approach New York City, “There is the City, and I live in its heart.” I just never thought I’d get here so fast.

Since I moved here on the cusp of fall, I’ve thought a lot about nourishment. Partly because this is the first time in my adult life that I’ve thought about what it means for myself, both what I have and what still feels out of reach, and partly because this is Italy, and what’s on the table is always on everybody’s mind. When I mentioned a dinner party I’d attended to an Italian friend, instead of a New Yorker’s response—Where? Who was there?—his first question was, What did you eat? With my polished anecdotes of fame, betrayal, hubris, and the usual suspects lined up, I was taken aback. Another time, I sat for hours with an American friend in Procacci, right in the centre of the high fashion shopping district, eating anchovy and butter sandwiches and quaffing Prosecco, and told a Florentine how much I enjoyed it. “I’m sure you did,” he said. “But that’s not lunch.”

All of this is to say I’m still learning the fundamentals of Tuscan cuisine, even just for myself. Lots of beans, fresh vegetables, tangy olive oil, red wine from the surrounding hills, rarely more than a handful of ingredients, and always the very best that a budget can afford. And always, and only, in season. Cooking with a new precision and attention to detail, I understand in a way I never did in my whole life in America that the results are dictated by the ingredients.

The things I miss and dream about in these days are often a one-word shorthand for my desires—scamorza, a smoky cheese slipping out of the frying pan in velvet curves; pici, fat, fresh spaghetti said to have its roots in the pre-Roman Etruscan culture, the enigmatic pleasure lovers who gave their name to Tuscany. But instead of longing—too much—for things out of reach, I make sure I have the staples for my favourite snack, courtesy of I Capture the Castle, on hand: “I shouldn’t think even millionaires could eat anything nicer than new bread and real butter and honey for tea,” the protagonist writes in her diary as the place crumbles around her. 

Cooking with a new precision and attention to detail, I understand in a way I never did in my whole life in America that the results are dictated by the ingredients.

When I returned to Florence a few months after my first visit, already sinking gratefully into the feeling that this must be the place, I was invited for Bistecca alla’ Fiorentina, the city’s iconic steak, so large that it must be shared with at least one other person, and served charred but rare. My companion and the waiter suggested a glass of wine that they described as “rude,” which didn’t translate to my American ears. “We’d say earthy,” I replied, which made them both laugh at my simple view of things. “Well, of course it’s earthy, it comes from the earth.”

I could say this experience grounded me, which it has. This beginning of a new life, I was so sure I’d grabbed on to, now feels to me like the last act of an old one. From the perspective of a New Yorker, running a thriving international public relations consultancy while also attending jewellery school full-time sounded a-okay; challenging, but I’d make it work. Visa restrictions meant I had to shut down the former, and the demands of the latter made seeking out the local part-time employment I was permitted to have impossible. By the time it all unravelled, I couldn’t imagine how I’d thought any of it would have flown, given what I value now: time for meals, not just to eat them, but to shop for and prepare them, and cultivate the relationships and settings with which to share them; deep, regular and sustained communion with art that has transmitted essential truths over the centuries; an entirely new need to sit quietly by the sea, unproductively occupied.

The pleasure and freedom to simply be, forty years old and single, living out of a suitcase, somehow existing without the resources or opportunities I once sacrificed everything else to keep close at hand. I don’t have much of what I used to think I couldn’t live without, and I don’t feel drawn to anything from my life before. I need money, of course, and I’ll have to go back to work, where and when I can find it in this new reality.

What matters to me now is so much simpler, and I wonder how it ever became so complicated. But it’s more than being grounded—it’s that earthiness I return to, and feel closest to these days. The gravity. The dirt under the nails that demonstrates you’ve had your hands in something real. The feeling, walking along the Arno River near my apartment after being indoors for almost two months, of a stolen spring, that I had missed the birth of everything, that I was Persephone, alighting to a different season. I don’t miss winter, but I wanted to watch the wisteria come into being.

Recently a thousand-year old monastery in the Tuscan countryside posted on Instagram that without the usual avenues to bring their goods to the market and fund their work, they are in need of support. I order dark chocolate, the exacting combination of bitter and sweet I like best; dried Porcini mushrooms, which I gently sauté in olive oil and torn herbs from pots on my terrace and eat with fresh pappardelle pasta. And three bottles of wine—gorgeous old reds that bloom with the dark promise of the forest, the soft, giving wood of the undergrowth, the ripened allure of fruit at the peak of its offering, and a sweet, soulful Passito that tastes of warm caramel, rich and round, and feels like walking in the rain: cleansed, awakened, almost home.


By Lauren Cerand

Essay

In Isolation with Mikaella Clements

Location: Berlin, Germany

Leftovers


In the green cube, I do the dishes and pick at leftovers. Summer is unfurling easily, so most of the time the light is already fresh and gold, and now and then I get the grey mornings that are my favourites, everything cool and still around me. My flat doesn’t have a balcony or a useable garden but it does have big glass windows, and when the leaves come back it feels like living in a giant treehouse, lindens tapping against the panes, squirrels pausing on their branches to glare inside.

The first week of lockdown I found myself waking earlier and earlier: first eight, then seven, then six. I am usually a late sleeper and on weekdays I’d drag myself out of bed just in time to sling myself into clothes and aim for the train station. Now I have the luck to work from home, and my mornings are newly long. In them I call my sisters, read my book, wash the dishes.

In between I pick at the covered pan, the mouthfuls of whatever we ate last night, richer and saltier and deeper in their own existence than when they were first served up. Lemon potatoes gone cold, still flaky with salt; hits of Sichuan noodles, spice sharp and smoky at once; a guilty scrape of pasta and onions and cheese from the bottom of the pan. I like mouthfuls of past meals on their way to the fridge; breakfast in handfuls, or the cancelled shallot pasta sauce (won’t someone think of the shallots!) on toast with feta and parsley.

The giant mug of tea, of course, although this lockdown has been a startling, semi-obscene insight into how much milk we go through: we are drowning in milk. Thinking about checking Twitter and reading my book instead. I’m reading about heresies in late antiquity, about Augustine’s bleak faith lashing out like a whip as Rome crumbles. I won’t leave this room all day.

Chilli


When Onj and I got married in January, my aunt gave us a copy of Fuchsia Dunlop’s cookbook The Food of Sichuan. Over the past month I have used it obsessively and lovingly, making a trip every fortnight or so to the Chinese supermarket on our corner where I can stock up on new pantry staples: fermented black beans, Sichuan peppers, Shaoxing cooking wine.

The best bit is the hit of red every time I open our cupboard: dried chillies spilling towards me, thick sedimented jars of chilli paste. It’s a pleasure to cook with handfuls of heat, spooning them on, mouth burning. Onj doesn’t like her food so spicy and so I make a gentler version, tell her, remember, your bowl is the one on the right.

“If you forget, just remember that I’m right for you,” I tell her grandly, and she makes a disgusting gesture at me.

Fish


When I get back from the market, Onj is on the phone to her mum, leaning over the kitchen counter, drinking coffee from the little East German cups we picked up at a flea market in another summer, when there were still flea markets. My mother-in-law watches over Facetime from Hastings as I unpack ciabatta bread, the Pflaumen-Streuselkuchen that makes a very indulgent weekend breakfast, and wrapped in another bag, eyes bulging against the plastic, two gleaming sea bream, which the Germans call Dorade.

“He cleaned them for me,” I say, as we slip them out onto the counter and take an immediate, admiring step back. “He cut them open and pulled out their guts.”

“That’s what he’s meant to do,” Onj’s mum says.

“We love the fish man,” Onj explains. “We find everything he does very impressive.”

As a child, I did not like fish very much; neither did my wife, and though I grew out of this fairly indifferently, she did not. I would eat fish if it was served to me, but I never sought it out, and Onj was much more actively opposed. She didn’t like the idea of it, or the weird flexing texture of it, a muscle that gave, like going at someone’s bicep with unexpectedly sharp teeth. For five years, without paying much attention, we steered clear. Then, on holiday in Sicily, we started eating fish, mostly for the aesthetic.

“Fuck,” Onj said ruefully, over a catch of the day served with lemons and shredded lettuce and red onions, because it was really fucking good.

Landlocked in Berlin, without much discussion of motivations or considerations, we started buying our own fish. We only buy from the market fish man, whom we trust implicitly and over-order as a result. First Onj cooked cod following a Bengali recipe from her aunties, staining her fingers turmeric yellow for days, the fish flaky and melting and somehow sweet. Then sumac and za’atar roasted monkfish, with a fattoush salad that we remade every day for a week. Then our Dorade: Onj fries it with garlic and cherry tomatoes bursting around it. When the lid is lifted after fifteen minutes, we crowd round gasping desperate, grateful lungfuls. It smells like the sea.


By Mikaella Clements

Essay

In Isolation with Liam Pieper

Location: Sydney, Australia

There’s a memory I have of my grandmother reading to me which I’m not sure is a real memory, or a chimera of one—fragments of life stored in the same part of the brain and sewn together over years through time and sentiment. The memory is of a children’s book called Stone Soup, a story she read to me time and again before I could read myself; back when a story had a way of growing more precious and soothing each time you heard it, when all stories were lullaby, when being read to was indistinguishable from reading.

The basics of the story are so: a penniless wanderer knocks on the door of a stranger’s home and convinces them that he knows how to make delicious soup by boiling a magical stone he keeps in his pocket. The wanderer puts the soup on the stove, and little by little he coaxes ingredients to garnish the soup from the stranger’s own pantry: onions, carrots, bones, spices, and soon, as if by magic, there is a rich soup in the pot.

Different versions of this story are found across European folklore. The identity of the wanderer, his host, the ingredients of the soup, and moral of the story change according to whichever culture it’s told in. The story, like the soup, tends to get saltier the further east you travel.

In Portugal, the traveller is a poor friar who finds himself starving on the threshold of the town of Almeirim. Too proud to beg, he pulls the stone soup trick in the town square. Little by little, the villagers make suggestions on how to improve the recipe, and bring out salt, potatoes and beans, chouriço, pork belly. The result is sopa da pedra, the thick, moreish Catholic comfort food. When the friar moves on, stone in his pocket, the villagers have learned a powerful lesson about sharing and generosity.

In the Hungarian version, the traveller is a starving soldier returning to his homeland, who then sells the stone on to the villagers at the end of the story. In the Russian tradition, the soup is made from an axe-head. The German version flirts with anti-Semitism, and involves a pilgrim on his way to Jerusalem who tricks a miserly household into handing over their hoarded foods to contribute to the stone soup. It’s this version, where the overwhelming lesson seems to be in the joys of mendacity, that made it to England, then Ireland, and finally, through Grandma, to me.

I was so taken by the legend that whenever my Grandma was making soup, she would trek to the garden, bring in a smooth round stone, and add it the pot, thrilling me insensible. Her soup was always a roughly improvised Scotch broth, a Celtic variant of the French pot-au-feu: a thick stew of barley and bone. A spoon dipped below the surface—an iridescent slick of oil and butter—would churn up a silt of wonders. Slivers of carrots reduced to mush, salty little bursts of potato that dissolved on the tongue, the surprising pop of sweetcorn and green peas, fresh from the freezer, barely ruffled by the indignity of cooking.

In my large, fractious Irish Catholic family, this was one of the few things we could all agree on—that the soup was transcendently good. Served with supermarket white bread and margarine scooped from an ancient Pyrex bowl, the entire table fall into a contented hush for the duration of the meal.

Grandma was the one who talk me to cook. I years spent toddling after her in the kitchen, convinced she was the source of all culinary knowledge. She showed me a trick with a tomato once: you slice the fruit in half, sprinkle salt on only one half, and wait five minutes. Taste the plain tomato, taste the seasoned one. Imagine my eyes bugging out of my tiny head as I realised that you can take a dull, sour, hateful thing and make it glorious with time and seasoning.


A spoon dipped below the surface—an iridescent slick of oil and butter—would churn up a silt of wonders. 


A later realisation, once I was an adult: Grandma wasn’t a particularly good cook. Just so-so, just proficient. She cooked the food I liked, and I liked it because she cooked it. Fish-fingers with lemon, oven chips with White Crow, lettuce drenched in Paul Newman dressing. All of it a tiny little gastronomic morphine drip. But most of all, the soup.

A generation ago the recipe called for beef bones, but then the 70s happened, and much of the family became vegetarian, and Grandma did too, and so the soup was adapted: an extra handful of barley, a little vinegar to leach the umami from the grain, to thicken the broth, to fool the carnivores in our midst. Everyone in the family asked her how she made it, and all of them had a recipe somewhere she’d dutifully tapped out on her typewriter. But none of us could ever recreate it. Every time I tried to make it, it came out wrong.

There was an interlude, a decade or so I was lost to the world, and when I returned, I began the process of getting to know my grandma as an adult. Her typewriter, a hulking Olivetti, now sat in the centre of her dining table. When my books were reviewed in the paper she would cut out the clippings and post them to me, along with little missives and memories from her life—books long passed the pulping point that she urged me to track down. At some point, she began to talk about how she would die. As the years passed it became one of the only things she would talk about.

One day she had ‘a fall’. Such a toothless euphemism for what it is. It’s a wild thing, when the woman who shaped you as an infant begins to fade from the world, the long-held dignities slipping away into a future that grew opaque and oily when you looked to it. When I visited, I would fix the tea, help her chop vegetables. One day, I asked her to teach me how to make stone soup again. I asked what she was doing that nobody else in the family could get right. She went to the back of the cupboard, slid some boxes out of the way and retrieved two cartons of Campbell’s stock. There was a twinkle in her eye, a touch of the confessional: “I don’t make the soup at all. It comes in a box.”

This, then, was the secret. It was right there in the storybook: the secret is mendacity, in pretending a thing is good and wholesome until the world makes it so. She died in the early hours on the day the first coronavirus case was reported in Australia. At the funeral, the various wings gave separate eulogies. But we all spoke about the soup, how much we missed it. Afterwards, we stuck to our various corners at the wake and ate soggy white bread sandwiches, drank wine from plastic cups.

Perhaps you have been shopping during the lockdown. Perhaps, like me, you bought the ingredients for a mighty bout of self care and then found yourself too stressed, too besieged, somehow too busy despite having nothing to do to cook a decent dinner.

Things fall apart. Especially in kitchens. You will go to your fridge, and survey your broken kingdom of dreams, the odds and ends of vegetables, a near-terminal bag of green beans, a wilting head of celery, the sum parts of a planned ratatouille, now a monument to hubris. But all is not lost, it is never all lost. You will rally.

You will find at the back of the cupboard a jar of pearlescent barley. You will boil it with stock, with beans, with a French trick with an onion you learned from someone you will never see again. With this, you will bring it all to life again. All the best recipes started as salvage, a monument to scarcity and improvisation. There are no rules beyond those we choose to adhere to. You will fossick in the garbage and the muck and you will create something perfect, and pure as the slick of oil on its oceanic surface. You will make stone soup.


By Liam Pieper

Essay

In Isolation with Nadia Bailey

Location: Melbourne, Australia

Late last year, before the pandemic hit, I travelled to Poland to live in Kraków for two months. In between haunting the coffeeshops of Kazimierz and trying to work on a novel, I spent a lot of time in the large communal kitchen of my residence, baking cakes.   

One morning I decided to make a lemon cake, the kind I like to eat still-warm from the oven, with a mug of black coffee. I gathered flour, butter, sugar, and lemons, and fetched two cartons of eggs—one containing the last of last week’s half-dozen, the other, full, purchased at the corner store that morning. I combined the dry ingredients, then took the last egg from its carton and cracked it open. I upended the broken shells over the ceramic bowl and stared. In the shallow well I’d made in the flour, there was no yolk. The egg contained only albumen, clear as water.

Troubled by this strange occurrence, I took an egg from the new carton and rapped it against the rim of the bowl. I pushed my thumb through the shell and cleaved it open. The interior slid out into the bowl, into the flour, and that uncanny, yolkless egg. Again I stared. The second egg had—improbably, so improbably—two yolks. Two yolks, yellow as supermoons.

Since then, I’ve thought about these two eggs often: one yolkless, the other double-yolked, that I happened to break into a bowl one after the other on a cold, crisp day in Poland. The experience left me somewhat disturbed. It had, unmistakably, the contours of an omen. More preordained sign than random coincidence. I felt, in the space of two broken eggs, the destabilising notion that the universe was not the wholly rational place I took it for.


I’ve felt in a corner booth what I imagine the credulous feel in their houses of worship: communion, awe, the possibility of miracles.


But cooking well has always felt like magic to me. I learned the basics when I was young but failed to ascend beyond that; when I cooked, my aim was to make something that would stop me from being hungry rather than with an eye for artistry or genuine nourishment. For a long time I’ve only had the need to cook for myself, and cooking for one is depressing if you let it be. It’s easier to pay someone to cook for you than learn how to care for yourself. It’s easier to eat distracted than confront the loneliness of dining alone.

Restaurants, then, are sites of wonder. It’s perhaps no coincidence that what priests and waiters do are both called service. Both in their own way are acts of devotion. I’ve felt in a corner booth what I imagine the credulous feel in their houses of worship: communion, awe, the possibility of miracles. For the duration of a meal—whether over a white drift of tablecloth or hastily wiped Laminex—you’re made to feel welcome. And it’s from going to restaurants I learned how to eat—what it is to cook with care and eat with pleasure. Without the training of restaurants, without the extraordinary skill of chefs and line cooks and waitstaff, how timid my palate would be. How narrow.  

Right now, I have no real measure of days except for in the proofing of dough, no measure of hours but the stretching and folding of a loaf in progress. Restaurants are shuttered, so I work within the confines of my own limited ability. I’ve been practicing. Taking interest in the process, improving though repetition. Isolation has given me time to learn how to properly poach an egg so that the white pillows around the yolk like a friendly little cloud. Time to spend hours fermenting beetroot into kvass and then kvass into barszcz, until you end up with a broth the colour of Snow White’s lips. Time to mix flour and water together until it bubbles up, tender and alive, and raises a loaf like a tiny messiah. These clumsy attempts please me, and make me aware of how much I don’t yet know.

I think about what it will be like when restaurants re-open; how badly I want to go to a city bar in the early evening, when it’s still empty and the staff are bored and helpful, and order a gin martini, very cold and dry—expertly mixed—with an olive. To eat a handful of hot misir wot wrapped in sour injera. To lean elbow to elbow with a stranger in a crowded pub, then pick my way back through a maze of tables, trying not to spill a generous pour of red wine. To walk through Chinatown on a winter night then eat a plate of hand-pulled noodles swimming in chilli oil. How badly I want to order something I’ve never tasted before and feel the thrill of the new.

For now, while I wait, I go back to making cakes, like I did in Kraków when I was lonely and missing home. I consult recipe books, bookmark the things I hope one day I’ll have the skill to make. I bake another imperfectly proofed loaf and eat a crust, still hot, with a curl of butter. That I can do this is its own kind of magic; the sweetness in the bitter.


By Nadia Bailey

Essay

In Isolation with Neha Kale

Location: Sydney, Australia

In the first weeks of lockdown, I wanted to cook with ingredients that sparked kinetic reactions. I wanted to make food that contrasted with the hush that had fallen across the world outside.

When I looked out from our balcony, our bustling inner-west street had become a theatre of one: a single car ambling towards Parramatta Road, a lone UberEats cyclist deliberating over whether or not he should enter an apartment building, a solo dog walker stepping on a growing pile of autumn leaves. I found myself foraging through the pink Tupperware container where our spices live in plastic packets with fading labels.

I scrambled fresh eggs bought from the café down the road with fried onion, green chilli and coriander. I toasted turmeric and mustard seeds in hot vegetable oil to make split-pea dahl, lentils turning obnoxiously thick and golden. Later I ate them in the sun with a tablespoon of good Greek yoghurt, knees covered with a crocheted blanket.

I delighted in the way the mustard seeds jumped up and down in the saucepan, the way they sputtered and demanded more attention, the way turning the heat up could make them a little crazy. They were awake, not inert.


I once had a flatmate who taught me that crushing basil leaves between your fingers released the herb’s flavours, made them aromatic. You do this, he said, right before you add it to what you are cooking—like the lasagne that E baked for the first time this week, puzzling over, but then nailing the béchamel.

Since then, I’ve been obsessed with the idea that ingredients can possess a secret language, that they can do different things in different contexts. That they can lead double lives.

Two years ago, during an especially memorable family Christmas back in Perth—a brown snake made a surprise visit during dessert—my aunt and uncle gifted us a copy of my grandmother’s recipe book. Inside were handwritten recipes for prawns pattia and dal ghosh, techniques written in curly cursive, titles made grand by quotation marks. (My grandmother, glamorous in pearls and fifties dresses, always knew her way around an accessory.)

Underneath, my aunt translated the names of her spices from Hindi to English. Jeera referred to cumin. Cloves were lavang, and dhania equalled coriander seeds. Cardamom pods—maybe the best spice of all—were elaichi. These are words that I didn’t know but knew. These were words that tasted different in my mouth even as they pointed towards the same thing.


“I try to avoid sentimentality and I try to avoid the easy cliché. I try to avoid any mention of mangoes, of spices and monsoons,” the Indian poet and journalist Jeet Thayil told NPR during an interview about his book, Narcopolis, set in the seamy underworld of 1970s Bombay, a city I was born in but barely know.

Thayil was onto something. When you’re Indian-Australian, cooking with—or writing about—spices is inherently risky. Spices can signify a readymade exotic. Too easily, they can become a symbol of immigrant longing, a means of enriching a narrow and neutered reality.

Thinking about this reminds me of a time, in my twenties, when I only wore Cheap Monday jeans, when I couldn’t bring myself to buy naan at the supermarket for fear that the cashier would think they knew me. A time when I was only too ready to tie myself in knots for people who didn’t love me, blasé—in the way of twentysomethings—of what I’d lose if I cleaved myself in half.

A few weeks into isolation, the actor Irrfan Khan died unexpectedly. I felt a grief that was inexplicable. We poured glasses of red wine and watched one of his films, Mira Nair’s The Namesake, based on Jhumpi Lahiri’s book of the same name. It follows Ashima Ganguli, a classical singer, who moves from Calcutta for her husband, an engineering professor, to the chilly suburbs of Massachusetts. In the book Ashima, missing home, combines “Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl.” She adds “salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper.” She wishes she could find mustard oil.

During isolation, I’ve found myself performing a similar kind of culinary tetris, scrambling for ghost ingredients to sate real appetites. Cooking with spices has shown me—more slowly than I’d like—that avoiding the sentimental, shirking the cliché in an attempt at self-preservation can be a way to erase myself, to kill the things that I truly want. 

On bad days, it feels like acquiescing to a culture that suffers from a failure of imagination, one that insists on our duality rather than our plurality, one that asks us to make a choice—immigrant or citizen, mother or lover, worker or human.

Over the last couple of months, the pandemic has rendered the lives and livelihoods of international students, new immigrants, gig economy workers precarious, untenable. All the illusions of protection have been punctured—the pressure to prove your worthiness, prove that you belong, prove that you can neatly assimilate, has been exposed as the scam that it always was.


Last Friday, a few days after restrictions started to ease, I cooked butter chicken. The mascot of Indian cuisine in the West, the dish is a good metaphor for the dangers of believing any food is “authentic,” the consequence of a single story. When it’s good, it tastes like it was conceived for a 16th century Mughal emperor, but was actually invented by a chef named Kundan Lal Gujral at a restaurant called Moti Mahal in 1950s Delhi.

I marinated the chicken in yoghurt and jeera, dhania, elaichi, the words floating into my head automatically. I simmered the chicken in cream and butter, ginger and garlic, relishing the way the way the spices sounded and smelled when they collided with hot fat. A friend came over for dinner and we gathered around our table, taking care to sit away from each other. We talked and laughed, listened to music from the nineties, savouring the pleasure of good food and good company.

The next morning, I stacked the dishwasher. I stuffed the packets of spice back into the Tupperware, taking care to wiping the residue off our counter. The light was changing. Outside, the street was quiet, but there were a couple more people crunching through the autumn leaves, the street no longer a theatre of one.


By Neha Kale