In Isolation with Hannah-Rose Yee

Location: Sydney, Australia

Sometimes, more often than I should admit really, I would have chips for dinner. Crisps is what they call them in England, where the brands have jokey names and MSG-laced flavours like Worcestershire Sauce and Pickled Onion, top notes so acidic they could strip the paint from your walls or, at the very least, the roof of your mouth.

I would have chips—sorry, crisps—for dinner when I got home so late that the tiny curry takeaway was already closed, or when there wasn’t any food in the fridge, or when it was so cold that my draughty kitchen felt like a scene from the really bad part of The Revenant (all of it! Ha ha!), and it was just easier to get into bed with a packet of Monster Munch and call it a night.

This was the before times, when I lived in London in a very small three bedroom flat dropped somewhere in the bit between Dalston (markets, always awake), De Beauvoir Town (pubs, Kit Harington getting coffee in implausibly tight jeans) and Newington Green (strollers, fruit stores). I lived with a chef from one of London’s best restaurants, who came home so late he would often have chips for dinner too, and a girl who worked at a bank and ate out for almost every meal. Which meant that when I wasn’t having chips for dinner I could stand in our tiny kitchen uninterrupted and cook whatever I wanted. This was usually spaghetti or, when it was really cold, which worked out to be approximately six months of the year, a very spicy minestrone soup that I would cover in pecorino and parsley and eat curled up on my end of the sofa. It was another time, another country. You know how it is.

I’ve been back in Australia for six months now and it’s been six months since I’ve had chips (crisps?) for dinner. I came back because my visa was expiring and coronavirus very much wasn’t and I didn’t want to be stranded overseas on my own. Also—I came back because I wanted to be with my family. Sometimes I say something else, another tossed away excuse, but that’s the truth: I wanted to come home.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t miss London, or the life I had there, because I do, achingly and almost every day. But back in March, when everything was being uprooted, I felt like I was living in a house of cards. So I came home to a real house, made from bricks and mortar, back with my parents in Sydney where I was born and raised. For six months I’ve been in our home, a place rooted in memory and history and strange Yee family traditions. It’s so familiar that I could walk through it with my eyes closed and never bump into a single thing.

The way it works at home is that I do all the cooking. Forget what I said about the chips, I’m actually alright in the kitchen. My mum taught me. When we were kids she did everything and she did it well, like an Australian Nigella Lawson: elaborate birthday cakes in the shape of pirate ships and fairytale castles, eight-course Chinese New Year dinners, favourite dishes on special occasions, and also any day of the week ending in a Y. But she doesn’t cook much anymore and my dad, bless him, can only really do a stir-fry. So most days it’s me in front of the stove, cooking for the three of us, making meals that we will eat, knees touching, crowded around one end of our dining table.

No dessert for dad, unless it’s pavlova, in which case no dessert for anyone except dad.

In London I lived selfishly. I got used to cooking for one: chips for dinner, the spiciest takeaway eaten straight from the container, the secret meals that you only eat when you’re on your own, things that live in bowls, drowning in everything salty and wrong. I was feeding myself and catering only to my tastes, I had a pantry full of things that only I would ever want to eat. Here, at home, I am no longer an island unto myself. It’s a good lesson to learn, especially now that I am [redacted] years old.

I have to remember that my mum doesn’t like pork, unless it’s bacon, and then she likes it a lot, but only when it’s in a pasta sauce, never when it’s on its own and served alongside a fried egg, then it’s just the egg and a slice of toast, please. (No scrambled eggs. She doesn’t like them. Boiled eggs are OK though, either served runny with toast soldiers or so done you could bounce them against the wall. Nothing in between.) Dad doesn’t eat sauce. He likes things plain and simple. Honest. No spices. But then—lots of pepper. Do you think he has enough pepper? He doesn’t. Keep grinding. No carrots for dad. No watermelon for mum. No dessert for dad, unless it’s pavlova, in which case no dessert for anyone except dad. Cut mum the smallest pieces of meat and the largest helpings of broccoli, Brussels sprouts and roast potatoes. Dad, who I have never witnessed drink a drop my entire life, has cultivated this habit during lockdown of nursing tiny little half-beers that come in bottles not dissimilar to Tabasco in size and shape. They’re ridiculous. He loves them. Pour one out for him.

At first, I found all this endless emotional catering thoroughly exhausting. “I feel like I’m running a restaurant,” I sniffed at my mum. (You can imagine how that went down with the woman who spent almost three decades cooking for her children.) Then, I saw it for what it was: the togetherness that I had craved when I was alone in London eating chips—sorry, crisps—for dinner.

The thing is—this is the warm, soupy, stomach-hugging thing—I like standing in front of the stove. I feel solid here. Scaffolded. Checked and balanced. I like cooking for my mum and dad, two people who have known me for every ordinary and extraordinary second of my life. I like thinking about what they want to eat and making it for them and putting it in front of them, sometimes sullenly, sometimes exasperatedly, but mostly with flourish and plenty of care. I like reaching for chilli flakes and then silently putting them back. I like pulling out arborio rice to make cheesy risotto, again. I like knowing that everything in this kitchen exists to feed my parents and make them feel full. Content. I like being the one to give them that feeling. I even like it—I pretend that I don’t, but I really, really do—when my mum pops her head into the kitchen and asks: “What’s for dinner?”

By Hannah-Rose Yee