Lockdown was severe in Istanbul. No sooner had Wuhan shut down, than we did. We are a city that never sleep: social and always out — in cafes, bars and tea-gardens.
How were we to cope with lockdown? I made a quick call to my close friend David, permanently stationed in Bangkok, but who was on mission for the UN in Eastern Turkey at the time: "Dave, they are closing Istanbul's borders at midnight, if you don't get here now you will be shut out". And so, my bubble was formed, Dave, my son and myself. Every evening Dave, skilled at many things but not cooking, came over for dinner. After which we'd go for a walk down the quiet streets until curfew, where he'd drop me off at my house before scuttling back to his home a few doors down.
Some days, lockdown was even more severe and I'd prepare food for Dave to warm up at home over four days that we were forbidden to leave our homes. A month into lockdown, I'd watched Tiger King, I'd considered making sourdough bread and wondered how best to serve my time, in what I now saw as a form of prison. Good behavior would get us out early, so I wasn't prepared to break any rules.
Oh my god — wow that is good.
Facebook came into its own with friends and friends of friends posted up pictures of their banana bread and sour dough recipes. And then an alumnus of my school in Singapore posted up an old handwritten recipe on Facebook. It was for basic chicken curry.
Suspiciously, I viewed the ingredients.
They were simple and I wondered how this dish could impress my tastebuds. “Oh my god”, "Wow that is good”. We all exclaimed. I immediately wrote to Americk and asked him to send me more. Every day he did and we began cooking in tandem, sharing our pictures of each meal.
Family photograph provided by the authorPersonal archive
As the days passed Americk and I struck up a friendship, fueled by the recipes but not limited to them. We wrote from the soul of all we had lived, we shared fears, loves and thoughts. And then we discovered a friendship that pre-dated even us. While he was clearing his desk drawers (as we all did in those early days of quarantine), he found a photograph of his parent’s wedding. In that group photo, I recognized my parents, as well as my aunt and my grandmother.
Our story actually began with them. When my grandmother was returning to Singapore from a trip to the UK, she met Americk’s mother on the boat. During the six-week voyage to Asia, the two women formed a bond. Americk’s British mother was on a life-changing journey: to marry and settle in a new country. With no friends of her own in the tropics, my grandmother suggested her daughter (my auntie Pat) as her matron of honor. That contact came with my father and my mother.
His dishes have unlocked a camphor wood box of memories.
Dutch in origin, my mother, too, had recently moved to Singapore; a land far removed from her native Holland. Americk’s father and mine were both lawyers of Indian descent, thus cementing another similarity in our friendship. To learn that Americk and I had a pre-history was exciting. We had no idea of this link when he posted the first recipe. Nor did we know that Americk’s mother had taken us together, along with my sister, for our polio vaccine when we were children.
Today, neither Americk nor I live in the country of our birth. He resides mostly in Perth, with a law practice in Kuala Lumpur. He cooks these dishes from his past to ensure they live in his present. For me, they have unlocked a camphor wood box of memories: of eateries, hawker stalls, social gatherings and family. And spurred me to write a cookbook containing all the gems Americk sent me.
In them is our story which is not just about food, but also about connections, journeys, and adventures — and always about friendship, family and homeland.
*The author, of Singaporean and Dutch origins, currently works as a chef in Istanbul. She also blogs on expatalchemist.com.
This article was chosen as the winning entry of the joint Panodyssey-Worldcrunch writing contest "My Pandemic Story."