Cooking up travel memories

My passport is tucked away in a drawer. My backpack is stashed in the closet for the foreseeable future. My travel pillow is as deflated as my mood often is these days.

But although I’m unable to travel, I’ve been “traveling” the world through my meals. Lockdown has left me with fewer ingredients but more time to cook. I find that cooking allows me to feel more connected to the world and to, in a way, taste years past.

No-Knead Bread, which Ive Dubbed Pain demic

pain d'emic
Pain d’emic, my version of No-knead bread

I’m on a trip to France, in my mid-twenties with my then-boyfriend, who would become my husband and then ex-husband. By day, we’re driving a Citroen 2CV through the postcard-perfect French countryside and pitching our tent in campgrounds each night.

We buy thick country bread, pain de campagne, and tear it apart with our hands. We slather it with butter and pile salty ham or saucisson and the little pickles we’ve grown to love.

We wash down dinner with different bottles of wine each night, delighting in how few francs we pay for it. We’re young and have our whole lives ahead of us, years away from the mental illness and denial and despair. 

Hummus and Travel Memories

I soak dried chickpeas overnight and make hummus. My first attempt, with not enough tahini, was thick as wallpaper paste and almost as edible. I time travel back to Brooklyn, to my single mom days and potlucks where there was always thick, homemade hummus.

My daughter was a toddler and money was tight. I couldn’t travel overseas but we ‘traveled’ in our neighborhood through potlucks, world music concerts in the park, and ‘urban hiking’ to Sunset Park for Malaysian roti canai and Flatbush for Jamaican beef patties.

Nasi Goreng, Indonesian Fried Rice

Tangkahan-Sumatra
Having some refreshing food at Tangkahan Sumatra

As I’m stirring the last of our tofu into rice darkened with sweet soy sauce sizzling in the sauté pan, I’m back in Sumatra, Indonesia six years ago, with my then-fifteen-year old daughter.

We’d been backpacking across the island, staying in $4-a-night thatched bungalows with cold water scoop showers and electricity for a few hours a day.

In a mud-splattered jeep with a chain-smoking driver, we’d bumped along roads that were more an idea than a street and had crossed a river on a bridge made of two boards.

A monkey visits us in Indonesia.
A special visitor

When we reached our destination, we were equal parts sore and relieved. We found a warung, a small restaurant, and ordered nasi goreng. The power went out but around us, like stars lighting in the sky, kerosine lanterns lit and flickered.

After dinner, we walked back to our bamboo hut in the dark, listening to the gibbons shriek and the jungle’s cacophony. Away from her friends and my husband, we opened to each other in an easier, freer way. 

Sort-of Vietnamese Coffee

Enjoying Vietnamese coffee with Jeff
Enjoying Vietnamese coffee with Jeff. 

With one of the cans of sweetened condensed milk that last for years, I attempt Vietnamese coffee twice. The first try is with instant coffee and the second is with strong, freshly brewed beans.

Both were nothing like the cà phê sua my second husband Jeff and I fell hard for in Ho Chi Minh City during our first overseas trip together. We bicker. He strokes my forehead when I fever-doze during food poisoning and helps me take a few sips of water. He’s so loving I realize how lucky I am. 

Nicaraguan Gallo Pinto

Walking the ancient roads of Leon Nicaragua
Walking the ancient roads of Leon Nicaragua

Beans and rice, which we eat a lot these days, take me back to Nicaraguan breakfasts. It’s November 2017 and, with our daughter in college, it’s our first trip as empty nesters.

Jeff and I meet an aging Sandinista, who takes us on an impromptu tour in Leon, our favorite city in Nicaragua. He tells us about living in the jungle and the civil war, saying talking about his past helps with his PTSD.

He’s open about his mental illness in a way I wish my ex-husband had been with his when he was still alive. My ex had died a few years earlier and the world seemed full of ghosts.

Khmer Vegetable Curry with Kampot Pepper:

Visit to Kampot, Cambodia
A visit to Kampot, Cambodia

Because I have no lemongrass, galangal or lime leaves, I freestyle the dish. It’s November 2019 — a lifetime ago — and Jeff and I have traveled back to Cambodia to see the southeastern part of the country.

We ride on the top of a riverboat, hitting the deck as it passed under low bridges, take a tuk-tuk along dirt roads through the impossibly lush green countryside near Kampot, and drink beers with an Elvis impersonator who, after several, bursts into a perfect rendition of “Hound Dog.”

Still, we meet people who have lost their entire families in the Cambodian genocide. Tourism here is a surreal experience.

Someday — I hope soon — the present will be a distant past. Then I’ll save for a plane ticket to somewhere. In the meantime, I’ll cook and dream and reminisce.

Author Bio: Sue Sanders’ essays have been published in the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Real Simple, Vox, Islands and others. She can’t wait to travel.

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