Mise En Place: Cooking for One

Carlo Javier // Columnist 

I like watching how running water can seemingly change the colour of Gai Lan leaves as I wash them in a colander. I like how the vegetable appears to  develop a brighter tone of green as water cascades over the leaves, down to the stems. I like how the leaves, much like a brand new umbrella, repels the water and instantly returns to its dry, elementary state. 

Khana Mu Crop is a Thai stir fry dish featuring Gai Lan and crispy fried pork belly. The two main components are bound together by an oyster and soy sauce mix, accented by Thai chilies and garlic. I picked up this dish from Longtail Kitchen in New Westminster—inarguably my favourite restaurant in all of the Lower Mainland. I can’t quite make it like they do, but I’d like to think that I make it well enough to serve to friends and family.  

I like the covert complexity of this dish. It features a set of simple, seemingly easy to prepare ingredients, but taking it to a higher standard ultimately requires some tedious preparation, especially concerning the protein.  

It’s the type of dish I can cook on any given night, but can’t quite cook well without the necessary preparations, making it synonymous to the very ethos of good cooking—preparation is key.  

It’s the type of dish I first encountered and shared often with people who were, for a time, constant tenants in my life; for a time, maintaining the same synergy Gai Lan and pork belly had. 

Sometimes, I spend too much time watching how a stream of water changes my perception of the vegetable. Sometimes, it reminds me of how we might look and feel different to other people under a different set of circumstances. Sometimes, it reminds me of how we might look and feel different, even to ourselves, under a different set of circumstances. 

I’ve come to consider cooking as another method to relieve stress, not unlike grounding and breathing exercises, or most any other form of physical activity. In a way, it’s almost like keeping a journal except with tangible results I can openly and unabashedly share. It helps to see others enjoy what I cook. But most of all, it’s that sometimes external validation really does the trick. 

Recently, I’ve pondered why and how cooking became so inextricably linked to me. Certainly, there were strong influences from my upbringing and a very inherent desire and fascination with the very concept of eating.  

But cooking—and the process of continually getting better at it—also became a conversational element, a part of me I enjoyed talking to people about. Cooking became something my dearest friends identified with me, and something I was keen on letting strangers know about.  

I’ve come to realize that for a time I was cooking strictly to impress external forces, to satisfy my need for validation from others, and to uphold something that’s become an element of my character. 

The pilot episode of the iconic show Community ends with one of the show’s most profound gems. Troy (Donald Glover) sits outside on the stairs of Greendale Community College, wearing his varsity football jacket from his high school years. He asks Jeff (Joel McHale) for advice, seeing as his schoolmates have been “clowning” him for continuing to wear an article of high school branded apparel. Jeff simply responds with another question: “Troy, what’s it matter? You lose the jacket to please them, you keep it to piss them off…either way, it’s for them, that’s what’s weak.” 

Cooking for one may not be the right way to say it, but finding the steps towards rediscovering serenity within the solitary confines of cooking feels necessarily monumental. As much as there is external value and pleasure to be obtained from cooking and sharing meals with others, there is also significance in considering self-interest in the process. I had forgotten personal satisfaction and an internally-engineered desire for betterment. I had forgotten the most important ingredient in any recipe is the self.   

This is not so much a matter of developing self-respect, but more of self-discovery, actualization and acceptance. Much in the same way that Gai Lan leaves look healthier, more vibrant, and more appealing under the stream of cascading fresh water, but are ultimately just as nutritious and important when in their stale, dark green, unassuming state. 

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