Artwork credit: Tahira Rifath.
If I Can Find the Right Shallot, I am Home
by Minoli Wijetunga
On a gloomy Sunday morning in September, I bundled up—three layers, and a puffer jacket—and got on a train for a 40-minute journey to a Melbourne suburb whose name I could barely pronounce. My destination was not a snow-capped mountain top or expanses of golden sand. It was a small shop that was rumoured to stock Sri Lankan shallots (also known as Thai shallots, I’ve since learnt).
(Un)Fortunately, this was not my first rodeo; I have significant experience in hunting down common Sri Lankan ingredients in far flung places: chilly Oxford, sunny Sydney, and unpredictable Melbourne. I have come to rely on my ability to sniff out the tiny red onion-like bulb that is a staple of my coconut sambols, curries, and snacks.
As I move across countries and continents, as the shape of me frays and blurs at the edges, it is the shallot, and the kitchen, that keeps me tethered.
I know that if I can find the right shallot, I can always find home.
Amma’s Kitchen, Mahara, Sri Lanka
My first memory of a kitchen is my mother’s, from the days when houses had two kitchens: a small outdoor space made for firewood curries and mixing sambols, and a Western version that felt more for guests than for family to two-year-old me. The kitchen I remember, that I found myself growing up in, was the outdoor one.
Standing under the shade of two moringa trees, with a roof that leaked during the annual monsoons, this was home. My role in the kitchen was never to cook: it was to sit on the coconut scraper, with Ayya perched on the gas cylinder, and tell Amma about our day while peeling shallots to go in the lunu miris and pol sambol. We talked about school and work, we talked about who we were, and who we were becoming.
Amma would hear a lot about my school day: what happened on a soap opera that we both missed, how my friend’s cat had attempted escaping again, and why a specific teacher was the bane of my existence.
As I grew older though, the stories had to be edited. Not everything I had to share would be Amma-approved; not everything about my friends’ lives were my stories to tell. Boys and romance were especially taboo. So, I expanded on mischievous narratives from school, locking away the newer parts of myself. Back then, I didn’t realise that this part of me — the parts I couldn’t share — would be the ones that grew in leaps and bounds. And that one day, the only safe topic we could rely on would be food.
But back then, surrounded by the fragrance of ginger-garlic roasting in oil, I felt a sense of belonging, a sense of home. Under the shade of the moringa trees, long gone now, listening to the pitter-patter of the leaking roof, demolished years ago, I found community.
My mother’s kitchen is more modern nowadays, though the rest of the house remains more or less the same. And though I cannot hear the ‘voice’ of this new concrete kitchen, my roots still run deep beneath its floors.
Photo by archives.by.tamil.
The Orange Monstrosity, Oxford, United Kingdom
When I was 28 years old, I moved away from home for the first time, and found myself adrift amongst the cold cobblestones of Oxford. Residing in student housing, and sharing a kitchen with eight other people, home was something I had to find for myself. It was something I had to create to survive missing my sunny yet rainy home and emerge intact.
The home I created was in a gigantic orange kitchen. It wasn’t the same, but it slowly began to take shape. It wasn’t an easy process. In my early 20’s, I deliberately distanced myself from the kitchen and the rules of my conservative childhood.
Growing up, freedom was not something I expected or experienced. When our teacher would announce the annual school field trip, my stomach would fill with dread while my classmates cheered, because I knew it would be a battle to get permission to go. When my friends would have sleepovers, I would get picked up within a couple of hours. When my friends would enjoy the simple pleasures of walking to the nearby shop to buy an ice cream, the only way I was allowed was if Amma followed me. My diary would be read, and a parent would hover over my shoulder whenever I was at the computer.
The young are creative, so I still managed a separate life in secret, until I openly rebelled. The rebellion did me a world of good. But it also took me away from the kitchen, from food, and from everything that kept me grounded.
As my quest for home and culinary love led me back to the kitchen, I had to reconcile the gendered role I associated it with and my life of breaking boundaries. It took a while to accept that I could love it as much as my work; that I could feel just as comfortable at the stove as I do in a research group.
There were additional difficulties. Not everyone is comfortable with the strong fragrances of South Asian cuisine. I’d wait until my housemates left for the day before making my favourite mackerel curry. I’d hope against hope that the fire alarm wouldn’t go off when I deep fried dry fish. These were the foods that spoke to my soul, and after a long tiring day, exhausted in both body and mind, only a plate of hot white rice with coconut sambol and dry fish could relieve my weary bones.
Although I enjoy culinary adventures from around the world, it is Sri Lankan food that I always return to. It is what makes me feel grounded, comforted, and loved. Cooking Sri Lankan food became the primary way I held onto and nourished my roots. Over time, I came to accept the way things were: my kitchen could not replicate my mothers. I had to adapt and so did the flavours I loved.
So, I experimented. Although I could find no roast paan to spoon on my seeni sambol, I found that it makes for an excellent pizza topping. As my course mates—a vegan South African and a lactose-intolerant American—and I started cooking together, I took immense pleasure in sharing a piece of my home with them.
So, I negotiated. I accepted that fresh coconut was impossible to find, but using canned coconut milk did not make me a bad Sri Lankan. I made friends with different types of shallots, and realised that while I can appreciate the diversity available, Sri Lankan shallots were irreplaceable.
I created a shadow of my childhood home in the chilly suburbs of Oxford. There were no moringa trees or leaking roofs; instead, there was a shrill fire-alarm and a courtyard through which foreign winds blew. But there were also calls home. Phone calls that were entirely about how much water was required to cook a generic brand of rice, the different types of green chillies, and what fish could be used as a substitute for thalapath. Phone calls that were a lifeline at a time when I could not articulate the loneliness I was experiencing, when I did not have the vocabulary to explain how I was growing up and away.
So, I learnt. I learnt how to grow and expand, but on my own terms.
I learnt that compromising on a flavour did not make me a traitor, it just meant that I was creating something unique.
Photo by Cory Woodward.
A Kitchen of My Own, Melbourne, Australia
Winona LaDuke once said, “Food for us comes from our relatives, whether they have wings or fins or roots. That is how we consider food. Food has a culture. It has a history. It has a story. It has relationships.” As I stand in my kitchen in quirky Melbourne, stirring kiri hodi so it won’t curdle, I find myself looking back on an unbelievable journey.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be making string hoppers in an Australian kitchen. When I met someone on Twitter whose weirdness matched mine, I had no idea that we would move continents to build a home together. But we did. I left the warm tropics of home to explore the ‘backend-of-nowhere’ Australia. Not to build a ‘better’ life, but to live the life I wanted to have. But there are some plus points. Australia is home to a large Sri Lankan community, so I can find my dry and Maldive fish, curry and pandan leaves, and so much more.
It’s also not just my kitchen anymore. It’s now ‘ours,’ a space I share with my multi-cultural (a dash of German, a pinch of Dutch-Burgher, a sprinkling of Muslim, a solid pour of Australian) spouse. He has his own ideas, and there were many negotiations involved in crafting this compromise: chilli is not the only spice – we need to create balance! I’m not going to stand there stirring a pot for 30 minutes – just leave it be! No shop will ever stock coconut scraped the exact way you like – this will make do!
In this kitchen, my husband makes teriyaki salmon for dinner while I rant about PhD life; I make a dhal my way while he grudgingly admits it tastes better than his, while showing me a meme he thinks perfectly captures me. We try different fish to determine which makes the best spicy Sri Lankan fish curry. In this kitchen, I have accepted that my lunu miris will come from a bottle. In this kitchen, I have discovered the glory of dumplings and the allure of fresh pasta. In this kitchen, I have accepted the sweet heat of the French shallot in fried mackerel. In this kitchen, I squeeze a lemon instead of a lime, celebrating its sweetness instead of wallowing on the missing tartness.
Above all, in this kitchen, I have found a thread that still connects me to home and my mother. Though multiple oceans lie between us, and my daily thoughts, wins, and struggles move beyond our shared language, the kitchen comes to our rescue. Frying a fish cutlet to the perfect crispy golden consistency is something we both understand. As is the curdling of the coconut milk because the doorbell rang and we got distracted. In these culinary losses and victories, the first-generation graduate climbing the rungs of academia finds common ground with her mother who hasn’t left Sri Lanka in decades. The language of ginger-garlic, dancing curry leaves, and spitting coconut oil is one we both speak.
Funnily enough, although we are from different worlds, my spouse has been quick to learn that language too. He has found comfort in the smell of aromatic frying foods, as I have in kneading dough for fresh pasta. He is still baffled by my determination to only use Sri Lankan shallots in my cooking, and I am still confused by the eight different cheeses he uses in toasties. There is growth in our union though: a little chilli oil from his collection can do wonders for my curries, while my curry powder adds a zing to his risotto.
So, I get on a train and wait until it reaches a quiet Melbourne suburbia. I dodge swooping magpies, and brave random Spring hailstorms. I do what it takes to find Sri Lankan shallots to put in my curries. Because as long as I have my shallots, I am home.