Soul Food

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Every now and then the eighty hours a week of coding and living at work used to wear little cracks in my happy world view. When the sun was starting to feel a bit too bright and my brain was starting to rattle I went to my favorite Korean restaurant, sat far in the back in a walled booth, and ordered a hot bowl of dol sat bi bim bap. After a couple of spoonfuls of rice I could feel myself relaxing and adjusting, coming back to earth and regaining perspective. Everything was right in the universe again. I don’t know why, but somehow that dish had become my soul food.

Really, it doesn’t make much sense. For a comfort food to have that powerful an effect it seems like it would have to be something with deep rooted emotional ties. I didn’t grow up eating Korean food, and didn’t even try it until I was hanging out in Champaign. Of course, every time I had it there I was with my best friend Zeevus, and maybe that’s where I built the association.

Bowl of Bi Bim Bap
Zeevus was dating a very cool Korean girl from Chicago at the time. Her parents had recently had a serious talk with her about who she could date. They had decided that they had been a bit closed minded about the whole thing, now that she was growing up in the U.S., and it might be OK for her to date someone Chinese, as well as Korean, although certainly not anyone Vietnamese. To this day I assume they never even heard about Zeevus.

The work days in India were exhausting physically and, often, emotionally. By the time we returned to the house where we were staying, it was cold and dark. We stumbled in and sat shivering around a small table topped with a variety of white covered bowls. I loved the anticipation of that moment. There was a magic to the unveiling, lifting the lids one by one to peek inside. I would pick up the first to uncover a stack of hot, fresh rotis. I could feel myself getting warmer just smelling them. The next would be dahl, spicy and dark. Mixed with rice, the lentils were just firm enough to be really satisfying. Next I’d pull open the carrot subzi. This was a mixture of dark, orange carrots particular to India and a variety of other vegetables. Sometimes there would be reita, a yogurt mixed with garlic. Dessert would be sweet noodles or, the best, carrot halva.

Every day we had essentially the same food. While the Americans who were with us grew anxious about this around day two, I left six weeks later dreadfully sad to leave it behind. Those meals where my only time to pause and reflect on what was happening to us every day. I became very close to Zeet and Zameet and often the three of us would spend the later part of those meals talking and connecting over what had happened that day. Sometimes we would just sit and eat and that was wonderful too. The warm food pushed back the chill and the company cleared my head and made me feel close to them and to this place.

Now whenever I’m feeling pressured or behind the curve I crave it. I want one of those warm rotis in my left hand and a spoonful of dahl in my right to balance me out. I’ve been to every Indian restaurant I can find and none of them is quite right. I have a new soul food and it’s thousands of miles away. I’ve started trying to cook my own with little success, and so I can only lie awake at night and dream of it.

Click on images to find the credited photographers on Flickr.

2 thoughts on “Soul Food

  1. Steve

    Ahhhhh … dol sat bi bim bap … and don’t forget its cool cousin, for those who don’t have frigid Chicago winters to contend with, bi bim bap. Definitely soul food. You bring back fond memories my friend.


  2. francesca

    Aaaah! Those dark Indian carrots! They are like candy. I’ve never had better, and I’ve enjoyed homegrown heirlooms of all stripes for years now.

    I think we had mirror experiences, Kai. The students I was with always complained about the constant flow of Rice and Curry (curry meaning a great many things in Sri Lanka), but I looked forward to every meal, and miss it now. Also–eating with your fingers, how great is that? I can’t wait to go back and stay for a while. I know we’ll both make it, eventually.


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