Then the chef broke a coconut

In the beginning, I cooked. Washing my hands incessantly seemed like an inadequate response to the ominous, looming pandemic. As the city paused into an uneasy locked-down silence, broken only by bird song and the distant scream of ambulances, I needed to distract myself from obsessively tracking COVID-19 statistics. So I mopped, scrubbed and vacuumed between baking, grilling and basting. And washing dishes of course. So many dishes.

On Zoom, Facebook and Instagram, familiar faces began to go Live, as talented chefs awkwardly got acquainted with their home kitchens, devoid of clean-up crews, professional equipment and fancy ingredients. Responding to followers, many adrift in their own kitchens, these chefs have generously taught home cooks how to do everything from breaking open a coconut to making complex curries over the past two months. Their restaurants may have been closed, but their food and recipes could still be shared. After all, we were all craving some semblance of normalcy.

A coping mechanism

Food became a coping mechanism to deal with the suddenness of loss. In early March, we were congregating in raucous bars over chilled beers, listening to live bands play. Dragging our laptops to cafés at night, to work in a calming buzz of conversation and caffeine. Today, we stand in our kitchens alone (with that inevitable, lurking pile of unwashed dishes) attempting to recreate the magic of community dining, amid the scent of baking bread and music playing from our phones. Of course, it is not the same.

We were living our lives between starters and dessert. After all, eating out is about more than just the food. It is about the theatre, drama and romance of human connections: whether you are celebrating an anniversary or sharing a table with a stranger at an airport bar. In my pre-COVID life, I dove into ghee podi dosas at the little restaurant down my road with the same enthusiasm I had for dressed-up, designer dinners. Admittedly, I also rolled my eyes at crowds. Now, all I want to do is drink coffee in a crowded café, soaking in the sound of people talking and laughing over the hiss of espresso machines.

Meanwhile, the chefs are still cooking, and so am I. Intent on sharing food, we are ‘Dunzo-ing’ warm, fragrant care packages to friends and neighbours. The gourmand, restaurant-hoppers who are tired of their own cooking are experimenting with food exchanges. I participate gingerly: it is nerve-wracking to cook for chefs. But, opening up a container of home-made chicken curry from a friend is like giving, and receiving a hug. So worth it, even if I get professional notes later on how to improve my signature coconut buns.

As restaurants slowly reopen across the world, the greatest challenge is recreating the magical atmosphere of a packed dining space despite mandatory physical distancing. In Bangkok, lonely diners can sit opposite a stuffed panda. In Lithuania, vacant chairs are being occupied by mannequins, while the capital city Vilnius has been turned into a big open-air café.

To say we are in this together is the greatest cliché. It is also the most comforting truth. Because it means that we will also collaborate to find inventive ways to get through.

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