"How did you get so interested in cooking?"people ask me as I try out a new recipe in the communal dorm kitchen or tell about my latest gastronomical adventure.
I always liked to cook. It was fun to try out new recipes that I stumbled across in random cookbooks. However, a year in Singapore changed me and cooking took on a much deeper meaning. It was my first time truly living overseas and I wanted to explore as much as I could. A friend advised me to buy the Makansutra guidebook, which led to every corner of the island in search of the next "die die, must try" cuisine. Each week I became fascinated with a new food: durian, natto, soba noodles, Thunder Tea Rice. I covered the widest spectrum that I could, from a twelve-course raw vegan cooking classes to devouring a full order of soup toulang by myself. I worked through dozens of Heidi Swanson's "Quick Recipes" on 101Cookbooks.com in my free evenings.
It wasn't about the food - it was about seeking connections with other people. In Singapore, I was living in an apartment with roommates that I rarely saw and worked in a lab with almost entirely native Chinese speakers. Since I wasn't part of a formal exchange program like the Fulbright, I was somewhere in the no-man's-land between a student and a staff member, so I sought out connections in other ways. I became intrigued by the similarities and differences between the culinary world and the scientific world. Both groups of people are insatiably curious and love to experiment. Were lab rotations and post-docs like stages in a restaurant? On the other hand, the timescales are totally different. In a professional kitchen, a line cook gets immediate feedback that is far from subtle. In grad school, a PhD candidate can spend months navigating through potential thesis topic, with no clear answers. I read The Soul of a Chef, The Reach of a Chef, Heat, A Cook's Tour, The Nasty Bits, and whatever other culinary-themed books I could find. As I wandered around the island, I met a couple of investment bankers who became LifePak representatives, a EE student who became a baker, a software start-up founder who set up the first Ben and Jerry's on the island, several food bloggers, and many other great people.
Now as a grad student Harvard I can't fully assimilate myself in the academic lifestyle. The time in Singapore awakened a hunger inside me that food alone can't satiate. It's a curiosity of the world outside my day-to-day existence of class rooms and lab benches.
So how did I get interested? After revisiting these experiences in my head during a pause, all I can usually say is,
"It's a long story."because I now understand how little I know about cooking and how much more of the world I have yet to explore.