Step it Up and Fight the Heat
Nothing annoys me more than something that claims to be spicy but really isn’t. Sometimes it’s just sour, like badly made buffalo wings. Sometimes it’s too sweet, like bottles of storebought sambal. Sometimes it’s too salty, like the stirfried beef with chilli peppers I used to love as a kid (and has now swerved from spice to spoonfuls of salt). Sometimes it’s just bland. Either way, it tastes like disappointment.
A couple of months ago I ordered a pound of chicken wings doused in the restaurant’s hottest hot sauce. It even had a neat row of small chilli peppers next to its name in the menu, bragging its level 5 out of 5 heat in comparison with the 1s and 2s of most of the other wings. It even came with an antidote you can purchase, should you need it. It looked promising. The waiter raised his eyebrows as I ordered it, and looked as though he was struggling to keep a straight face. He didn’t keep it for long; he smirked at my direction, noted down my order, and left. He came back with an entire jug of cold water — “you’re gonna need it,” he said — and my plate of the "hottest hot wings". I ate four without touching my water, and frowned. Was it spicy? I guess. But more than anything, it was bitter, unpleasant, and nauseating. It wasn’t the heat I was looking for. It wasn’t the heat I was craving for.
Maybe this is the way homesickness manifests within me. People ask me if I get homesick all the time, seeing as I'm nearly fifteen thousand kilometres away from home, whatever they think is home to me. I am fortunate enough to live close to relatives who are always kind enough to let me stay and watch Jeopardy! on their couch. My mom FaceTimes me from work, and all my family members remember to send me pictures of my dogs. Most of my friends don’t even live in Jakarta anymore. People ask me if I get homesick and I have to remember it’s not socially acceptable to say no.
I forget there are other ways to be homesick, other senses with yearnings and cravings too instinctive to be mulled over. I hug my mother and her freshly-laundered daster smell washes over me — a smell I have tucked away far too deep in my mind. I tell my father a joke and his laugh booms out and into my ears — a sound I have nearly forgotten. Similarly, I didn’t realize how much I would crave Indonesian food until I was away from Indonesia for a semester. It’s one of those you don’t know what you have until it’s gone type things, I guess.
I developed the most intense craving for spicy food. You can ask all my friends — each time we go to our favourite ramen joint, I’d order the blazing hot ramen, increasing the level of spice each time. I slurp the broth in the hopes of finding familiar warmth in its spices.
“It’s not spicy enough,” I complained. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised.
I experimented with buying different types of spicy products to incorporate in my cooking: sriracha, gochujang, chilli bean sauce, extra-hot salsa. My tastebuds were satisfied, but they still salivated at the thought of the array of sambals that were so far out of my reach. Is this what it’s like to be homesick — to pine for something that’s been a part of you all your life? Or rather, learning to pine for something you grew to take for granted?
There is an anecdote my family loves to share over and over again. Do you remember, they’ll start, that one New Year’s Eve party more than a decade ago — when I was nine years old — the one where you got all dolled up and brought with you a very ladylike purse — and here they'll pause for effect — and the only thing inside was shichimi togarashi — and you pulled it out and started seasoning your food with it? Cue peals of laughter from everybody listening, including myself. I have long outgrown the habit of of bringing shichimi togarashi or any hot sauce in my bag, swag. But I do think about that night a lot. I think about that black velvet purse, with its red sequin ribbon. I think about missing my family, about not missing my family, about craving Indonesian food (kangkung terasi, iga penyet, sambal matah), about not knowing how to cook Indonesian food (or even begin looking for ingredients). I think about home, about not knowing what home truly entails.
My father booked me a ticket back to Jakarta after my first semester away. I stepped out of the Soekarno-Hatta airport and waded through the humid air to my parents’ embrace. We wheeled my suitcases out of the terminal and into the car.
“Let’s go eat nasi padang,” I suggested. “I’m starving.”
I licked my lips and wiped the sweat off the nape of my neck. Am I home?