Coconut shrimp curry
Since I moved to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, from the Philippines two years ago, I’ve been learning to make dishes for myself and others. Cooking for me is a relational act. It nurtures relationships and bonds just as much as bodies.
One time, I wanted to make shrimp curry with coconut milk. I made my way to Tanger, a supermarket chain that specializes in halal and ethnic products typically not found in bigger Dutch supermarkets. Instead of riding my bike, the main mode of transportation here, I decided to walk, dragging along my shopping trolley bag, which only burka-clad Turkish grandmas seem to use.
Per my routine, I took the scenic route along a quiet, residential street enveloped in a canopy of towering trees. To my right was a canal where, if lucky, I’d see geese paddling along, curious and hopeful that I would have some bread with me. To my left was a row of identical houses, with their little gates and fences and quirky little trinkets displayed by the windows. My shopping trips to Tanger are a ritual of self-care: I stop to look at the geese, the weird mutant-looking flowers, and the flamboyant tree branches that fall and interweave into each other, blocking out the sky with a shock of green.
Fresh produce and meats in Tanger are half the price at bigger supermarkets. The first time I probed my way in, I knew I could trust it because most of its customers are immigrants. In the First World, to get a bargain one only had to follow the immigrants. At the cashiers, I would hear “thank yous” in the Arabic shukran just as much as the Dutch “dank je wel.” Outdoors, I try to catch the intermittent street market where I buy my fruit. If I’m lucky (and I’m often very lucky), I buy the sweetest, juiciest melons for 50 cents each. The steady customers are Turkish and Moroccan, but also Asians who exchange looks with me as if we’ve discovered this country’s greatest secret: A good bargain always feels like home.
That day in Tanger, I bought 500 grams of shrimp, which was around 9 euros per kilo (compared to around 24 euros per kilo in bigger supermarkets). The only difference was that it sold shrimp whole, pink and shelled and smelling like, well, shrimp. In the more expensive supermarkets, more work had gone into preparing the shrimp—already unshelled, deveined, and sealed in plastic, without the shrimpy smell and ready to be cooked. I was in a good mood, happy and ready to boast to my boyfriend about how insanely cheap the shrimp was. I headed over to his apartment with the ingredients, opened the recipe page, and put the shrimp in a colander. “We’ll work in an assembly line,” I told him, feeling high-spirited. “You take off the shrimp heads, legs, and then their shells and tails. Then I’ll devein them.”
“Ugh, they smell!” he said, moving his head away. More than the smell, he was grossed out by the gunk that oozed from the decapitated heads. Our fingers started to smell like shrimp, and soon enough, it was in the air. “It’s fine then, I’ll do it myself,” I said, now feeling embarrassed and self-conscious, realizing that he was not used to the smell, and that to the untrained nose they could be a bit much. We still continued our assembly-line shrimp preparation, but suddenly I felt sober, like a cloud around my head suddenly burst. I realized that my associations of the messy, smelly kitchen didn’t translate in this setting, in Amsterdam, with my white, decently-salaried boyfriend who probably wouldn’t have any issue buying expensive shrimp from fancier places. My happiness was culturally coded; it came from the quiet satisfaction of cheating the system, feeling proud of saving money from a good bargain, and really just the joy of lugging around a heavy shopping trolley of exciting stuff for so much less money.
Suddenly I had that image of my mother smelling like the wet market, and I felt a tinge of shame. I felt like my boyfriend could smell the market from me, and he was (justifiably) disgusted. Without the associations of seafood smells and homemaking, they are nothing more than being slightly offensive and suspicious. I somehow felt less civilized, or even poor, for feeling joyous about saving a bit of money. Should I have just done my purchase from the other supermarket? We could have bought pre-prepared shrimp that we could put straight into the marinade, without having to deal with the goo and the shells. But I was used to the messy de-shelling and deveining as part of the bond of making food together. I was unconsciously importing my Third World joy to the First World, expecting others to relate to it. It felt like singing enthusiastically in a language no one else spoke—it’s great that I’m enjoying but it’s not really something others can share.
We cooked a lovely, fragrant coconut curry that we both lapped up. Even though it was not a Filipino dish per se, it provided that familiar shock of flavors that harmonized on the tongue. The thick coconut milk blended with the broth of the shrimp and curry powder, with the trusty base of the onion-garlic-ginger combination. We made that recipe another time for a bigger group of people, who all thought it was superb.
But what I realized is that joy that belongs within a geography cannot be uprooted. There are imported feelings, hybrid confusions, but some joys only thrive in the homeland. I could not simply pack the feeling of home and unwrap it in a foreign place. Instead, this replica of a home-making joy that I experienced by myself will always pull me a little closer to the direction of home.
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Ariel Pinzon, 27, recently finished her master’s degree in cultural analysis at the University of Amsterdam.
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