While I was stuck inside, I used cooking to quite literally spice up my life. When we half–returned to campus in the spring, I used my bedroom desk as storage space and took Zoom classes from my dining table, where I could use three hours of class time to simultaneously prepare dinner. Don’t tell my professors I said this, but the symphony of cooking quickly took precedence over the voices exiting my laptop speaker. I was far more attuned to the gentle rumbling of water boiling on the stove, the sizzling of onions and garlic in an adjacent pan, and the sharp sound of my knife colliding with the chopping board at each cut—though the chopping wasn’t particularly rhythmic given my lack of proper knife skills. By the time I heard the routine chorus of thank yous and goodbyes, I was ready to snap my laptop shut and slide it off the table, a hot plate of food taking its place.
From April of 2020 until now, I’ve made it my goal to never repeat a recipe. There’s comfort in sticking with a dish that you know will bring you joy, but I knew that if I broke this personal rule, I would fall into the trap of eating the same four dishes after every tiring day. Luckily for me, my social media algorithms caught on pretty quickly, presenting me with an overabundance of dishes I could prepare. I could stop scrolling today and still have enough recipes saved to last me a lifetime. I was even luckier with the diversity of these recipes, which put dishes from every cuisine at my disposal. Thankfully, most of them were already vegetarian or “vegetarianized,” but if they weren’t, it was easy enough to swap out the meat for some other form of protein like tofu or seitan.
There is often a misconception—more so in the West—that vegetarians are constrained to eating salads, salad bowls, grain bowls, or other variations of vegetables thrown together with rice or quinoa. Even though this myth is fading, I think there's still a lack of recognition for other cultures that have already been making delicious, flavorful, and hearty vegetarian food for centuries.
As I began preparing recipes from various backgrounds, I realized that I wanted a single congruous space to show people just how manifold vegetarian food can be. Though I made new, elaborate dishes multiple nights a week, I spent months agonizing over what my Instagram handle would be. One evening, after dumping an entire container of spinach into a pasta dish and watching it reduce to almost nothing before my eyes, I eventually settled on @honeyishrunkthespinach—a play on the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
I began to post the archive of photos I had racked up over months. These photos were not (and are not) of the highest quality, and I did not (and do not) have a great following. However, there's still so much satisfaction in scrolling through the 129 distinct dishes I've made to date, seeing their vibrant colors and the variety of shapes and textures, and remembering the flavor of each one in my mouth. From Japanese corn kakiage, to Persian crispy potato tahdig, to Korean potato and cheese balls, to South African spicy peri peri paneer, to Taiwanese three–cup tofu, there continues to be something comforting in seeing the world of food I made while physically constrained due to the pandemic, either at my home in New Jersey or in my dorm at Penn.
I'm busier now that classes are back in person, and it’s much easier to stop at any one of the amazing food trucks on campus for a quick, delicious, and filling meal (the halal cart on 41st and Walnut streets will always have my heart). So, I’ve used this as an opportunity to find dishes that are simpler to prepare while still retaining a well–rounded flavor. On Thursday night, after a full day of work and meetings, I returned to my room, drained and rinsed two cans of chickpeas, mashed them up with a fork, added chopped onions and peppers, mayo, lemon juice, vinegar, mustard, sriracha, and more seasonings than I could count, and spread the mixture onto two slices of toast. Even though the meal only took 20 minutes of work, it tasted like the perfect way to end a stressful day.
There's a poem by Ron Padgett called “The Love Cook":
Let me cook you some dinner.
Sit down and take off your shoes
and socks and in fact the rest
of your clothes, have a daquiri,
turn on some music and dance
around the house, inside and out
it’s night and the neighbors
are sleeping, those dolts, and
the stars are shining bright,
and I’ve got the burners lit
for you, you hungry thing.
Through lockdown, through the pandemic even after lockdown, through long days and long nights of endless work, and even through the end of time, there’s no better medicine than the sensation of a unique flavor dancing across your tongue.