overseas Filipinos

[OPINION] Coconut shrimp curry: Experiencing third world joy in the first world

Ariel Pinzon
[OPINION] Coconut shrimp curry: Experiencing third world joy in the first world
'I could not simply pack the feeling of home and unwrap it in a foreign place'

Since I moved to Amsterdam, 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. On one specific day, I wanted to make a shrimp curry with coconut milk. And so I made my way towards Tanger, a supermarket chain that specializes in halal and “ethnic” products typically not found in bigger Dutch supermarkets.

Instead of riding my bike, which is a main mode of transportation in the Netherlands, I decided to walk, dragging along my shopping trolley bag, which only burka-clad Turkish grandmas seem to use. As per routine, I took the scenic route along a quiet, residential street enveloped in a canopy of towering trees. To my right is a canal where, if I’m lucky, I see geese paddling along, curious and hopeful that I have some bread with me. To my left are a row of identical houses, with their little gates and fences and quirky little trinkets displayed at the windows. As I walked, I mulled over which house was my favorite. There, I could live there, that’s a nice house. (Then again I say this about almost every house or flat in Amsterdam). 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 of bigger supermarkets. The first time I probed my way in, I knew I could trust it because most of its customers are immigrants, and 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 and 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: there is a place where fruit, vegetables, and meats are half the price of bigger supermarkets. And a good bargain always feels like home. 

Back in the Philippines, I remember waking up around eight in the morning to see that my parents have arrived back from the wet market. They would drive before 6 am to make sure they could buy the freshest seafood and the best fruit and vegetables. The kitchen would be so busy when they return — my dad would remove the fish scales and gills while my mum would wrap them in plastic and then stow them away in the freezer. She would boast of how cheaply she had bought a kilo of fish, or how she had befriended the vendors so they’d give her a special price.

I’d get so excited with the seasonal fruit they’d buy — chico, marang, lanzones, rambutan. Wet market days were the only times my mum would refuse a hug, telling me to wait until she’s showered to get the smell off her. Our whole kitchen would smell like the market — fishy, fruity, earthy. Nevertheless, those days felt festive; it meant we had a bounty of sweet fruits and a fridge full of produce.

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 is they sell shrimp cooked and whole: pink and shelled and smelling like, well, shrimp. In the more expensive supermarkets, more work has gone into preparing the shrimp. It is 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 tell 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’s not used to these smells, and that to the untrained nose they can be a bit much. We still continued our assembly-line shrimp preparation, but suddenly I felt sober, like a cloud around my head had suddenly burst. I realized that that my associations of the messy, smelly kitchen don’t translate in this setting, in Amsterdam, with my white, decently-salaried boyfriend who probably won’t have 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 with 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-worlded joy in the first world, expecting for 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 flavours that harmonize 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. But instead, this replica of a homemaking joy that I experienced by myself will always pull me a little closer to the direction of home. – Rappler.com

Ariel Pinzon recently finished her masters degree in Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam, with research focusing on suffering and nationhood. She resides in the Netherlands.