Not to be read on an empty stomach.
By Josh Kazali
Of the million different ways to say “I love you,” few are as succinct, simple, or immediate as food. It might come in the form of a heart-shaped box of chocolates, a briny plate of oysters (signaling ulterior amorous intentions), or a favorite home-cooked meal to show that you care. Undoubtedly, lovers around the world are scrambling to take those fickle feelings of the heart and put them on a plate, garnished to perfection. For those still looking for a last-minute recipe, this chef suggests a few dishes from his own life. They come straight from the heart, and into the stomach.
It was 5 o’clock in the morning in Tokyo and I was six years old. I had removed my pajamas—against my will—and been strapped into the back seat of my grandfather’s car. The sun had not yet risen over the unfamiliar metropolis. I felt groggy and disoriented, unlike my father who was wide awake. As a chef, his hours are so long that dragging him out of bed before eight is normally a near impossibility; but that day, he was fresh and full of energy. He had been looking forward to this day for a long time. When at last we arrived, we braced ourselves against the chilly morning air to find what we had traveled all this way for: fish.
It was a lot of fish, to be fair. Tsukiji Market was the largest wholesale fish market in the world until it closed in 2018. And we had the pick of the litter. I was surrounded by an aquarium’s worth of fish and other sea creatures, from little mackerel still on the line to massive ocean monsters twice my size. My dad was in heaven. He led me down row after row of cold, smelly buckets filled with wriggling squid and eels, until we arrived at the cream of the crop: rows and rows of bluefin tuna, hundreds of pounds each. They filled an entire auditorium, with glassy eyes so big I could see my reflection in them. Hundreds of people from throughout Tokyo examined these beasts, carefully considering what tender jewels of sashimi might lie beneath their gray skin. At the time, I was thoroughly unimpressed. To my father’s horror, I didn’t like fish. What was all the fuss about?
I was about twelve when I began to understand what drove my dad to wake up before the sun that day. We were at a seafood restaurant, and my dad ordered fresh ahi poke. I must have eyed those cubes of ruby- red flesh with more curiosity than usual, because my dad offered me a taste. “Give it a shot. It’s good,” he said. “And fresh.” I took the plunge and had a bite. As usual, when it came to food, he was right. Tuna is not fishy or slimy; it is subtle and tender. It tastes smooth and buttery, yet ever-so-slightly of the sea. It is unfussy, unpretentious, and pure.
For many, including my dad and now myself, food is a lifelong love. It means more than eating expensive dishes adorned with truffle and caviar, and more than declaring oneself a “foodie.” It means truly surrendering yourself to an experience, and opening yourself to new and unfamiliar flavors. It’s seductive, thrilling—and certainly filling.
College life incites a degree of dietary chaos: free-for-all wing night at the dining hall, hastily prepared cereal and instant ramen in the dorm, and increasingly daring and questionably sober late-night dives. At what price point can you still legally call it pizza? And what exactly is “white sauce,” you may ask? With the constraints of a slim wallet and the weight of essays, problem sets, and parties to attend, it can be difficult to find the intimacy of a family meal on campus.
“Friendsgiving” has long been the antidote to collegiate culinary negligence. Stripped of the awkwardness of political discussion and interfamilial drama over the dinner table, Friendsgiving provides a place for dear friends to prove their love for each other where it counts: on the plate. This semester, I was blessed with a dormitory convenient for cooking and hosting, so I invited as many friends as I could think of to bring warm tidings and food to share. Of course, the caveat to a potluck is that the festivities depend on the good faith of the guests: Pretty cakes and charming cheese plates are all fine and good, but at the end of the day people also need to be fed. After many text -threads and Notes-app calculations, the day had arrived and I realized that I needed to cook something myself. I turned to a well-worn, familiar dish: fried rice.
My fried rice recipe comes courtesy of my dad, a pantry-cleaner filled with oil and sweet soy sauce—this added flair makes it a semi-authentic Indonesian nasi goreng. It only requires one pot, which might suggest that it is an easy, low-effort dish. It is not. Fried rice is an intricately choreographed dance, a ballet of sauteed vegetables and tofu which must be timed perfectly so that the rice is crispy and the mix-ins tender and well-seasoned. For me, making fried rice is a séance in which I enter a trance-like state possessed by the ghosts of fried-rice makers past. In my starch-induced reverie, I could just make out the murmurings of guests who passed in front of me and said hello, although I was not there. I was swimming in cooking oil and sweat.
By some miracle of a higher power, the clouds parted and sitting before me was a pot filled with golden fried rice. Even more miraculous, the dining room brimmed with the people I love, chattering excitedly in anticipation of fall break’s brief parting. I remained dazed when people began to take their seats, and the table gradually filled with a beautiful, anarchic assemblage of food. Spaghetti alongside stuffing, beets in the mashed potatoes, some fancy-looking potato chips which someone contributed, a shredded chicken stew-type thing—I could not have imagined a more perfect feast.
The time we spend on campus feels like it disappears more rapidly than a fresh pot of fried rice (which is pretty fast), and eating habits can feel equally rushed—a Chef Mike’s sub on the go, the fifth John Jay salad bar amalgamation of the week. College can feel like something of a buffet; you get in line and grab as much as you can, before getting back to your table with more than your money’s worth. That night, it was a proper feast, taken slow. I savored every last bite.
When you fall in love with a dish, it becomes a steady fixture in your life. Whether it’s your bagel order (sesame, toasted, scallion cream cheese) or a treat you reserve for special occasions (Katz’s pastrami sandwich), familiar flavors run deep grooves into your taste buds. Falling in love with a person, on the other hand, is far less predictable. It is a capricious love; it constantly unfolds, expands, and changes over time. It whisks you up when you least expect it and takes you places you never thought you’d go.
Case in point: last summer, I found myself somewhere in continental Europe with a girl who, by an unimaginably fortunate series of events which I will never completely understand, I call my girlfriend. You can call her G. During my short trip, this person who I had only known for a few months opened a door to another universe, and the context in which I knew her completely changed. I saw her in her home, with her old friends, and with her mother. Perhaps the jet lag had put me in a daze, but one morning I awoke to realize that I was thousands of miles away from home, surrounded by people I barely knew. While I felt incredibly lucky to be there, I was also daunted by this unfamiliar terrain. This was a different game, one whose rules I didn’t quite know.
At the end of each day, everyone gathered for dinner around a long table filled with food and drinks and talked late into the night. I eagerly agreed to lend a hand in cooking for a few of these big dinners, not only to impress G’s family and friends (who were undoubtedly quietly evaluating my boyfriend performance), but also to ground myself in familiar tasks. Food, I found, brought me back home. When walking through a French marketplace filled with the heavy aromas of unpasteurized cheese and saucisson, all I could think about was walking through my hometown market with my dad, pushing along his cart of vegetables and making smalltalk with the farmers. Where I struggled to find the words to express my gratitude, perhaps I could communicate it through a bite of food.
On one of the last nights before my return to America, G’s mom asked me to lend a hand with the ratatouille for dinner. Like any boyfriend, I was naturally terrified by what could only be the highest scrutiny. Yet what could I do but accept? The kitchen, once my place of reprieve, now became the site of my biggest test. Luckily, I knew the rules of this game. Never have I sliced eggplant and zucchini with more careful precision and efficiency. My focus on the cutting actually relaxed me enough to make pleasant, casual conversation. As the minutes passed and the sound of simmering vegetables and crackling olive oil filled the room, I was struck by the familiarity of this scene: How many times had I shared unexpected conversations over a cutting board, playing the sous-chef to my dad? It’s as though he had been preparing me for that moment my whole life, providing me with a vocabulary I could use when words failed me. That night, the ratatouille offered me a voice. Rich, hearty, and warm—it said everything there is to say.
When attempting to capture something as mammoth as love, the English language can prove inadequate. Words are elusive and forgiving, and instead of offering a means for expression, they usually offer me a hiding place. Food, on the other hand, is honest. It voices something unconscious and uninhibited, something that simply says, “Mmmmm.” Love can be thought about from every angle, written about at length, but at some point, one must take a bite. With any luck, it will taste sweet.