How I Managed My Depression by Making Arroz Caldo in the Dark
My mother, my father, and my lola-mamung took turns cooking elaborate meals for the family for nearly 10 years straight. Every week, the majority of my 12 paternal uncles and aunts and anyone tangentially related to them would congregate at our little suburban box in Daly City. Even though that house on that hill seemed to be perpetually shrouded in a sharp mist that made everything feel damp and cold, my memories of this time are endlessly warm.
Later, I learned that my idyllic memories of our large family parties, games, potlucks, and karaoke were actually underpinned by the political chess game of quarreling family members. It was a miracle that so many people with that much conflict could get together and break bread so frequently. The fact that my father, aided by the reverence of my lola-mamung, brought everyone together through sheer charisma and will-power (he’s a Leo) was nothing short of a miracle. I didn’t realize just how privileged I was to be surrounded by a loving and lively community like that until I was much, much older.
All of these memories are from before the time my parents decided that dealing with the political machinations of living near 12 of my dad’s brothers and sisters was not really worth the heartache or stress. They moved us out just a few hundred miles east, to the gloriously cheap houses of Las Vegas (this was just before the real estate crash of 2006).
The desert was notably less populated by people related to me, but the regular potlucks did not stop as my father made a point of gathering the friends and family he did have in Las Vegas as frequently as possible. Even when we we weren’t having a small feast, my parents knew how to cook every kind of comfort food under the Kapampangan sun. Even now, the smells and flavors of chicken adobo or beef kaldereta remind me of love and family and an overwhelming feeling of belonging.
Living away from my family has taught me just how much effort went into those parties and how much labor was involved in filling a tinfoil platter with lumpia or pancit canton. Cooking has become a hobby I’ve inherited, expanded upon, and even become obsessed with. It is a ritual that acts as a sort of therapy for a misplaced body that still misses the smell of the ocean; it is a reminder of the communal rituals that once occurred like clockwork every week.
Food was an act of love in my family. It was our reason to congregate and for my uncles and aunties, it was a sign of respect, or reverence, or maybe even love for each other despite whatever argument they may have been embroiled in. When I cook for my friends and my sister in my tiny box of an apartment so many miles away from our old, tiny box of a house in Daly City, that feeling of togetherness comes up again. It feels as if all I can do in this world, in this country that wants me and my kind to suffer and to die, is make something beautiful and nourishing. To make the people I love feel full and happy.
Chronic mental illness runs in my family. My mom and my dad both seemed to suffer from depressive episodes, although I have not spoken directly with them about this. I find that I’ve inherited not just their love of food and of parties, but their proclivity for patterns of self-destructive, lethargic behavior. It manifests itself in my life for weeks at a time, filling my life up with a sense of dread like a room filling with water. It leaks into my apartment, my bedroom, filling up the space around me until it feels like I’m swimming through thick, sludgy liquid. In these episodes, cooking becomes a momentous, Herculean task. To overcome the heaviness of it, to stand up and brush my teeth, let alone leave the house, feels impossible.
This dread of living makes itself apparent in my career, relationships, and general livelihood. It comes like a flood. A sudden and overwhelming feeling of anxiety and a general disinterest for life nearly lead to me dropping out of high school completely. It prompted me to delay my college start from fall to spring, which then turned into a year-long delay, then a two year gap. It was this depression that once made me feel so incapable of doing anything that it compelled me to suddenly and literally drive away from my workplace of two years in a panic and never turn back.
Thankfully I did manage to make it to my high school graduation, perhaps because it felt like a waste to let nearly four years of time be for naught. But, graduating high school took me away from the regularly scheduled 7 to 9 hours of face-to-face time with my friends (and I did not realize until later how much happiness they brought me). Most of that first summer after high school was spent isolating myself from others. I whittled away the hours cleaning my dad’s house while he was at work and hiding from him when he came home. That was years ago now, but I sometimes feel like I am performing an encore of that summer in my darker moments of depression
Eventually, I had struck a balance between my new job as a staff writer, my obligations at home, and spending time with my friends. But when I left home to live on my own, I found myself spending all my time at work to pay the bills or recovering from the exhaustion of work in the darkness of my room. Something unexpected happened to me after I graduated high school and left home. Inadvertently, I had separated myself from the black and brown people who used to populate my life. In leaving the comfortable structure of my home and my school, I left behind my friends and family. The feeling of rich and unspoken camaraderie and understanding that one brown person feels when they see another had been replaced by a feeling of isolation and placelessness. used to fill my life assume a that they had a similar upbringing, similar tastes, and a similar history. My roommates and co-workers were all white now. Although I loved the people I lived with and the people I worked with, subtle and minuscule ways in which we were different would chip away at me like a sandstorm.
I didn’t realize the power and beauty of the community I had until I left it. Being away from my family and old friends, from people so much like me, felt like severing an invisible string that once anchored me to the Earth. A pervasive feeling of otherness invaded my life and inserted itself into once-comfortable places like my office and my home. I found myself not being able to relate to the people around me. Tiny things like my co-workers being able to forgive YouTubers for their robust history of racism in only or in the odd joke about Asian fetishes quietly and painfully isolated me from the people around me. I had become separated from my community again, not through metric distance this time, but through a cultural one. I was alone.
This othering infected me like an illness I detected too late. I eventually found myself in a long spell of depression that made me lose sense of time and memory. It felt as if I were floating aimlessly in an endless ocean of obligations, minutiae and monotony. I had forgotten who I was and where I was. I began to perceive the people I loved and worked with as distant acquaintances rather than intimate friends. My reflection didn’t belong to me. It was a stranger’s. Even my cooking, which had always been one of my favorite hobbies, turned into a lackluster chore. Every dish I cooked was a pantry-cleaner of crumbs and strange ingredients mixed together in an uninspired frying pan. McDonald’s and Burger King coupons had become the main artistic directors for my meals.
After living in this state of perpetual confusion (for an amount of time that is honestly hard for me to quantify with a hard number), I was compelled perhaps by something ancestral, divine, or because my body had reached its maximum saturation level of McNuggets, I got up from my couch and began to cook. And I continued to cook all day.
Leftovers in the pantries were no longer mismatched pieces for a shitty puzzle, they were the parts of something whole. Half an onion stored in a tupperware deep in the freezer, a half jar of kimchi near expiry, and fancy ketchup packets from my shameful trip to McDonalds the day before became a beautiful and aromatic fried rice in my kitchen. It was, to be quite honest, not one of the best things I had ever cooked. But, in making and eating something so strange and authentic to my personal taste out of the random bits of food clinging to the inside of my fridge, I found myself again.
I ate more than enough of the rice to feel full, but I yearned for more. So I kept cooking. For four hours I watched a huge pot of vegetable broth made from onion scraps and an old tub of miso boil away on the range. The aroma was not something familiar to me and yet the smell of it was comforting and nostalgic. It smelled like I had just come home after a long trip abroad. I had no idea what dish I would use this broth in, although I did briefly considered straining and drinking it like a tea.
In the winter, a heavy darkness drops over Las Vegas by 5 PM. This kind of messes with my head and tricks me into thinking I’ve wasted my entire day almost as soon as I wake up. While I stared into the bubbling cauldron of onion broth, that famous Las Vegas dusk fell over my apartment and filled it with darkness. The warmness I had begun to kindle in my kitchen was flickering away with the sunlight. My apartment grew cold and shadowy. That coldness started to cling against my body, asking it to give up and lay down. I just wanted to feel warm again.
Suddenly, I remembered a dish that many Filipinxs swear by as a cure-all for sickness, sadness, and everything in between. Arroz Caldo, a porridge made by sautéing garlic, onion and ginger at the bottom of a pot and adding chicken, lemongrass, and toasted rice. All of it is covered in a broth and then served with a boiled egg and crispy garlic bits. Essentially, it is Pinoy love in a bowl. Ironically, arroz caldo is actually not a dish I ever really liked while I was growing up, but something about it suddenly sounded really appealing.
Almost frantically, I began to cut onions and mash away at garlic. They cooked away in a steel pot of hot oil, becoming tender and fragrant. I brought another pot of water to a boil with a few eggs in it and set a timer so that they would cook perfectly. I didn’t have any chicken, so I just added a cup of dry jasmine rice so that they could toast in the pot. I strained the giant cauldron of onion-miso-stock through a mesh sieve. A hot sizzle sang to me as I added the broth into the hot pot of garlic, onion, and rice. I transferred the eggs to an ice bath, then peeled them and cut them in half. They revealed a gummy, dark yellow yolk that was so beautiful I could have cried. The jasmine rice had now bloomed and turned into big pillowy clouds within the soup. I ladled it into a ceramic bowl and gently placed two half eggs face up on top. It was absolutely beautiful.
So, I made arroz caldo. Then, I cried. Then I ate it. And I felt as if I had suddenly been reconnected to all the forgotten memories I had made in Daly City and I thought of all the other Filipinos in the history of the world who made this dish when they had a cold or were served this dish by their lola, or because they had nothing else to eat. I felt connected to something greater again. I felt like me.
It is too hard to wallow in sadness or nihilism while I’m cooking, while I’m participating in this ritual that my ancestors spent generations perfecting. As I cook, visions about all the labor and energy went into growing, processing, and delivering the ingredients come into my mind. I wonder if it took years of experimenting to perfect a dish or if it was invented over night when some girl was bored and had a strange collection of ingredients in her pantry. How could I feel alone when I’m thinking of food, of every cook who came before me, cutting vegetables just like I am and feeding their friends just like I am?