Escapist cuisine takes centre stage for the self-quarantined

As ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-quarantine’ have become Coronavirus lingua franca, many are turning to their kitchens for solace. Mandy Lee’s “angry food blog” has been speaking the language of quarantine for years. As food bloggers go, her style is unique: moody photographs of intensely flavored food; writing that is intense, cathartic. For a world slowly going under quarantine, it’s a mood that resonates.

When she moved to Beijing in 2012, life felt unbearable. “You didn’t want to go outside because of the pollution, it was a soupy, smoggy mess – and I wasn’t happy being in an authoritarian country, I didn’t want to live in an authoritarian environment,” she says.

So, she hunkered down and stayed in, cooking increasingly elaborate things to escape the world outside. “I was in self-quarantine for six years when I was living in Beijing,” she jokes. As the Coronavirus panic sets in around the globe, escapist cooking has suddenly become a coping mechanism for many.

Yet Hong Kong has largely been able to keep the disease at bay, despite bordering the Chinese mainland. To date, Hong Kong has had fewer than 200 cases and four deaths. It is receiving a fresh wave of cases as its citizens escape epicenters in Europe and the US. Even then, its numbers are likely to stay far below those of Italy or Switzerland – Hong Kong currently has 24 cases per million people, while Italy has 521, Switzerland 355.

“Here in Hong Kong, we are kind of living the “tomorrow” of this Coronavirus cycle, where things are calming down and slowly returning to normalcy,” Mandy recently wrote in an evocative blog post.  

Hong Kong’s response to Coronavirus, while rapid, has largely differed from China’s draconian measures. The government-imposed travel restrictions, but quarantines have largely been self-imposed. Mandy’s husband still goes to work at the office.

“Because Hong Kong has a deep memory of the SARS scare, it immediately went into “let’s get our shit together!” mode and hasn’t seen any major outbreak,” she describes. “But there has been no restriction in movement.”

“America and Europe have never seen this – this is a movie scenario for them,” she remarks on the recent spread of panic in Europe and America, with Trump declaring a national emergency on March 13 and many countries shutting their borders. Yet, the hard-earned lessons from SARS have given Hong Kong residents a sense of resilience.

“That was bad, but it passed.”

Given her experience in quarantine, social distancing measures have hardly changed her cooking routine. “When this happened, I was like – I’m good at this! I’m good at not going out, not doing anything outside.”

She does, however, remind us of the importance of mental health. “My quarantine was six years; this is not going to last six years – but it’s definitely very easy to feel mildly depressed if you’re at home and cut off from social activities.”

While the virus’s spread has been limited, it has had a damaging impact on the protests. “The virus has given Hong Kong people ‘virus fatigue’”, Mandy observes. There hasn’t been a large-scale anti-government protest since the New Year’s Day march.

Yet, anger at the Chinese communist party remains simmering beneath the surface. While Hong Kong has many freedoms, demands for universal suffrage and a democratically elected government have not been met. “Call it gluten-free bread,” she quips, “it’s something, just not the best part.”

As some Asian countries look to Coronavirus ‘tomorrow,’ commentators watching the failure of US and European governments from Coronavirus ‘today’ have looked to China as a model for epidemic control. However, others caution against endorsing a government that covered up the initial outbreak and suppressed whistleblowers. South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong have also shown what effective Coronavirus control looks like under (at times limited) democracy.

“China lifted a lot of people out of poverty, but it also legitimated authoritarian rule – I am always rooting for their failure,” Mandy declares. 

For Mandy, long used to quarantine cooking, not much has changed. For others, this is a new, lonely journey for which Mandy can be a guide.

“Most of my recipes take a while,” she says. (She literally has a section of her blog called, ‘Got nothing but time’). “If you have a lot of time, make the ramen recipes in my cookbook.” The soup base and its other components take two to three days of preparation.

Many of us, luckily or unluckily, have at least fourteen days at home. Perhaps we can escape, resist and stay resilient through quarantine cooking too.

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