I was 21 when, in September 2018, I packed up my life, left my home, friends and family in Auckland and moved halfway across the world. I knew approximately two people in the city I was moving to, had nowhere to live, no job, and simply an offer of a place on a Masters course at London College of Fashion and a deep reliance on CityMapper to guide me.

I hardly cried before I left, stoically hugging my loved ones goodbye, mainly driven by pure adrenaline and fear at what lay ahead. But as soon as I made my way through security and settled into the seat to wait for my flight, clutching the ticket that would take me 11,393 miles from my home, and realised how alone I was, I burst into tears. It’s a feeling that’s never really gone away; the idea that you’re untethered, floating around on your own. No matter how many friends you make, how much of a life you build for yourself, I’m not sure any expat really feels whole again, because how can you, when your heart is essentially existing in two places?

In my first few weeks in London I spent a lot of time walking around by myself. I didn’t have much money, so I’d just stroll the streets of areas I’d seen in movies or on television, wandering through the department stores, popping into the pub for a singular, solo pint whenever I needed a sit down (or to use the loo). On one of these adventures, after a particularly stressful morning of navigating the undulating mess of bodies at Oxford Circus to get to university orientation, I found myself in the Liberty Christmas shop. I looked around at families shopping for decorations and was suddenly overcome with how lonely I was.

A memory bubbled up of an evening just a few weeks before I left New Zealand, when my dad and I were cooking together. I asked him to teach me how to make his chicken cacciatore, one of my favourite dishes in his regular rotation of dinners. My mum pulled up a stool at the bench to watch, and we spent a peaceful hour together, chopping and frying and, amongst it all, drinking wine and chatting about everything from the state of the world to my impending move. It was exactly what I needed to fill the pit that had formed in my stomach, but my parents were half a world away, and it was the middle of the night in New Zealand. Luckily for me, tinned tomatoes and chicken thighs are a little more readily available.

That afternoon, seeking comfort in the kitchen, I stopped by the supermarket on my way home to grab the ingredients I needed. As I chopped marjoram into frilly little slivers, I remembered how my dad taught me to bash the knife down just so, in order to cut the herbs rather than bruise them. Glugging red wine into the sauce, I was reminded of the first time I made this dish, presenting it to a table filled with the warm, familiar faces of my family. By the time the sauce had thickened, the gaping hole in my chest had reduced by a tiny amount. And with the first bite, I could almost imagine they were there with me.

By the time the sauce had thickened, the gaping hole in my chest had reduced by a tiny amount. And with the first bite, I could almost imagine they were there with me

From that moment on, cooking became the ultimate tonic for rabid bouts of homesickness. A bad day would mean cooking that cacciatore. Sunny days that left me craving the beach would have me making a beeline for the local fishmonger to get some fillets for kokoda (a Polynesian take on raw fish salad, and a regular in the cooking repertoire at our beach house over the summer). The moment I realised I was in love with my now-boyfriend, I cooked him dad’s Thai green curry for dinner (he adds cubes of pumpkin, which cook into the sauce and slowly thicken it), as an attempt to tell him who my family were, because the actual people were so far away. I deluded myself into thinking that one mouthful of that dish, which had been so ubiquitous throughout my life, would take him on a journey to each of those dinners, like it does for me. But no – that’s the thing about gastronomical memory: to me that green curry is a tapestry of moments knitted together in time; to him it’s just dinner.

But by far the most significant salve for when that little pang of homesickness reared its ugly head was puttanesca. It’s a dish that took up a whole new level of significance when life was flipped upside down. I will never forget the day we found out how bad my sister’s cancer diagnosis was; the day I discovered she only had a 30% chance of survival. There are many reasons why I’ll always remember the exact date, but the one that always remains in my mind is that it was my in-laws’ wedding anniversary. Thanks to coronavirus, my boyfriend and I were living with them at the time, and my sister had come to stay so she could be closer to the hospital. So sure were we that the mole was just going to be a false alarm, that we’d all agreed to go out for dinner with them that night to celebrate their 34 years of marriage. There is a lot I don’t remember from that day, but I willnever forget the devastation on my mother-in law’s face: not that her evening was ruined, but for the sheer pain of what we, as a family, were about to go through.

Much of that day is, for me, defined by sounds. The silent sobs through the walls; a family I’d only known for a year crying for someone they’d only met a few times. The tinny crackle of my parents’ voices through FaceTime. The soft sigh of the bed springs as I laid back, unable to quite comprehend what we’d just found out. The clip-clop of my mother-in-law’s stilettos as they quietly left their own home to let my sister and me process in our own time. And then, more vividly: the sizzle of onions, the hushed bubble of a boiling pot, the delicate plop of an anchovy hitting the pan.

The realisation that there was nothing I could do to help my sister that day was glaringly obvious, and it’s a sensation I don’t think I’ll forget anytime soon – that abject helplessness. A cancer diagnosis is far from ideal no matter the circumstances, but finding all of this out while the world was imploding outside, death tolls had been condensed to a nightly news bulletin and the rest of our family was quite literally stuck on the other side of the globe, was fairly hellish, all things considered. There is no replacement for a hug from Mum and Dad, but there were ways in which I could make things easier, or more specifically, one way in particular.

I can’t honestly remember the first time my dad cooked puttanesca for us, but I do know that it quickly established itself as our favourite comfort food. When we were all together, dad would cook up a huge pot of it, dumping it in the middle of the kitchen bench for us to each serve ourselves, before we crowded around the table, chatting madly. It’s the first thing we’d request when coming home from university; the last thing we’d want cooked for us before we flew back. Bad days were usually accompanied by that gently fishy aroma, slurping up forkful after forkful of the umami-laden goodness that is a mouthful of puttanesca.

On that hideous day in late June, puttanesca seemed to be the only option

I’m not sure I ever would have considered the significance of the dish on us as a family had I remained at home, in the thick of things, my parents just down the road whenever I was feeling down. But place me halfway around the world, and it clawed its way out of the pandora’s box of my brain to make itself known. Without even really thinking about it, when things weren’t going right, the day seemed too much to face or I was simply unexplainably, inextricably sad, I would find myself scouring the supermarket aisles for those seven simple ingredients: an onion, chopped tomatoes, anchovies, capers, olives, chilli flakes and spaghetti.

My sister is a winemaker, and three years older than me, so she jetted off on her adventures a few years earlier than I did, heading to increasingly far-flung destinations to get immersed in the industry. When she landed in London a few months after me, I realised that completely independently, puttanesca had managed to develop the same kind of significance for her. And so its importance shifted once again, from a soothing comfort to an inherent part of the friendship we were developing as adults, beyond just the sense of duty that comes with family.

My first Valentine’s Day in the UK my sister sacked off her long-term boyfriend in favour of spending the evening with me. We cooked puttanesca, watched stupid rom-coms and ate shit store-bought tiramisu until our stomachs hurt. When a short-term flame ghosted me, she had me round, dried my tears and fed me heaping bowls of more puttanesca, comfortably eating an entire packet of spaghetti between the two of us. On Christmas Day, after getting too drunk and staying out too late with some other expat New Zealanders, we came back to her flat and cooked up a pile of – yep – puttanesca, eating it straight from the pot on the floor of her kitchen, bellies sore from laughing and drunkenly FaceTiming our parents and brother, who were just waking up to Boxing Day back home.

And so, on that hideous day in late June, there seemed to be only one option. I poured us both teeming glasses of wine and got to work, finely dicing the onions, frying them off in olive oil, melting the anchovies down with it, pouring in the tomatoes, careful not to let the hot sauce splatter me. I had endless questions and no ability to answer them, but I could cook. I couldn’t open a portal and deposit us both in my parent’s living room, but I could hand her a bowl full of puttanesca exactly how my dad would make it. I could help to fill our stomachs to distract from the pit that formed there that morning. I could focus my brain on the simple task at hand to ignore the ringing in my head and the worry that kept throbbing against my skull.

Even now, two years down the track, my sister on the other side chemotherapy and doing well, a bite of puttanesca tastes of that day. Many bowls of it were consumed throughout the dark, demanding days of her treatment years, each simmering pot of red sauce like a little journey back to health. I didn’t know it at the time – back then, I just thought I was cooking for survival – but now it’s easy to track each jar of anchovies and tin of tomatoes like bricks along a road, taking us further away from what could have been, and closer to what is: that my sister is healthy and the drugs did their job.

Not long after my sister finished chemotherapy, I managed to get back to New Zealand for the first time in three years. With Covid border controls meaning I quite literally couldn’t get into the country for the better part of that time, it was a trip that was a long time coming. My parents have this leather-bound cookbook in their house, the inscription at the front indicates it was an engagement gift from a friend. On my second morning in the country, I was blearily making a coffee to get through the jet lag when I spied that brown leather book sitting on the kitchen bench. It was literally bursting at the seams, so packed full of recipes – not just those written in the book itself, but also printed notes, cut-outs from newspapers and magazines and letters from friends. It was a mainstay throughout my childhood; pulled out on all manner of occasions from grand dinner parties to Wednesday-night suppers. I never thought much of it, so common was its presence. It was simply there, a home for potential meals and family favourites.

The onrush of memories was significant and giddying; dinners around our watermark-stained wooden dining table; lemon muffins for school morning tea; mum’s infamous roast ham, its scent of marmalade and slowly caramelising brown sugar, telegraphing more powerfully than any decoration-packed tree that Christmas was finally here. I tore through the book, reminiscing over my aunty’s brownie recipe that I made at least once a fortnight for most of my childhood, printed guides to dishes from my experimental stage when I would spend hours at school secretly trawling food sites when I was meant to be doing work and then, there, in my shoddy handwriting: caesar salad, the first thing I remember cooking by myself, start to finish.

I spent my entire childhood in the same city: Auckland, New Zealand. In fact, I spent most of it in the same three-kilometre radius. Within that, however, I lived in seven houses, some owned, a couple rented. But it was our last one on West End Road that has always felt like home to me. Possibly because we moved in there when I turned 12, perhaps because it was around the corner from my primary school, or maybe because it was where we finally decided to stay put until long after I graduated from university. So many of the significant moments of my life took place on West End Road. It might not be where the formative years of my childhood necessarily occurred, but it was the base for my growing up, a silent bystander for the years that took me through the murk that is being a teenager. It was also the stage for my burgeoning love of cooking.

Much of the food I love to cook and know off by heart is in some way, shape or form influenced by my father

Like all the others, this house was also a project, but one that we lived in for a few years before properly doing up. Pre-renovation, the old rambling villa sat on a mild slope, so that if you placed a marble on the floor of the hallway by the front door, it would quite rapidly roll the entire length of the house and into the dining room. The kitchen was a poky wee thing on the left hand side of the house, a u-shaped space that was vaguely claustrophobic and yet entirely freeing. Its compact size meant everything was more or less in reach, there were no mad grabs for equipment, because the spoon you needed was probably in a drawer half an arm’s length away. It made for an almost meditative approach to cooking, and taught me a very good lesson that there can be freedom in restriction.

Much of the food I love to cook and know off by heart is in some way, shape or form influenced by my father. It makes sense as, in something of a departure from standard gender roles, he was largely responsible for teaching me everything I know in the kitchen, through either watching him at work or hands-on guidance. And yet, the first thing I remember cooking was entirely independent of him and instead brought on by my insatiable and irrepressible cravings for particular foods that have defined much of my life. In this case, it was the creamy, umami, tangy crunch of a caesar salad. I remember slowly whisking the eggs and oil to emulsify the dressing, brow furrowed in concentration, my other hand sticking out to flip the bacon that was sizzling away in the pan. “How’s it going?” my mum called out, sending me into a tizz. “Fine, I think…” I replied, arm aching, the bacon erring on the side of too crispy.

Despite my stress, it all came together wonderfully. My family were suitably impressed, and I had officially found a life-long love affair with the kitchen. And yet, it was a meal I had completely forgotten about until I opened up that leather cookbook on my long-overdue trip home. Flicking through the book was like hopping into a Rolodex of memories, each recipe drawing me back to a place in time or moment in life. And then I reached the caesar salad page. Stained, crumpled and evidently well loved, the recipe was written down in my hasty, messy pre-teen scrawl. Rather than a whole ingredients list and method, it instead seemed to be an abridged, almost lyrical guide to the dressing process, and a brief shopping list of the things we didn’t already have in the house. I was transported back to that dinky kitchen over a decade earlier, the memory so strong I could almost feel the floor sloping beneath me and the anxiety of messing the entire thing up pressing urgently at my chest.

Coming back to the UK after that trip, the abyss that homesickness opens up in my stomach was stronger than ever. Returning home after such a long time away had taken a crowbar to my memories, prying open boxes I didn’t even know were there. A few evenings after I got back, I found myself instinctively grabbing the things I needed to make that caesar salad recipe. It’s different from how I had been making it in recent years, my modern iteration inspired by Molly Baz’s classic recipe, but I was suddenly obsessed with stepping into the shoes of adolescent me.

Following the very strict instructions I had written down all those years ago, I went against the lessons I have learnt over the last decade and made the dressing backwards; mixing the anchovies, capers, lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce, before adding in the egg yolks and whisking the whole thing into a thick dressing with the assistance of copious amounts of oil. Over a decade later, my arm still ached and I still overcooked the bacon.

Recipes connect versions of yourself that exist along a timeline

Taking the first bite of that salad, I realised that while many years may have passed, life may have moved on and home was quite literally half a world away, there are many things that remain constant, anchoring you to the person you are and the things you know to be true, even while the world spins out of control around you. Family, for example, as well as the recipes that transcend decades and experience levels, connecting versions of yourself that exist along a timeline.

My collection of homesickness cures is rich and varied. It’s puttanesca to carry my sister and me through those heartbreaking first days of her cancer. Sometimes it’s Thai green curry to warm the cockles, or cacciatore as a reminder of those early London days when cooking it served as a lifeline. Now, sometimes, it’s caesar salad to take me back to a version of myself who was so irrepressibly excited by food.

There is no rhyme or reason to what I reach for on these days, and no guidance on what I instinctively know will help soothe the soul, but there is one thing that remains a constant: if homesickness seeps in, you can find me in the kitchen.