• Xindi Wei

How Home Cooking Has Been Healing my Anxiety in Lockdown

Photo credit: Xindi Wei

I cannot live without Lao Gan Ma - a black bean sauce in chilli oil from my home country China. Also known as “old godmother”, the flavoursome condiment has been my go-to sauce since this whole pandemic nuisance started last year. As an international student stuck in consecutive lockdowns in the UK, I’ve never felt more alone in my life.

Trapped in my 122 x 190cm studio room, days merge into one another as I trundle along this never-ending path of loneliness and anxiety. Time seems to stand still with nothing but a whirling black hole that sucks you into its formidable grasp: the realisation that you have to deal with isolation alone.

I have tried many things to cheer myself up. Hours of Netflix-binging at night before bed, talking to my friends in China regularly, and even feeding squirrels in a nearby park many times a week. But my jolly mood only lasts for a while before random worries kick in, gnawing at me. And the next day always comes with the same dullness and predictability.

After the first month in lockdown, I stumbled upon Lao Gan Ma by chance while shopping in the Chinese supermarket next to my accommodation. I stared at the sauce, childhood memories swirling through me. Excited, I immediately bought two jars and made myself a massive meal with the homely sauce.

As I took the first mouthful of my stir-fried tomato and scrambled eggs dish with it, I felt happy for the first time in a long time. The crispy chili oils sauce tasted spicy and savoury, just as I envisaged. I finished every last bite of that meal.

Ever since then, LGM has been a solace for me. I begin to cook more for myself, and would add it to everything from dumplings to spaghetti… I would spend a long time preparing the ingredients and mixing them with LGM to give them a more distinctive flavour.

I also try out many different Asian recipes to take my mind off negative emotions. I have started to feel more capable and relaxed as I experiment in my kitchen, while also giving myself happiness and a creativity boost.

Gradually, I felt less and less depressed as a result of home-cooking. Studies published in the British Journal of Occupational Therapy in 2004 found cooking to have rewarding benefits for people who have mental health issues, increasing their concentration, and it provided them with a sense of accomplishment.

My mother, despite being 4846 miles away, would still ask me every day about whether I have been eating well, and I would always reply by saying: “I have just cooked a wholesome meal for myself with Lao Gan Ma. It was very tasty.”

It did not occur to me that cooking is a type of therapy called behavioral activation until my Instagram-famous nutritionist friend Sandy told me this: “I healed my anxiety with home-cooked food,” he says. “I used to have random panic attacks and gut pain. But as soon as I started healing my gut by eating home-made whole foods rather than processed foods, my anxiety completely disappeared.”

Now at 36.2k followers, Sandy shares his “ancestral nutrition” philosophy with the public in the hope that more people will benefit from his story.

It then dawned on me that I was also slowly coming out of depression with cooking. It gives me a sense of purpose and structure for the day. While out shopping, I would ask myself what I crave the most and I would get that exact thing to fill my fridge. And, actually, if I look at my isolation and anxiety in a different way, it could as well have been an opportunity: I am becoming a master chef. I am living a more fulfilling and productive life in lockdown now.

If you ask me if I am going to be tired of Lao Gan Ma one day, the answer is honestly, I don’t know. But what I do know is that cooking is my new best friend and I am letting depression go.


Words: Xindi Wei