On hearts

On a narrow street in Rivonia, in a room of plastic tablecloths, you can order a plate of hearts.

At the Little Sheep, they’re of the chicken variety and served raw - dark, shrivelled things, thawing on a saucer - for you to cook yourself, in a tub of bubbling Szechuan stock.

Other hot pot ingredients are easily executed: fish balls can be left boiling for an hour; paper-thin slices of beef only need seconds. Hearts are particular.

Slowly simmered at the right temperature, they are tender, a delicately-fibred cut; yet, any great shocks - too hot, too quick - and they become gumboot tough, unyielding.

Hearts need care.

The Japanese have two words for heart. Hāto, the organ; and kokoro, the heart, mind and spirit, the essence of a being. When they make yakitori, they use both.

For weeks, my own heart, recently broken, wouldn’t allow me to eat.

I was offered tea, toast, cake, whisky. I chewed dutifully, tasted nothing.

For days, I sat, heart thudding hopelessly fast against my ribs. When it quietened down, I would check to see if it was still there. I wondered how a part of me that was capable of loving so fiercely could feel so hollow.

In the days that followed, a near-stranger fed me fresh uni at her table in Athens. My elderly father offered to pack his bags and fly across the world for a hug. There were offers of refuge, promises of chicken soup in London, Nairobi, DC, northern Italy. My stomach knotted itself with such kindness, my heart numb, taut.

Then, under a tropical full moon next to a temple for good fortune, I found myself sitting at a table heaped with blood cockles. Scrubbed, milky shells revealing deep red inhabitants, metallic on the tongue: something primal, of mudflats, of rawness, of being alive, of identity.

Hearts absorb flavours, have memories.

The wok-baked local crabs were still sweet and brittle under dusty paper pineapples. The melamine bowl of garlic, chili, sugar and lime, made to the same recipe. There was the boulder I had climbed as a child in my mother’s hometown, rubbed smooth by tiny hands. The empty watchtower from before the war, staring calmly out to sea. Stray dogs on tsunami-washed sand.

Laughter, licked fingers, something unconditional.

I realised, it’s possible for a heart to be broken, yet full.

Little Sheep Hot Pot, Rivonia, +27 833807558
Sea Pearl Seafood, Tanjung Tokong, Penang, Malaysia, +60 4 899 0375