'I lost 27 years of memories with my best friend. So, I picked up my whisk and started cooking.'

Content warning: This post mentions suicide.

Food is not just a biological necessity; it is a universal language of love that shapes our relationships and can bring people together in a way that nothing else can. 

It's the catalyst for cherished memories, the fuel for intimate conversations, and it can take us across continents and time zones, one delicious bite at a time.

When I eat paella, for example, I am transported to the bustling alleyways of Barcelona, and the fragrance of za'atar takes me back to Turkey. Yet, it's not just about the flavours; it's about the stories they carry. 

For me, a simple chocolate frog serves as a poignant reminder of my late grandfather, as a sweet treat always accompanied his visits. Food has an unparalleled ability to anchor us to moments that have shaped our lives.

The connection between food and memory is deeply embedded in our biology. 

Eating engages all our senses, creating a multisensory experience that is encoded into our memories. 

When we eat, the hippocampus, our brain's memory-processing hub, is busy processing flavours, aromas and textures, which are then stored. The hippocampus integrates this information along with contextual details, such as the setting in which we ate the meal or the emotions we experienced at the time.

For me, this connection took on a profound significance in the wake of the suicide of my beloved cousin Nathan. 


After Nathan's death, I struggled to recall memories of him. I felt as if there was a glitch in my brain's memory centre.

I have since learnt that grief can rewire the brain in response to emotional trauma, causing changes in memory, behaviour and cognition. Yet there were almost 27 years of memories stowed away that I desperately wanted to retrieve.

Joel and Nathan. Image: Supplied.


Determined to reclaim those memories, I immersed myself in the things that gave Nathan great pleasure — reading T.S Eliot's poems and Hemingway novels, listening to his eclectic music collection, and cooking his treasured recipes. Hearty laksa soups, dumplings and Pad Thai were regular features. 

Since then, each dish has helped me to unlock beautiful memories that I feared had been erased.

Thirteen years after his death, my recollections of Nathan have returned, and while overlaid with sadness, they are also filled with warmth, especially for our culinary adventures. 

From birthday celebrations with black forest cake (a family favourite) at our grandparents' house, to eating street food in Thailand, or sharing a whiskey, these food memories provide a comforting connection to Nathan and a path back to the moments we shared. 

Cooking brings back memories of my cousin. Image: Joel Feren/The Nutrition Guy


Food continues to be a constant reminder of Nathan (both of his life and of his absence). 

My aunty, Nathan's mum, recently made my four-year-old daughter a toasted sandwich on the same sandwich press that Nathan had used to prepare his classic toasties for us. My daughter even wore his childhood apron to lend a hand, thereby creating her own tangible connection to him.

The apron and the sandwich press carry an emotional imprint that helps maintain my connection to Nathan.

Cooking Nathan's signature dark chocolate bolognese has been one way I feel I can express my love for him and honour his legacy. 

Recipes are not just instructions on a page; they carry a story and are communication that transcends time and space, linking us to the past and to the people who matter most to us. 


By recreating a special family recipe, younger generations connect with their ancestry and learn about their family's history, traditions and culture. This ensures that family traditions and memories live on.

The food and memory phenomenon is as complex as it is intriguing—it's a harmony of sensory experiences, neural processes, and emotional contexts that converge to create lasting impressions. 

By embracing the meals and recipes that have shaped our individual and collective histories, we can use them as tools for healing, memory, connection, and discovery.

Exploring the multi-layered role that food and recipes play in our lives is a valuable exercise. So, next time you sit down to a meal, pause for a moment to appreciate the flavours and textures on your plate and think about the memories and emotions that particular foods evoke for you. They may create a bridge to the past or lay the foundation for new connections and memories, and that's something worth savouring and celebrating.

Joel Feren is an Accredited Practising Dietitian. 

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

Feature Image: Supplied.