One of the best memories I have of cooking with an ex was a complete disaster. He knew I loved shakshuka—it was the only thing I ever ordered at brunch—so he decided to spontaneously cook it for me. Of course, the pressure of recreating my favourite breakfast dish proved too much and a rogue piece of eggshell found its way into the pan. He ended up scolding me over his “masterpiece.”
It sounds like the memory should be a bad one, but we ended up laughing at the situation. The shakshuka story soon became part of the foundation of our relationship—a joke that only we got.
In the early days of being with a new partner, cooking together can be exciting, as well a test of your compatibility. But no one ever talks about what happens afterwards, when things don’t go to plan and all your hours in the kitchen together result in bittersweet memories, and dishes you feel you could never face again.
After my ex and I broke up, the idea of cooking shakshuka was bizarre and wrong. It had been our “thing” and I couldn’t imagine enjoying it by myself. There were other dishes that I found myself avoiding too, all tinged with niche references that only one other person understood.
At first, this wasn’t a problem. I lost my appetite when the relationship broke down. For me, the “breakup diet” was painfully real and I got nausea at the very idea of food. During this time, getting cereal down was a true struggle, let alone the process of cooking myself a meal. Food will never taste the same, I thought. The idea of cooking was repulsive, but mostly I couldn’t imagine not prioritising a billion other things ahead of it—spending time my friends, getting drunk, and mentally dissecting every tiny piece of my life all seemed much more important. At the time, I convinced myself they were healthier too.
As with most post-breakup behaviour, my loss of appetite soon passed and I was left with a genuine desire to cook my favourite meals again. After all, no one can take away the joy you get from taste, no matter how many memories they gave you.
Our mental connection with food is down to olfactory nerves, which are deeply connected to the memory part of our brains. These nerves allow humans to access memories from years, even decades before. “The reason for that is likely due to brain anatomy,” writes Brisbane-based psychologist Amanda White in Psychology Today. “Incoming smells are first processed by the olfactory bulb, which starts inside the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain.”
In contrast, visual, auditory, and touch information does not pass through these areas of the brain. “This may be why olfaction, more than any other sense, is so successful at triggering emotions and memories,” White continues.
With this in mind, London-based couples counsellor and clinical psychologist Silja Litvin tells me that the act of cooking with a loved one can result in a particularly strong memory, “as all senses are incorporated in the process: taste, smell, feeling of ingredients, and vision.” Add in the emotions that come from being with someone you care about, and the imprint goes deeper.
With so much sensory and emotional stimuli going in, the brain retains memories of cooking with a former partner especially well—but that doesn’t mean they have to be painful.
“In order to process painful emotions that come along with a breakup, it is important to reflect on the outcomes of the relationship,” advises Litvin. “‘What have I learned? How can I grow? What is not good for me?’”
With so much sensory and emotional stimuli going in, the brain retains memories of cooking with a former partner especially well—but that doesn’t mean they have to be painful
This reflection can be applied to the dishes you cooked together, too. If a particular dish reminds you of an ex-partner, Litvin recommends changing the recipe in a way that alters the smell or taste, allowing you to reclaim it as your own.
“Adding a powerful spice like garlic or paprika could be worth trying,” she adds.
As I come to terms with my breakup, I realise that it’s also OK to remember the gaps in a former relationship—including the culinary ones. I remembered that we rarely ate fish together, even though it’s something I enjoy.
The week of my breakup, my housemate takes me to the big supermarket and helps me buy ingredients for dinner. We get sea bass, garlic, lemon, new potatoes, and courgette. Back home, she chops most of it and takes control over the stove. The result is delicious but more importantly, I feel cared for. Cooking, after all, is a reflection of care—it’s about nourishing someone else both physically and mentally. During a breakup, it’s hard to want to lavish that much positive energy on yourself.
Slowly but surely, I’m beginning to remember the pleasure of cooking with no expectations or audience. I recall the brilliance of sipping a glass of wine while languidly stirring a sauce on your own time.
I’ve eaten fish three times this week.