2: Eating in
When I cast my mind back to the last time I had a really good meal out, it evokes a mixed bag of emotions. A great dining experience is one that is still knocking about in your head for days afterwards, with so much to recall and savour that the memories present themselves in a jumbled disarray, each echo of flavour replaced by another, then another, and another, as they jostle for the spotlight. Every time a particular dish reenters your thoughts, you're imploring for it spill over into your senses and regain command of your taste buds. That's the unexpectedly wonderful thing about the close of a culinary journey. Even though you'll no doubt be pining over the bygone feast – the emptiness in your belly serving as a stark reminder of the fact as it grumbles away in protest – you're mostly just glad that you got to munch your way through it at all. And the lingering impressions of the sights, smells and tastes are yours to keep, ready to delve back into whenever you're hit with a pang of nostalgia or have a quiet moment to yourself. Plus, there's nothing stopping you from immediately booking a table for the following weekend (or next day) so you can immerse yourself in the experience all over again.
Now that restaurants and many other hospitality and catering businesses have indefinitely shut up shop (almost 10,000 venues were forced to permanently close in 2020), such reminiscing comes with a pronounced tinge of grief – for the delicious dishes you can no longer sample, the different cuisines and cultures you aren't able to experience, and the eating spots that will cease to be when it's all over. The covid-19 pandemic has reduced the pleasures of dining out to events that, for now, exist only in our psyches, with big and small establishments alike quietly suffering and buckling. For a lover of everything that is culinary, this is nothing short of a tragedy.
A very small sample of the breakfasts, lunches, dinners and everything-in-betweens I've eaten over the years (only the most photogenic made the cut).
Lunch in lockdown
An unprecedented situation has forced us to change how we live and operate in unprecedented ways, some of which may be here to stay, long after we get the virus under control. But the numerous lockdowns we've been through haven't just shifted the landscape of dining by prompting the closure of our beloved dining spaces. With so many of us now tasked with cooking at home on a more frequent basis (an exciting, daunting or mundane prospect, depending on who you are), we've had to grudgingly accept that takeaways and virtual dinners over Zoom are the best we can hope for for the time being.
In happier times, my lunch would take the form of a miscellaneous goodie from one of the many eateries near my office when I was willing to turn a blind eye to the status of my bank account (this happened a little more often than I'd like to admit, though it was assuredly worth it to plonk back onto my desk feeling so satiated, even if I was battling to keep myself from slipping into a food coma for the rest of the afternoon). Both options, distinct as they were in terms of expense and indulgence, required little effort on my part. I hadn't given much conscious thought to the luxuriously extensive lunch choice granted by a job in central London, but once that was delegated to nothing but a fond pastime, it became all too clear. Now, in the rare event that I do pop out for a quick bite in my local area, it no longer involves frequenting a spot for sushi or tacos or artisan toast (Londoners really are too spoilt), but going to the park up the road with a sandwich or last night's leftovers in a Tupperware, to be eaten in solitude with little in the way of excitement, no matter how enthusiastic my attempts to jazz it up. Currently, being in the cold, bleak grasp of January, even that isn't a particularly appealing option. That leaves me with a whole lot of extra time on my hands to simultaneously mourn the delights of eating out and ponder how to incorporate a similar sense of anticipation into my own home-cooked offerings.
The green spaces around me have become a second home – not that I'm complaining, with views like this. Right now though, it's looking decidedly more barren.
It might sound like I'm being a bit dramatic about the disparity between my pre- and post-pandemic eating habits. After all, it's not like I had the funds to treat myself every day, despite how much I wanted to. And I could of course order from a local restaurant nowadays if I fancied something indulgent. But before restrictive measures saw the world around me seemingly grind to a halt, I lacked a clear, convincing incentive to replicate the food I so enjoyed for myself and to finally attempt that obscure 30-ingredient recipe I'd optimistically bookmarked two years ago. Life just had too many delicious distractions. To consider how drastically things have changed – most of us largely confined indoors, not only unable to visit our favourite restaurants, cafés and bars but probably also oblivious to their true plight – is saddening and sobering. At the same time, it opens up a unique window of opportunity to explore new hobbies, ones which we might've told ourselves in the past we were simply too busy or tired to take on after a long day of commuting and socialising.
As is the case for many, lockdown has forced me to get creative. It's spurred me to tackle recipes from an unfamiliar cuisine or region of the world, recreate my favourite restaurant orders or make a staple ingredient from scratch that I'd usually take for granted, such as noodles (see my first blog post). It's reignited a passion for cooking that had become obscured somewhat by the ease with which I was able to dine out, several times a day if I liked. It's made me think more deeply about my love of food, my fascination with its creation and execution, my intense enjoyment of cooking shows, articles and books, and is what I can credit for this blog existing in the first place. For that alone, I can't help but see the positives of this pandemic radiating from an otherwise black pit of uncertainty.
Cooking is a beautiful thing. Aside from the fact that we actually need to do so to survive and thrive – there are some who consider it to be a pivotal moment in human evolution – it is also there to be enjoyed and cherished. It's for bonding and forging relationships over, prompting fresh conversations as you bounce around ideas, exchange recipes and share stories about the enlightening moment you tried a national delicacy on holiday or were introduced to the delight of a new ingredient or cooking technique. On a personal level, I've found cooking to be one of the most effective ways of telling people about my cultural roots. I recall an evening last autumn (or was it summer? I've truly lost my grip on time) where myself and a few friends had a go at making Chinese dumplings ('饺子, 'jiao zi') together. Dumplings are the one dish of my home country that I can make on my own with relative confidence, having racked up ample practice with my mum on special occasions, both of us hunched over the kitchen counter churning out a seemingly endless stream of neatly-pressed dough parcels, plump with minced pork, Chinese leaf and wood ear mushrooms, as if they were on a factory conveyor belt. Dumplings are a culinary staple in countries spanning every continent, from Japanese gyoza to Polish pierogi to fried dumplings in Jamaica, and it's not hard to see why, given their simplicity and versatility.
Last October for the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, I undertook the task solo, making over 100 of the meaty bundles (right; not all pictured) in what I soon suspected was a bit of a mistake, my aching back and arms the following day a tell-tale sign.
But being able to share the joys of a dish with those around you outweighs even the most laborious and back-breaking of preparations. It's how the dumpling class came to be (with a suitably enthusiastic pitch to match) and although I felt a little awkward heading it up and at one point it seemed like we would never stop chopping cabbage, we eventually all put down our chopsticks with round, full bellies and a mutual sense of appreciation for an iconic dish. The process of preparing the filling, notes of sesame and soy sauce hitting your nostrils as you stickily mix it all together, and creating the final product by enveloping the circle of dough with both hands and clasping it firmly between the thumbs, was both educational and good fun.
Once you get stuck into cooking something new for yourself, you begin to get an idea of the traditions of a country and the flavour profiles of its cuisine, to consider – perhaps for the very first time – how others in the world dine and eat, and the vibrancy of the universal language of food.
Armed with ideas and recipes, I launched myself into cooking with a newfound sense of determination and commitment. Since my money couldn't go on sampling a restaurant menu, I'd simply buy the ingredients to recreate it in the familiarity of my own kitchen instead. (This is a good time to mention that in response to the ban on dining in, some places are offering DIY kits to make their signature dishes at home, such as pizza, burgers and ramen. I'd highly recommend giving it a go – all the ones I've tried [see below] have been as good as if I had bought them out, you can make up your portion to your preference and it helps keep establishments afloat, especially the independent ones. If you're a lover of all types of Asian food like me, Pezu is a great site to get a few orders in, not just for home kits but also a variety of condiments and snacks to spice up your pantry).
My road to home-cooked splendor saw the kitchen transformed into a bustling hub of bubbling pots, sizzling pans and full chopping boards, as powerful aromas seemed to waft from every corner of the room and various sauce-/marinade-dredged utensils stacked up in the sink. Each venture managed to use up a good chunk of my time on evenings and weekends or when I had a spare hour or two in the day, taking my mind away from the reality of the current situation and to a happier, simpler place where all I needed to focus on was the experience of good, hearty grub. Flushed cheeks – both from the heat of the kitchen and the pleasure of putting that first steaming forkful in my mouth – were a testament to the excitement I felt. I can only hope that as life gradually creeps back to normal and restaurants reopen their doors, these once lively spots teeming with people, and bolstered by the sounds of music, laughter and the clinking of cutlery and wine glasses, aren't completely replaced by derelict streets and bordered-up windows. It could be wishful thinking. But with the prospect of normal life looming on the horizon, and geared with a decidedly more optimistic mindset than when this all started, I feel more confident about how to cope in the meantime. For that, I have only food to thank.
Considering all that I've said in this post, it seems only right that I divulge some of the dishes I've attempted so far during the era of covid-19. Here is a non-exhaustive list of foods I made for the first time in 2020 and 2021, to varying degrees of success:
Kimchi – Crunchy, tangy, spicy, just like the stuff I'd tried from the supermarket. Surprisingly, not a fail at all.
Sourdough bread – Definitely a fail (I think my starter had long perished).
Challah bread – This was my first time even eating Challah and I was slightly clueless about how it was supposed to taste. Either way it was delicious, like a less buttery and sweet brioche.
Babka – I couldn't decide on chocolate or cinnamon so I made both. Each came out with swirls that although weren't nearly as impressive as the photos in the cookbook, still looked and tasted decent.
Hand-cut noodles, various types (ramen noodles still pending since I currently lack a pasta machine) – Generally very easy to make the dough, most recipes only calling for flour, water and salt, but requires some elbow grease to roll it out. And my noodle pulling still leaves much to be desired.
Vegan chocolate cheesecake – Made with blended tofu and dark chocolate with Oreos for the base. Unbelievably rich and decadent.
Buttermilk fried chicken – The oil temperature was probably completely wrong for this as most of the breading flaked off during frying. It didn't come anywhere close to KFC.
Ice cream mochi (I made the mochi dough from scratch, not the ice cream) – Pleasantly surprised at how easy this was to make, provided I liberally coated every surface and crevice with cornflour. I also added a dollop of lemon curd to the ice cream filling.
Red bean buns – I didn't have anko beans for making the paste so I used mashed kidney beans instead which mostly did the job. The bun itself was nice and fluffy.
Japanese milk bread – It's quite magic how the tangzhong (a cooked flour paste) transforms the texture of the bread. Addictively light and tender.
Click here to see photos and more of my creations