A Journal of the Plague Week 36

Tuesday, November 24th, 2020

Sometime last year, Jeremy and I started occasionally going to the Brighton Acoustic Club, a monthly folk music evening held at the Lord Nelson Pub in town. The Lord Nelson is just up the street from a cheap and cheerful Chinese restaurant called Lucky Star. That was handy for Acoustic Club nights because we could gird ourselves with hotpot or beef brisket stew or spicy eggplant before spending an evening in the pub drinking ale and listening to (or sometimes playing) folk music.

Our last dinner out at Lucky Star—one of our last dinners out anywhere in Brighton before the first lockdown—was on February 3rd. We had cumin lamb, fish poached in chili oil, spicy green beans with tofu, and rice. Even though COVID had barely made landfall in Europe by then (that we knew of), anti-Asian racism was already rearing its head, and our decision to dine there that night was both ideological and gastronomical. I remember looking around at all the Chinese students tucking into molten vats of hotpot (Lucky Star’s usual clientele) and wondering how many of them were stuck here in England and worrying about friends and family back in China.

Over the next month, Jeremy made a point of regularly eating at Lucky Star for lunch, both out of solidarity with Brighton’s Chinese community and because Lucky Star does some great lunch deals. I, meanwhile, was slowly starting to assemble a little “quarantine box” of foodstuffs, even though I felt slightly silly doing so. The idea of being locked up at home with limited food while a pandemic raged outside still seemed like a scenario from a movie and not something I would actually experience in my lifetime. But a friend of ours in New York was encouraging others to make quarantine plans even though only a handful of cases had been confirmed in the States by then, and her caution prompted me to go ahead buy that extra bit of dried pasta and those bags of frozen vegetables, just in case.

This was also around the time that Chris Thomas of Chinese Cooking Demystified posted his long piece on Reddit about living under lockdown in Shunde, China, which attracted a lot of attention and got me thinking about food scarcity and culinary creativity. Specifically, I started thinking about lunches and the possibility that Jeremy might be eating lunch at home in the future—and, indeed, on March 16th our living room became Jeremy’s office and I acquired a regular lunch companion. My solitary working-from-home lunches had generally been fairly ad-hoc, thrown together from whatever bits and pieces we had in the fridge, but I knew it would be less stressful if we had more planned-out options ready to hand. And the first and easiest option that sprang to mind was noodles.

Brighton has no shortage of great Asian food shops large and small. One of the bigger ones, Yum Yum Oriental Market in the North Laine, is a treasure trove of everything from Japanese crockery and Thai snacks to Korean chili pastes and Chinese condiments. It also has fridges full of tofu and fresh vegetables and freezers full of hotpot meat, seafood and dumplings, and an entire long row of shelves dedicated to instant noodles. I started out cautiously by picking up some plain, ready-to-eat egg noodles that I could stir-fry with a few chopped vegetables, a spoonful of Chinese chili-bean paste and a splash of black rice vinegar for a fast, spicy lunch. But over the months, Jeremy and I have branched out into the wide world of packaged instant noodles. Our favorites are Indomie from Indonesia (particularly the beef rendang flavor), Shin Ramyun from Korea (spicy hot!) and Mama from Thailand (tangy and also hot!). We now have a whole basket in our little roll-around kitchen cart dedicated solely to instant noodles. It’s the farthest thing from health food, but we don’t eat them every day, and they’ve brought a bit of excitement to weekdays that would otherwise just all roll into one.

A few months ago we decided to make a batch of homemade gyoza (which are surprisingly easy and a fantastic thing to have in your freezer) and we took a trip to Yum Yum to get the gyoza wrappers. As we dug around in the freezer section, we spotted some fish balls—one of our favorite noodle soup ingredients—and then some frozen soup dumplings and shumai and pork buns, and we remembered that we had a bamboo steamer basket sitting at home collecting dust, and we realized VERY belatedly that just because we couldn’t go out for fish ball noodle soup or dim sum didn’t mean we couldn’t have fish ball noodle soup or dim sum. So we loaded up our basket with frozen goodies of all sorts and started to replicate the restaurant experience at home.

Now when we have instant soup noodles during the week, I’ll often throw in some fish or beef balls, or some crabsticks or soy sauce eggs. Some days we have gyoza for lunch with cucumber or shredded carrot salad on the side. Sundays are often our dim sum days, when we carefully place frozen dumplings on rounds of thinly sliced carrot (so they don’t stick to the bottom of the steamer), cook them for about 15 minutes and serve them with a vinegar dipping sauce—and every time I lift off the bamboo lid at the table and the warm steam billows out, revealing the juicy dumplings inside, I get a little sparkle of happiness. Frozen dim sum from a shop is obviously not on a par with freshly made dim sum at a nice restaurant—or homemade dim sum, for that matter—but we’re making do with what we’ve got for now.

Moving beyond my culinary comfort zone has generally been a very positive change over the past few weeks. That comfort zone is roughly delineated by the Mediterranean Sea, and while I will never not love anything that has yogurt and/or feta cheese and/or za’atar on it, these days I find myself reaching for the sesame oil almost as often as I reach for the olive oil. As I write this, I have some Japanese chashu pork braising in the oven, some sliced pork belly ready for Sichuan twice-cooked pork tonight, and some boiled eggs bathing in soy sauce for snacking throughout the week. I have chicken drumsticks in the freezer which will be turned into Thai noodle soup, and pork bones that will eventually wind up in a ramen broth. I have a mind to make pad kee mao and Taiwanese fried chicken, and to properly delve into an enticing cookbook that I’ve barely made a dent in even though it’s been sitting on my shelf for ages: Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford, which covers the cuisine(s) of a part of the world that I still know very little about but find endlessly fascinating.

I guess it’s all a way of traveling without leaving the house. Jeremy and I will sit down to a bowl of pasta and say “Tonight we’re dining in Italy!”, or we’ll snack on tapas and say that we’re in Spain, or we’ll roast a chicken and declare that we’re in a French bistro. But more and more often we find ourselves dining in Hong Kong or Bangkok or Tokyo or Taipei, places about as far from Brighton as you can get in almost every respect—but places we’re able to sort of recreate in the kitchen thanks to Brighton’s diversity and the shopkeepers who have managed to keep their doors open throughout this trying year to give some folks a taste of home (like the college kids who eat at Lucky Star) and others (like me and Jeremy) a taste of something that reminds them of all the exciting places that aren’t home.

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