Saturday, June 18, 2016

Food Reviewed: Noodles

I am going to try and write about noodles because I don't know how to write about Orlando. I don't know what to say. I feel gutted but who am I to talk? I went to the vigil in Soho and cried helplessly when the London Gay Men's Chorus sang 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' and I gave money to the Pulse Victims Fund but I can't change America's insane gun laws or, it feels like, do much to end entrenched homophobia. Has Obama addressed the nation after mass shootings fifteen or eighteen times? How is that a question? If Sandyhook wasn't enough then what could be? It is perfectly obvious that the world cares less about queer Latinx than white children but neither tragedy changes anything. They are just two more testaments to the anger and violence that human beings are capable of directing at each other.

I had been meaning to go to Silk Road in Camberwell for years. Two or three. And I love that one of London's most applauded Chinese restaurants doesn't have a website. I don't think I've ever linked to TripAdvisor before but needs must. Luckily there is an easily accessible phone number because booking is essential; the restaurant is always packed and noisy and even when you book time slots are only an hour. At a capital R Restaurant I would find this outrageous - I want to be able to take my time and savour my pleasures; the joys of dining out aren't limited to food on plates but conversation and appreciation etc. - but I have never successfully lingered over Chinese food so I can't complain. I invariably inhale noodles and shower the surrounding areas in grease and splatter marks. I can do that in twenty minutes, I don't even need the full hour.

I keep saying Chinese but I understand that Chinese food doesn't really exist any more than Chinese does as a language. I don't know much more than that. I can't meaningfully distinguish between Cantonese and Sichuan food or, at least, not with much confidence. I would like to learn but a few years ago I asked a friend to take me out for "authentic" Chinese and it rather put me off the fine regional distinctions. She is Singaporean rather than Chinese but she is better informed than me and she took me somewhere near Liverpool St, to a place where I was the only Caucasian in the restaurant. This didn't put me off, quite the opposite, but the ducks' tongues did put me off. They're so springy and gristly? Why do they have bones in them? My tongue doesn't have a bone, does it? (I have Googled and am now satisfied that my tongue doesn't have a bone in it - the hyoid doesn't really count/doesn't alarm me.)

I didn't enjoy the fried pig tendons we sampled but the eye-watering salt content disguised a lot. No, it was the ducks' tongues that had me steering away from dangerous, unpredictable non-Anglicised Chinese food for a few years. (I'm just going to have to keep saying 'Chinese food' because I don't have the knowledge/vocab to be more accurate.) They were not For Me. Which is fine. Not everything has to be for me and it would be ridiculous to hold historic and national cuisines to account for my personal taste. Also, it is totally hypocritical on my behalf since I love a crispy duck pancake and I believe, deeply and rationally, in snout-to-tail eating. I applaud those who can eat and enjoy ducks' tongues. I feel like morally I should be able to as well but the textures really do make me feel queasy.

I feel guilty about not knowing more about Chinese history and culture. And African history and culture. And South American history and culture. I have never studied any of these formally, despite taking history until I was eighteen and getting a Good Degree from a Good University (albeit not in history), and I haven't done enough to educate myself about them. I know quite a lot about the Nazis' rise to power and the works of Jane Austen but I couldn't tell your Tang from your Quing dynasty.

Maybe I can accept that nobody can know everything about everything (MAYBE) but ignorance seems to be so close to the heart of so much hatred. We only have a garbled picture of the shooter's 'motivations' and, probably, they'll never be explicable but it seems impossible to me that you could kill so many people in cold blood if you understood them, knew them, comprehended their existence. Like, clearly people kill people they know intimately every day - domestic violence is often cited among the leading causes of death for young women - but maybe that is just another failure of understanding? The failure to see women and queer people and people of colour as people at all.

Atrocities are perpetrated around the globe daily. Orlando knocked me out because it felt (feels) personal. More personal than the Parisian attacks although I had family in that city. I didn't have to wait anxiously for text confirmation that cousins were safe in Florida; I didn't have to scan lists or photogalleries of the dead for friends of friends. I have become almost inured to the random attacks, the bomb blasts. In theory, if not practice, I almost accept them as the cost of modern life. I was in London for the 7/7 attacks and though, remarkably really, the city hasn't been bombed since then the possibility looms large. Living in a global capital the risk is always there. I live with the threat of explosions, fire and collapse but if you flinched at every loud noise or backpack you would go mad. Still, low-flying planes make me nervous.

The Lee Rigby-type attacks scare me more. Mass shootings are on this spectrum. The intimacy of violence. To be targeted rather than just unlucky. For someone to hate a part of your identity enough to murder you. I suppose, in relation to Paris, nationality is a part of identity too but it isn't personal (or perhaps that is just my privilege as a white Brit talking). It felt like we had made progress in the western world in regards to sexuality. We are the lucky ones - gay marriage is legal and generally accepted, homophobia is theoretically condemned, it is illegal to discriminate against queer people in many areas of life (although perhaps all of this is more true of the UK than the US?). Everyone within my bubble is so much more comfortable talking about being gay or trans or non-binary than they were even ten years ago. These were supposed to be good times. But there is still so much hate and this is a gut-wrenchingly awful way to be reminded of the depth of that hatred. I don't face public harassment because of my sexuality (only because of my gender) and it is easy for me not to see the hate but here is a new, forcible reminder and how do you keep going under the weight of this anger?

I went to Silk Road with Laura and it was before Orlando and it was rowdy and joyful. We went out to dinner again last night - we went to Padella and maybe I'll write about it sometime or maybe I won't. She's leaving, at least for a while, and I need to make the most of her hunger and brilliance so we are eating and talking and drinking a lot. The pici at Padella is really special - so toothsome! So much more akin to the noodles I'm trying to write about here than the soggy spaghetti that often masquerades as pasta - but the evening was overshadowed by mute sadness because neither of us could cope with the state of the world or what we are supposed to say or do next in response to what feels like a relentless barrage of misery.

Silk Road was different though. Silk Road was what I love about London. Fucking delicious food that I couldn't recreate myself or locate on the kind of desert island that I frequently fantasise about as an antidote to crowds and public transport and house prices. Cheap food and abrupt service and bad wine and so many grinning people making a massive mess all over the wipe-clean tables. You share tables and you're all crammed together but it isn't an attempt to look popular or a statement about the shared nature of dining or a fashion choice. The lights are up and I don't remember there being music or if there was it wasn't loud enough to be disruptive. The shared tables are simply the most efficient way to cram the largest number of people into a small space for their meagre one-hour slots and I respect that super hard.

We talked too loudly. The girls next to us talked too loudly. The group behind us talked too loudly. Everyone was being obnoxious and I'm sure there was some juicy eavesdropping to be done but we were absorbed in our own conversation and it feels good to be loud sometimes. We talked about romantic entanglements and the city and what we were eating and how friendships can change and writing and the future - the usual. We didn't know that Orlando was looming. It was a Friday night and my working week was over and were having a good time. It was so small. We went on and on about how good the food we were eating was. It was really good.

I can't remember the racial breakdown in Silk Road which probably means it was pretty white. A nice thing about South London though (and East London - anywhere with a high-density of arts students) is that a lot of people looking fucking weird. Lots of boy-girls and girl-boys and strange garment choices. It would have been a fool's errand to try and accurately predict the sexuality of 60% of the restaurant. And one nice thing about late-stage capitalism (and there aren't many nice things) is that identity politics fade and money is money is money. I mean, it's a bad thing too but I do enjoy the pragmatism. It is only an illusion of equality (and it's an illusion that only exists if you have money to spend) but it can be a brief respite. I really struggle to imagine who Silk Road might refuse to serve. You are your cash. And it's cash only, of course.

We had a spicy cucumber salad that didn't interest me. Cucumbers are the worst (also melons and iceberg lettuce - get your dumb bad watery foods away from me). I thought this might persuade me otherwise but it didn't. We also had the steamed pork dumplings which were not bad - I did like the chewiness of the dough/wrapper thingy but, in retrospect I wish we'd got these pan-fried ones that sound like the balls. Then we had a very (physically) hot aubergine and tomato dish that was zingy and excellent and the aubergine had bite but wasn't rubbery or under-cooked which is a very fine line to walk. And we had super noodles? Special noodles? Lamb maybe? Some tomatoes and bits of veg? Whatever, it didn't matter. THE NOODLES. The noodles, man. Long and wide and flat - like 2-foot long spaghetti had a baby with a lasagne sheet but that baby was a hand-pulled Sichuan (I think?) noodle and it had that bounce that you don't tend to get in pasta. I don't know how you're supposed to cut those things but, goddamn, they were good.

And, somehow, the noodles weren't even the best part of the meal. They have blurred into the background. This might be hard to imagine but the best dish and the best thing I've eaten anywhere in ages was a plate of cabbage. Cabbage! I know. There were chillies and this spicy, savoury sauce but it was just cabbage and yet it was so moreish and special that we could barely come to terms with it. I felt full to the point of discomfort 3/4 of the way through this meal but I forged valiantly forward for the sake of this cabbage. I don't know how to convey how good it was. It was hot and crunchy and mouth-watering... I don't know. I will have to go back and try it many times in an attempt to pin down its elusive excellence.

We had crappy glasses of cheap wine sitting on the pavement outside a pub down the road from the restaurant. The opportunity to sit outside pubs with alcohol and the world streaming past you on bright, light, long evenings is a thing I love about British summers when they actually materialise. It's very companionable and relaxed and you hit a perfect casual temperature and everyone is happy and comfortable. There was more wine later and a bus ride home during which Laura narrated a recent post to me (and the most of the back of the bus) and it was a transcendent experience. I haven't read the post since she read it to me and I don't want to read it because there is no way that the act of reading could match the experience of having it read, rather drunkenly, on the bus from Camberwell after slightly too much wine.

Days later I went Xi'an Impression with Lucy and Nick. It has a similar vibe to Silk Road (lo-fi, cheap, delicious) but less manic and at the opposite end of London. I might like their noodles even more than Silk Road but it was a Monday night and a quieter catch-up and the evening wasn't as celebratory. I braved cold noodles which are a thing I find cognitively dissonant but occasionally pleasant when forced upon me. Excellent flavour in this case. I remain unconvinced by Bloody Marys or gazpacho though - some things are meant to be hot. I think we had a cucumber salad again but I didn't bother with it this time because fool me twice etc. We had a slightly unexpected pork sandwich thingy and more vaguely unmemorable dumplings. No cabbage this time but the noodles. THE NOODLES. Because Xi'an Impression does actually have a website and they handily photo-illustrate their menu I can tell you that we had Xi'an biangbiang in special chilli sauce with and without beef. The beef was fine but you're there for the carbs. Omg. I could have eaten twelve plates except I would have keeled over because they're enormous. I am not a confident identifier of the umami taste but the chilli sauce on these noodles (and on the cabbage?) is mouth-bewitching. And the texture of the noodles is next level. I could eat this every day for ever.

And I don't know what I'm trying to say here. Killing bad, noodles good? I mean, that is fo sure true but is there any point in writing it down? People don't kill because they aren't aware that noodles are better than murder. I doubt noodles are much of a comfort to the injured or the grieving. I do believe that food and companionship help, as a demonstration of love and a brief distraction, but they are not the answer and I don't know what is.

Don't kill people. Be kind. Be brave. Keeping going?

Postcript. I started writing this before Jo Cox was murdered. The world is falling apart. Everything about her death is unbearable. British politics are a fucking disaster. A Day of Infamy by Alex Massie is worth reading. It is disgusting that my extensive Nazi school curriculum is looking so relevant right now.

1 comment:

  1. The first time I had duck tongue was in Canada and my aunt didn't tell me what it was until we had each eaten more than half a dozen. As teenagers, my sister and I stubbornly ate the rest of them as well and I think that's what got my head around eating tongue in general. Yes to being kind and being brave. The latter is the harder one for me because there are so many avenues to be brave in. And eat noodles, always eat noodles