Brave New World. Nineteen Eighty-Four. Fahrenheit 451. Dystopian fiction paints a picture of a world that is not, but very well could be, if power were placed in the hands of the unjust and unreasonable. A gourmand’s dystopia would be one where all food was abolished, and all we needed were “nutrients”: a little pill concoction of carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals, that would be swallowed thrice daily with distilled water. There would be no braising, basting, marinating. No poaching or roasting. No stir fry, deep-fry, or french fry. Agricultural pastures would be converted to parks, natural or otherwise, as it seems in vogue to call building complexes, “parks,” perhaps to soften the blow of concrete and cement to the psyche. Kitchens would be repurposed as a study/guest bedroom/walk-in closet. The art of cooking and eating would be abolished as seeming indulgent and lascivious, and Efficiency in all its fluorescent lighting and white lab coats would prevail.
Most dystopian literature hints at the high probability of its fictional environment becoming reality. Its themes of totalitarianism and censorship are faintly echoed in the flashes of daily news. Similarly, the bright shimmering lights of fast food chains, cookbooks promising meals in ten minutes, prepackaged frozen food trays, microwaves…the desire for food fast and NOW…this is the slippery slope towards Ascetica, where food is a white pill and gourmands must indulge their art in the underbelly of society, far removed from the Food Police and the disdainful glare of general surgeons and teetotallers.
Of course, not all meals have to be ten-course affairs that require you to wheel yourself away from the table because all the blood has rushed from your legs to your intestines to assist undoubtedly sluggish digestion. Toast can be made in five minutes, and another thirty seconds can be taken to spread on butter and jam, making a perfectly acceptable breakfast indeed. However, if the bread is an artisan rye, the butter from a local dairy, and the jam from your best friend’s grandmother…well, it adds another layer of enjoyment to something as simple as feeding yourself. If you must eat, you might as well do it well.
And therein lies the path to gastronomic freedom: forging between ribald gluttony and puritanical asceticism, there is room for quiet enjoyment of a well-cooked meal, and after some reasonable time has been spent savouring it, the acknowledgement of non-food tasks being of equal importance and worthy of attention.
So in the spirit of treading the middle ground, here is a meal worthy of slow and thoughtful bites, but with a terse nod at the hasty pace of life that demands high productivity for low input. Rice noodles need only to be soaked in hot just-boiled water for a few minutes, and while that is happening the tofu can be cubed and the shrimp thawed under cold water. If you are ambitious and swift with a knife, the carrots and cabbage can be julienned by hand, or simply bought ready in one of those puffy bagged salad kits. Boiling water in an electric kettle will also save you time over boiling water on the stove, as the heating element is right in the water! The stir fried noodles have an adequate balance of carbs/protein/fat, but if you have the organization and time, the chicken satay is an excellent accompaniment. Some store-bought lemon sorbet would be a refreshing way to finish the meal, perhaps garnished with a sprig of mint. A cold light lager to wash it all down. Or a glass of water, for the faint of heart.
A Menu for Enjoyment, within reason:
Stir fried rice noodles
Lemon sorbet (store-bought)
For the noodles:
Place 1” thick rice noodles in a large bowl. Pour just-boiled water over to immerse the noodles. Cover and let it sit for 5-7 minutes for the noodles to soften. Drain and rinse under cold water. Meanwhile in a large skillet, heat some vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Add some slices of ginger and minced garlic. Add a cornucopia of vegetables (the carrot/cabbage partnership, but also consider bean sprouts, celery, broccoli, snap peas…) and cook until vegetables are soft, stirring often. Add tofu and shrimp, if you are so inclined. Throw the drained noodles in, and add swirls of soy sauce, a few modest dribbles of fish sauce, and maybe a light smear of tamarind paste. Toss it all together to heat through. It is ready! If you really want to impress, garnish with diced green onions and crushed peanuts.
For the chicken satay:
Marinate boneless skinless chicken (breast or thigh is fine) in coconut milk and a heavy dusting of curry powder and a whack of salt. The longer the better, but probably no more than two days. Grill the meat, or if you are confined to an apartment with no balcony, broil in the oven until brown. If you have the time, put the meat on skewers (pre-soaked in water so they don’t burn), as all food is more festive if it comes on a stick.
Make extra, so the enjoyment can carry over into tomorrow’s lunch! Eat slowly and just eat, as emails/texts/telemarketers can wait.
And there is nothing wrong with a six-pack of chicken nuggets now and again. I like to share them in the car with a friend, sitting in the parking lot under the giant yellow M, laughing at ourselves at how silly we feel in our momentary naughtiness, but secretly hoping we don’t run into anyone we know, for their sake and ours.