The older I get, the worse I feel after a plane journey. I’m not talking about the unsettling spaciness of jet lag after a long haul, but a bloated, generalised yuckiness that stays with me for about 48 hours after even the shortest of hops, like the tail end of a monstrous hangover. It’s not surprising really, when you see what cabin pressure does to an unopened crisp packet, that it might play around with your insides a little. This queasiness doesn’t interfere with my appetite – sadly nothing ever does (well maybe norovirus) – but on these occasions I am drawn towards food that contains that magical curative combination of sweet, sour, spice and salt.
So it was last Sunday, my 45th birthday (yikes), when the kids and I flew home from a week in the Algarve, my fragile state having absolutely nothing to do with the gallon of pink wine I had sensibly consumed the previous evening you understand. Fortunately we were meeting my husband in Islington where you can eat your way around the globe in a single street, so finding this remedial quartet of flavours would not be difficult. Mexican, Brazilian, Thai, Vietnamese, Peruvian, Turkish – all of these would have hit the spot. In the end we settled on Korean (Bibigo, Angel, EC1), it being the least familiar to us and the restaurant being full of Koreans (always a good sign) plus I’m sure I read somewhere that all that fermented stuff works wonders for one’s constitution.
We weren’t disappointed. The food, although funkier in flavour than Thai or Vietnamese, was fresh, punchy and kick-ass hot. ‘It’s the perfect colour for food,’ mused the teen as he tucked into the brick red Squid and Pork Bulgogi, ‘anything that colour just shouts eat me.’ ‘True,’ added the 9yo, ‘but the calamari needs more seasoning.’ (Too much MasterChef methinks). All in all it was just what the doctor ordered – the perfect restorative post-flight meal. Washed down with a glass or two of celebratory fizz, I began to feel like my (very) old self again.
The subject turned to birthdays. ‘Did you know I was born on the same day as Floyd Mayweather?’ said the teen, one eye on his gadget, the other on a quickly disappearing pile of fiery red chicken. ‘Floyd who?’ I replied, eliciting a simultaneous eye roll from around the table. ‘OK then, Steve Jobs.’ ‘What about me?’ chirped the 9yo, never wanting to be left out. After a moment of scrolling, my husband showed him a picture on his phone. ‘Yay! Eggsbenedict Cucumberbatch, that’s so coooool!’ (The 9yo is a mental Sherlock/Cumberbatch fan. He also likes cucumber.) ‘Not as good as yours though,’ my husband chortled, turning his screen to me, ‘you share yours with Nigel Farage.’
I can happily say that a birthday is the only thing I have in common with the nicotine stained one. I’m not going to get all political here (there are plenty of clever political blogs out there written by clever people who actually know what they are talking about) but when you consider the dramatic improvements in Britain’s food and restaurant scene over the past couple of decades in terms of quality and diversity, I believe we have a lot to thank immigration for, from the EU and further afield. It wasn’t that long ago (OK, it was quite a long time ago) that the only place you could buy olive oil was from a chemist and having a curry meant either opening a box of Vesta or pouring yellow gloop over your chips. If you wanted to experience anything more exotic you would have to get on a plane. And if, on your return, you happened to feel a little bilious or bloaty, it is unlikely you would find a cure in a plateful of British fare. Your only option back then was to suck on a Rennie, and that wasn’t nearly as much fun.
Korean-style ragu with cucumber(batch) salad
I found the pungent heat of that Korean meal quite addictive so I did my usual and tried to do my own version at home, but I didn’t have any gochujang, the fermented red chilli and soy bean paste which gave that restaurant dish its appealing colour and depth. Chef Google told me I could achieve a similar flavour by mixing together Sriracha chilli sauce (available from Ocado) with miso paste (ditto) and tomato puree, so that’s what I did and the end result was delicious, if not exactly authentic (‘and not quite red enough, mum,’).
- 2 tbsp flavourless oil
- 2 onions, thinly sliced
- 450g turkey or pork mince (I use the turkey that’s half thigh and half breast so it’s not too dry)
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1.5-2 tbsp Sriracha chilli sauce depending on your heat tolerance
- 1 heaped tsp tomato puree
- 1 heaped tsp miso paste
- 1 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 2 tsp light brown sugar
- juice of 1 lime
- 125-250ml water
- handful of fine green beans chopped into thirds and blanched in boiling water for 1 minute
- handful of chopped coriander
- handful of chopped peanuts (I used bog-standard salted and it tasted good, but unsalted would work too)
- In a wok or large frying pan, fry the onions in the oil until soft (about 10 mins), then add the garlic and cook gently for another minute.
- Add the mince and break up with your spoon and cook for about 5-8 minutes until cooked through. Add the chilli sauce, tomato puree, miso, soy, sugar and enough water to give it some sauce (it should be less sloppy than a bolognese) and bring to a simmer.
- Add the blanched beans and cook for about 3 minutes, then add the coriander and half the lime juice. Taste and add more lime juice and salt if needed. Serve with jasmine rice with the peanuts and a bit more chopped coriander scattered over.
This salad is adapted from a recipe I found in Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes, a brilliantly kitsch book from the US, written with such wit and irony that I took it to bed with me and read it from cover to cover (not sad at all).
Serves 4 as a side
- 1 tbsp rice wine vinegar (I used Shaoxing)
- 1 tsp flavourless oil
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 1 tsp brown sugar
- 1/4 tsp sea salt flakes
- 1 cucumber
- 1 tsp toasted sesame seeds (I used black ones because that’s all I had)
- pinch chilli flakes
- 2 tbsp chopped coriander leaves (I nearly wrote cilantro then, ha ha)
- Whisk together the first five ingredients.
- Cut the cucumber in half, remove the seeds then cut into 3/4 inch thick half moons (the book says to smash the cuke up a bit before you chop I guess so it absorbs more dressing, but I didn’t bother).
- Toss the cucumber in the dressing then sprinkle over the sesame seeds,
cilantrocoriander and chilli flakes.