• Tom Mabon

Visiting a restaurant is more than just dining out

Recently, Caroline wrote an emotive piece about meals that make memories. She talked about ingrained happy memories from cooking with her mother, and the potential to share this with her daughter today. It caused me to reflect upon my own feeding happiness memories as a child, and it struck me that some are as clear today as they were many years ago.

Weekends in the Mabon household were a pretty routine, joyous affair. Saturday nights were filled with ultimate family programming; ‘The Generation Game’, ‘Gladiators’, and of course, ‘Blind Date’. The seminal TV viewing ran all night, right through to Match of the Day. An evening of wholesome family entertainment.

For me though, the focus was always on the Saturday night food: The Chinese take-away. Every Saturday night, without fail, Dad would unfold the paper menu whilst picking up a pencil and declaring loudly, “who wants what for dinner then?”

Ticks were always placed next to the dishes: chicken chow mein, king prawn chop suey, mushroom foo yung, prawn crackers, and of course, chips. Upon pick-up, it was my job to run from the car to collect the food, and then to try and “keep it warm” on the way home. My cuddling of the bag had little effect on the temperature, but would result in me smelling like a bag of chips (arguably quite an improvement from ‘Lynx Atlantis’). The foil trays were dished out, shared and consumed, and soon after my family sat satiated, declaring the evening a success.

Each Saturday would see the same routine, and looking back something struck me. Dad’s rallying cry was always met with a variety of suggestions, but strangely the marks on the paper menu always appeared next to the same dishes - every week. This charade continued for over a decade. We were continually getting new paper menus, for Dad to just tick the same dishes. It begs the question of why he offered us the fallacy of free-choice in the first place - but it was part of the routine. It got to the point where we rang the take-away and would only need to state our name: they would know our order, and would expedite it accordingly. To this day, I’m still not sure if I should be delighted by this customer service, or slightly alarmed at this familiarity, and what it says about our consumption habits. There was the occasional dalliance of course. If we were celebrating a rare Southampton win, we may add an additional dish - sweet & sour pork balls, or spare ribs for example. But they only made guest appearances. On reflection I wonder if Dad threw in those curve balls just to keep the takeaway on their toes.

From earliest memories until I left for University, my weekend food routine was the same. Saturday night was Chinese, Sunday was Mum’s roast. At this point, it wasn’t even something I was consciously aware of. It was my family's routine, and it brought us all joy.

After University I moved out of the family home, and into a flat in London. I no longer had Mr Lau’s at my beck and call, and to be honest the search for a replicable chicken chow mein goes on fruitless to this day. They’re all too dry. Too easy going on the MSG. So Chinese on a Saturday night was no longer an option. And a Sunday roast for one was just excessive. Sure, I still did it with a fair amount of regularity, but already the wheels of change were in motion. My roster expanded to include a Thai takeaway, an Indian restaurant, and a local independent Italian bistro. When I wasn’t cooking something for myself, that was my repertoire of take away options. I’m not unusual in having a short list of preferred takeaways. When you want that treat, you want something reliable, and something you’ve been craving all day.

As my twenties progressed, so did my home cooking. I had graduated from tuna mayo pasta, to a point where I was now making my own bread, ravioli, and curry pastes. But whilst that was changing, my takeaway routine remained constant. It struck me far too late that maybe London contained more than these 3 or 4 restaurants, all conveniently located within 5 roads of my flat, and that maybe I should make the most of the situation I was in. So, in the pub one evening, fuelled with talking juice, my girlfriend and I vowed to break out of the funk and attempt “The global A-Z of restaurants”.

It’s a simple enough premise. Working your way through the alphabet, pick a country that starts with the designated letter, then find a restaurant in your city that serves that food. For A, we chose “Austrian” and naturally ended up at Fischers. We chose Austrian wine, and schnitzel and followed it with a strudel. It was delicious. This challenge proved to be insightful, and eye-opening. We discovered that Cambodian food is outrageously good; managing to be both light and complex. We found that Greece has some sensational wines, and that the rum punch at Brixton’s “Fish Wings n Ting” is the most fun you can legally have in a market.

Eating authentic food is a joy. You can genuinely taste the love in the dishes. It’s also a sense of escapism, travelling to foreign lands whilst keeping your feet on terra firma. It wasn’t that long ago that to get an authentic laksa meant enduring a 13 hour journey on a cramped plane. Now it’s a 13 minute ride away in Leicester Square. Granted, the journey is still cramped, but that’s the Northern line for you.

Interestingly, it started to cause some inspiration for home cooking. Lamb was smothered in new marinades, and cooking techniques evolved. I was inspired by these restaurant dishes and desperate to replicate the plate licking taste, that joy, back in my own kitchen. The thing is, replicating a dish is something that is moderately achievable, albeit via a frustrating journey. You have a benchmark to refer to, and a range of ingredients at hand to play with the flavour profile until you find a rough equivalent.

In this lock down, I’m missing my global travels from the safety of the London tube map. We were researching the best Nigerian restaurant just before lock down struck. However, I am hesitant to try and cope with these withdrawal symptoms by reaching for a frying pan and a chopping board. I have no doubt that armed with the BBC Good Food website, I could make at best an average Jollof rice or kosksi bil djaj.

But it’s just not the same. Firstly, I’d have no frame of reference as to whether what I had just created was passable, or an insult to family recipes and cooking in general. Secondly, it’s just much better in a family restaurant. They add a level of authenticity, of love, of skill that you get from honing the dish over generations. And of not having to use ingredients from the ‘Tesco Local’ attached to a petrol station. That moment when you experience a true dish for the first time is one of the greatest simple pleasures in life.

So yes, I’ll try to crack on in my home kitchen, inflicting my hack attempts at french baguettes and smoked brisket on my better half - but we can’t wait for lock down to lift and our favourite restaurants to come back, better than ever. To get back out there and travel the culinary world, using only a Zones 1 & 2 travel card.

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