What We Ate All Those Years…
Two Saturdays ago was the last time we traded at Broadway because of the horrible autumn rain. Rob was sick so we got on our bikes and begged and pleaded for water and electricity from neighboring stores to keep the stall open. The stall looked different but it was opened! We could do this when it was dry but with the rain and wind of the past weekends, we had to sit it out.
This week Bánhmì11 is busy preparing banh mi to sponsor the Vietnamese cultural show the students at LSE are putting on on Saturday and we got thinking about what we ate in those student days, when we were young and free.
The first meals we had outside of home were at boarding schools. Generally now and even then, we knew that the meals were bad. Breakfast was usually the best meal of the day; that is if you managed to get up more than fifteen minutes before class. Our school kitchen must have been extreme believers in monotony because breakfast always alternated between either all things boiled, or all things fried. Mondays started out with boiled eggs, grits, and biscuits (in the American sense which is a soft, flaky bread, that was scorned by all Germans) whereas on Tuesdays we had fried eggs, bacon and hash browns. At weekends however, breakfast morphed into the most glorious meal of the week – brunch, when we could sleep in until noon and stagger in in our pajamas ten minutes before the cafeteria closes to have all the boiled and fried breakfast food we missed all week. On top of that there were French toast, Danish pastries, fresh fruits instead of the usual sloppy cocktail fruit mix and sometimes even an omelette bar.
Lunch and especially dinner, however, were composed of dishes so unidentifiable that each meal was a strategic game of selecting a few edible elements from a dish to put onto our plates. It may involve taking the fried batter off a pepper, or lifting carrots from swimming with overcooked broccoli in a greasy, vinegary liquid, or mashing up eggs from the salad bar to eat with spaghetti. None of this, as you can tell, was appetising, normally.
But we ate them ravenously, because we were sixteen or seventeen and always running, up and down the hundreds of stairs connecting the castle to the lower buildings, to and from the dorm, across the soccer field to catch the van for our afternoon activities, and back to our rooms in time for the ten o’clock nightly check. If they gave us chocolate chips cookies and milk in mid-afternoon, we ate them too, and stuffed two or three in between our folders to snack on under the table during class. By the time we queued up for our food and sat down at the table, we would have gladly wolfed down boiled shoe soles without complaint.
In my second year, things improved significantly culinarily with the arrival of my new roommate from Singapore. Unlike most of us whose parents lived overseas, Claire’s dad brought her to school, and with him she had a whole suitcase full of snacks, noodles, sauces and a brand new multi-function rice cooker. It was placed ceremonially on top of the bookshelf separating our two halves of the room and often in the wee hours of the night, there would be steam arising from whatever strange concoction we had put into it.
These were the best suppers. It was truly the wonder of one-pot cooking, with no kitchen sink and no grocery store nearby except for occasional trips to Walmart, which was like a giant convenience store with no fresh meats, fruits or vegetables. In those days we were in love with sesame oil, dried seaweed and oyster sauce. So whatever instant package of ramen or glass noodle or rice vermicelli or soba we had at hand, we spiced them up with these three ingredients. We even rubbed sesame oil under our nose and walked around sniffing it all the time and fell into helpless giggles. Mmmm…It seems so silly now but it was so natural back then.
Without these suppers, it seemed we lived in a hopeless desert gastronomically. But the longer you stay in any place, the more chances that you will discover havens of good food. For us, these havens were the teachers’ houses.
Judy was our Maths teacher, not mine really, but I gladly went along to the study sessions at her home. There would be hot chocolate, home-made brownies, cakes, and one time before Christmas I remember she had the biggest box of popcorn I have ever seen. There was plain popcorn, and chocolate popcorn, and caramel popcorn, and toffee popcorn and salted popcorn. To this day I can’t tell the difference between integers and integrals but I can still savor the taste of caramel popcorn, which I ate handfuls of until I was almost sick, and went back to bed before exam day.
Ravi-ji was our Economics teacher, actually he was more of a legend than a teacher. We loved him and feared him with godlike admiration and everyone, even the most annoying kid in school, agreed that he must have been a saint. He was probably in his fifties, although his perfectly trimmed mustasche made him look older and wiser, and lived with his mother. Mommy-ji often had dinner parties and most of us were likely to have the honor to come at least once this special dinner, unless you were from the Indian subcontinent, in which case you seemed self-entitlted to come every week. From the pre-dinner drinks that came in blue glasses to the fragrant rice to the raisin and almond dessert, the food served was simply divine. It was so good that whenever we got a chance to go to Santa Fe and visit the Indian buffet in one of the adobe houses, we always looked for the halwa, hoping to experience something that resembles the exquisit taste of Mommy-ji’s.
Ravi-ji and Mommy-ji’s dinner was the first time that somewhere in my consciousness, I woke up to the fact that food was something beautiful to be shared with and powerful to bring people together. Raji-ji loved chocolate and his old students always sent him chocolates from whichever corner of the world they were in, and he always shared them with us in class, Lindt truffles and Cadbury’s almond chocolate. Probably because Economics was the last period before dinner and ended at quarter past six. Probably because he saw us as the starved puppies we always were. And probably because of this, no matter how we failed in other subjects, how we misbehaved outside of class, how we moved on in life to do things we are or are not proud of, we never wanted to disappoint Ravi-ji. We wanted to do well in his tests so that we could arrive at his house for dinner without guilt. We wanted to grow up to be like the students who sent him chocolates, whose pictures and press clippings he pinned up on the wall, who wrote that they graduated and went on to do important things. Those were the powers and pleasures and pains of good food.
It was a surprise that all of us made it out from of boarding school, without gaining or losing too much weigh, or getting one or two ulcers, or a nasty appendix operation, or food allergies. It was different for us to be in an isolated community far from a big city. But we were a community, teachers and students, roommates and friends, and this probably saved us.
Now things have changed in many ways. When our cousins came to visit us on boarding school half-term the other day, instead of waiting to be fed, they went grocery shopping in Harrods Food Hall (fancy kids!), and cooked us a full meal of beef and potato wedges with tomato sauce, minced meat and spring onions omellet, and cabbage and ribs soup – all of which we would not have managed at sixteen.
But somehow, even in a much different place and different time, we’d like to be a little haven of good food for students in London. We are happiest when we see students come to the stall. They come after their language assessment, or weekend job, or simply on a leisurely Saturday morning, for a cup of coffee with condensed milk and a banh mi with pate. They usually never come alone, and the group seems to grow and disband throughout the day. They joke around with us and sometimes daringly ask for discounts. They make lots of noise most of the time but they patiently quietly wait when we have a big rush. When they know us, they don’t hesitate to roll up their sleeves to help us pack up.
We always think when we see them: “These guys are like us before, but better…sharper, funnier, and worldlier.” And that, in between our banh mi mouthfuls is, I can tell you, a very happy thought!
Photo Credits: Daddy, Claire Chun, Jingjing Zhou
Posted on: 23.11.2009