Have you ever been to a neighbourhood Asian restaurant for lunch? I bet you’ve at least seen one in a movie… they are not necessarily small, but simple in decor. The menus are voluminous, going on for page after page of delicacy. Much of the English is often translated a bit funny, which makes you wonder what food ingredient they really mean in the description of dishes. If you’re lucky, there are pictures. If not, you have to look at what others are having and point. The best thing to do is just order by number, because you are often not sure of the name.When I lived in Calgary I first went to a Vietnamese place on the edge of downtown on the recommendation of a friend. (This was long before Trip Advisor.) I learned what a vermicelli bowl was (delicious!) and the difference between spring rolls and salad rolls (30 years ago, who knew that?!) I discovered Vietnamese coffee here and thought I had found nirvana. But all of that happened over time, as I got used to the place and what the dishes were all about.
Despite trying a number of tasty items, my favourite quickly became a number 66. It was a bowl of vermicelli noodles with julienned carrots, cucumbers and green onions, along with some bean sprouts, grilled chicken slices or beef on a skewer, and pork belly, and a spring roll chopped into pieces. It was served with a little bowl of vinaigrette, a couple of lime wedges and a few sprigs of Thai basil.
I learned that the best way to attack this dish was to combine everything:
- tear up the basil leaves and toss them in the bowl
- pour the vinaigrette over the noodles
- squeeze the lime over the meat
- add a well-distributed amount of sriracha over the whole mess
- mix well with your chopsticks
The result was mouthfuls of refreshing, bold flavours with the exciting textures of veggies, meat and noodles and all of the possible tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and even umami). It was a masterpiece in a bowl.
For ten years this was a cherished meal. I couldn’t even tell you the name of the place; we just used to say, “Want to go for a number 66?” We had to change our slang when they renovated – it became a 55, but that and some new paint on the walls was all that changed. Then I moved away.
Thankfully, Kelowna has a few Vietnamese neighbourhood restaurants. I really like Pho Soc Trang. It’s amazingly similar, even being on the second floor like my old haunt in Calgary. The recipe is not exactly the same, but pretty close – it’s a number 61 here. They don’t serve the fresh Thai basil and lime, but the complex textures and flavours are still the best way to chase away the blues, or a cold, or even just clear the cobwebs in my head after a busy week.
My next step is to de-mystify “pho”, the now trendy Vietnamese noodle soup. I’ve had it a few times and would like to master how to enjoy it.
Isn’t it funny how something so unfamiliar can become a cozy friend? All it takes is a bit of trust and a sense of adventure. Go figure.
Yesterday I spoke of comfort food, and how the company that shares the food sometimes has a lot to do with the comfort we get. I am often singing the praises of sharing a meal to bring people together. But what about the times when we eat alone?
I don’t want to say that eating alone can’t be enjoyable; sometimes people want to have quiet time to themselves. What I am referring to are the times when we yearn for company but don’t have any. Then food can taste bland and one can feel much less than nourished after the meal.
Having been a person that didn’t fit in to a group most of my life, I can relate to the loneliness of not being popular as a kid and I remember feeling afraid that I wouldn’t make any friends at school. I was lucky, and found some great companions. I never ate lunch alone.
Sometimes it is the food that heals, and other times it is the company who helps us move forward. In a world of reality TV that promotes singling people out, where the pressure to fit in is even stronger than in generations past, we need to have friends with whom we can feel nourished. Who says that can’t start by “paying it forward” and making a new friend?
Perhaps my teenage memories are why I was so struck by a piece I saw on CBS Sunday Morning today. This show of mostly heartwarming news is always inspiring, and I especially love the stories from Steve Hartman. Mr. Hartman took over for the delightful Bill Geist in delivering tales of everyday heroes that offer hope and inspiration, and today’s entry was no different. #WeDineTogether is a wonderful group of young people… see for yourself:
I’d like to think this idea can spread, just like peanut butter and jelly in a sandwich. As Steve Hartman says, maybe the grown ups can learn just as the kids do. Perhaps we could extend the camaraderie from around the table to a philosophy of life. It’s just an idea.
II am at Girl Guide camp this weekend with the Sparks so there isn’t much time to write, but then I opened my packed lunch…
My wonderful hubby is looking out for me. He snuck the note in while i wasn’t looking 🙂 It reminds me of when I was a kid and my mom or dad (depending on who packed lunches that day) wrote notes on my napkin. Sometimes my friends teased me about it, but I didn’t mind. It was worth it.
I am so fortunate. Thank you, Hon. you made my day. I hope there is someone for you out there, dear Reader – someone who reminds you that you are loved. I’m going to make sure I pass the message along, too.
I just consumed the few edible parts of what was called a sandwich by a shop in Revelstoke that shall remain nameless as I hope this was an unusual occurrence. It has prompted me to write this post, thus preventing further such lunchtime tragedies. This sandwich was not quite as pathetic as a BLT I once had that was missing the bacon (1/3 of its identity!!) Dare I say there is such a thing as sandwich etiquette?
I’d like to offer up some simple tips for a successful sandwich:
- TAKE YOUR SANDWICH SERIOUSLY. If you own or work in a sandwich shop, eat your product and make sure it works. This should be good value food, something you are proud to share with others. If you are making a sandwich just for you, then take a minute to prepare something tasty that you will enjoy, not endure. Even a PB & J deserves a little respect 🙂
- If you are taking orders in an establishment that makes sandwiches, please TAKE THE ORDER CORRECTLY AND FOLLOW UP TO ENSURE IT GETS MADE CORRECTLY. (Do I sound like a Seinfeld episode?) I ordered a vegetarian sandwich on multigrain. My companion ordered turkey on white. I got vegetarian on white, and he got turkey on multigrain. I would have preferred waiting when the person handing over the bag discovered the error rather than eat something I didn’t order.
- When including vegetables such as cucumbers and tomatoes in a sandwich, SEASON WITH SALT AND PEPPER. Even when you’re using the freshest ingredients from your own garden, a touch of seasoning won’t hurt, and with the commercial groceries most establishments use, salt and pepper can be life savers in elevating the taste of the finished product.
- Remember, NOT ALL MEATS & CHEESES ARE CREATED EQUALLY. Choose one that fits the tenor of the rest of your sandwich. Tomatoes and lettuce from the garden deserve something more than a Kraft Single or a slice of processed turkey.
- For condiments and spreads, DISTRIBUTE EVENLY on the bread or wrap. If you’re going to count this item as a component that contributes to the flavour of your sandwich, then you want to taste it with every bite. Don’t be chinzy! (If it’s too expensive to spread all over, then don’t use it; otherwise you’re just teasing people.)
- BUILD YOUR SANDWICH PROPERLY so it holds together as you eat it. No one wants salami slapping on their chin, or tomaatoes and cheese sliding out the back end on the first bite.
- The bread or bun needs to hold together, not be so soft that a spread or other moist filling makes it go squishy. If it’s toasted, then don’t wimp out – make it crispy! Otherwise it’s just warm bread. Don’t use anything too crusty though, or you won’t be able to bite through the whole sandwich.
- Tomatoes, cucumber and other slippery ingredients need to be not-too-thick, or they will slide around too much. Try to put other ingredients in between two slippery ones if you have them.
- Lettuce works best if it’s in bigger pieces, or entirely shredded. Little torn bits don’t give even distribution.
- Bigger is not always better. You should be able to fit the entire width of the sandwich in your mouth, so you can taste the whole thing.
- PACK YOUR SANDWICH PROPERLY. If you’re not eating a sandwich immediately then this is an important element to enjoying it later.
- Squishy ingredients are best wrapped separately, to be added just before eating.
- Bread softens when wrapped, especially with added fillings, so consider that when choosing your bread in the sandwich-making phase.
- Don’t drop an apple on top of it. If you must pack harder things in with your sandwich, think about a plastic container, or pack those items under the sandwich in your lunchbox or bag.
- Be food safe. If your sandwich has dairy, meat or fish it should stay as close to fridge temperature as possible until you eat it. Use an insulated container and cold packs if need be.
Now, that’s not so hard, is it? Trust me, you won’t regret taking a moment to appreciate this simple portable meal. Show your sandwich some respect and you will feel better about yourself all day.
I am sending my column this week from Scotland, where we are busy sampling local fare.
Today we were in Stirling where we spent a few very interesting hours at Stirling Castle, a pivotal spot in many Scottish battles throughout history and the home to many well known monarchs. We even got to tour the great kitchens where they prepared the food for the people at the castle, armies and royals. (More about that in future columns.)
It was exciting to envision another time and what it must have been like but I was happy to head to a more modem place for lunch.
We stopped at a pub called Nicky Tams (a Scottish expression denoting your going-out duds, as in “this is a place you could wear your Nicky tams!”). The barman was most gracious and made us feel quite cozy. He recommended a local beer called Bitter and Twisted which was lovely, just like the humour on the label. That really put us in the mood for Scottish fare so it seemed appropriate to have “haggis, neeps & tatties”. For those of you who are not familiar with the Highland brogue, this refers to a traditional blood sausage served with mashed turnips & potatoes. For dessert, we shared a “cranocken”. It was a delightful and whimsical dish that mixed raspberries with a whiskey infused whipped cream and crumbled shortbread, then topped with a few roasted oats. It made me hum 🙂
As I sampled this taste of Scotland and thought about tradition, I remembered as a child eating Mom’s meatloaf with mashed turnips and potatoes. I wondered, was this some modern variation on a theme? And didn’t she make a dessert too, that was about taking strawberry jam and whipped cream with graham biscuits? It seems to me she used to say I was a favourite recipe of my Gran’s (great grandma) – she made it when my Gramps was little.
So are we taking bits of our culinary heritage along whether we like it or not? My Mom’s family, the McMurchys, left Scotland eight generations ago. My Gran was a pioneer, but in Canada, living in a mud house on the prairies when she was a young married woman. It doesn’t seem all that far fetched though, to think that all those generations would have looked to create similar meals if possible, and likely found some comfort in an adaptation of an old favourite.
I felt strangely warmed to know that perhaps I had completed a sort of culinary circle of time. Food is always a wonderful combination of having an adventure and coming home, and I had managed to do all of that. I bet tonight if I concentrate (or perhaps after a glass of good scotch) I may even see an ancestor or two in a back booth.
NOTE: The barman at Nicky Tams said there is an old fellow who haunts one of their back booths; the felllow’s granddaughter (now aged 80) was in the pub one day and mentioned that her grandad had been a regular and had in fact passed away one afternoon right in the middle of drinking his pint. Perhaps the beer is just good enough to make people believe such things… Or perhaps it is the power of the haggis, neeps and tatties 🙂