My Eastern Promise

As the summer draws to a close, I look back and reflect at how zanily hectic the last few months have been. Probably one of the busiest summers I’ve ever had with visitors flying in out from overseas, my own holidays and business trips and far too many commitments, for a girl to have to juggle!  So does that mean that my travelling is coming to an end?  (Sigh…) Well not exactly.  Having just come back from the South of France, I’m being sent back there for a work event, followed by a few days in Paris, also at an event.  But real holiday time, it is not, so the traveller in me remains unsatisfied.

I don’t like making New Years resolutions. Instead I like to call them ambitions and one of this years ambitions, was to visit a new country that I had not done so before.  I accomplished this (minor) feat when I went to Cyprus back in June. But I have now decided to venture beyond the safer Euro-destinations and fulfil one of my greatest ambitions… to travel around the Far East as much as possible, or certainly as much as my boss will allow me!  I have allocated 3 weeks for the trip of a lifetime.  Korea, Japan, China/Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam & Cambodia are all confirmed destinations.  Yes, I know… It will be 3 weeks of sheer madness and tiring travel, but an excellent opportunity to join some of my cousins has arisen and I’d be a fool not to go, especially as much of my favourite foods come from this part of the world.

I am currently obsessed with Korean food.  The mere thought of it (often whilst I’m at work) has me conjuring up escape routes out of the office whilst convincing myself that I could get to that particular restaurant and be back within an hour or so.  Crazy, I know.  But by now you should know that food is my ‘Grand seducer’ and I am a slave to its rhythm.  Also, lest we forget, it is why I’m a little chunkier than I should be… But don’t be scared, bar the occasional holiday-related lapse, I’m still very much sticking to my Weight Watchers plan and the update is that I have now lost 28lbs.  In the meantime, there is always room for Oriental food in my diet…  Although I’m careful to avoid the saturated fat coconut-fest that is Thai cuisine.  It’s a big no-no for me.

Korean food gets a green light from me.  In Korean restaurants, you order a selection of your favourite meats… mine are Spicy Pork, Spicy Squid and Beef Bulgogi (Bulgogi is a national dish of a simple sweetened soya marinade usually for meat or poultry) A scorching gas-charged hot plate is ignited at your table. Most of what you order is cooked in front of you, which is always a delight for me.  The smell of delicate slivers of meat, charring on the intense heat of the grill giving off wafts of sticky sweet scents, ready for the awaiting table of salivating patrons.  No meal is complete without Kimchi, which is a 3000 year old ‘Banchan’ (or side dish) of chilli and vinegar marinated Chinese cabbage with some garlic and onion thrown into the fiery mix.  It’s essential for me to have my own portion of this when chowing down on my rice and meat.  Admittedly, my first taste of Kimchi did take some getting used to (it has a certain ‘fizzy’ quality – trust me, you will know what I mean, when you eat it!) but I love it and it is actually good for you.  I also enjoy a special spring onion salad that has a sesame oil marinade to it.  Again, a great Banchan.  Other dishes include delicious glass noodles with vegetables and beef in a sweet sauce, sizzling hot clay bowls with rice and meat, whereby they crack an egg into the bowl in front of you and the heat of the bowl cooks it thoroughly and it resembles a kind of stir fried rice.  Simply mouth-watering.   

I must admit, I definitely know more about Chinese, Thai and Japanese food than I do about Korean.  But I guess this is why my trip is going to prove so useful.  I am going to eat my way through the Far East! God help my waist line.  Perhaps I can offset some of the damage I do in Korea and Thailand by eating sensibly in Japan…?  Probably not, but it’s a nice thought.  Japanese food is one of my diet staples.  I cannot function without sushi.  Admittedly, i play my selection very safely… I like anything containing regular tuna (not Toro/Belly tuna) and shrimp (or Ebi).  Occasionally I will eat yellow tail and try any other fish that looks non-threatening, but tuna is definitely my favourite.  One of my favourite London restaurants is Nobu (Berkeley Street branch), they do so many wonderful things with tuna, so it’s very easy to stay on the diet there.  But I’m definitely not able to fritter my salary on endless nights at Nobu and so I have found a fabulous Japanese restaurant near my office, that also curbs my cravings.    

One of my all time favourite foods on the planet used to be Chinese food.  My Mother always joked that I was part-Chinese because I could eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner (literally!)  This was probably over a decade ago and also pre-gall bladder extraction.  So now the grease and MSG forces me to be incredibly selective about where I eat and how often I eat it.  But I can eat Dim Sum, which is one of my favourite things about Chinese food and the great news is that if I stick to the assorted steamed seafood dumplings, it’s perfectly in line with Weight Watchers!  I have been happily gorging on Dim Sum (within reason, of course) for the past 4 months since I started dieting and it hasn’t affected my weight loss one iota.  

Sitting in my apartment today, all this thought of the Far East made me conjure up one of my favourite cold noodle dishes (taken from Nigella Lawson’s ‘Forever Summer’ book) consisting of 250g of Japanese Soba noodles (made from Buckwheat), with a simple dressing of 75g of toasted sesame seeds, 5 finely chopped spring onions, 5 teaspoons of soya sauce, 2 teaspoons of rice/white wine vinegar, 2 teaspoons of toasted sesame oil and 2 teaspoons of clear honey.  Boil the noodles per the pack instructions (about 8 minutes into salted boiling water) then drain and wash with cold water and in a bowl, add all the dressing ingredients and mix well, toss in spring onions, add cold noodles and sesame seeds and mix using your hands to ensure noodles are evenly coated.  That’s all you need to do. Nigella advises that you are supposed to leave it to absorb the dressing for 30 minutes or so, but also adds that this doesn’t always happen as you may not be able to avoid eating it instantly… And she is right!  My noodles didn’t make it to 2 minutes of resting, let alone 30!

I’m still hungry and it’s not yet my normal dinner time.  So how do i follow a Soba noodle salad?  My Mother always said I ate like a pregnant woman, in the sense that I could combine weird foods together and find bliss in their union… and for once, she is right.  So looking in my fridge, I crave something sweet and something salty. Watermelon and feta cheese salad I think!  Not the best accompaniment to a Japanese cold noodle salad, but I’ve learnt to grab my happiness in any way, shape or form… and for me, this is blissful, unadulterated, bank-holiday weekend happiness!  It may not be entirely Oriental, but can Watermelon/Feta salad be classed as dessert? In my world it can!  For now, I have to keep my funky combinations restricted to London although the ‘holiday fund’ has now been started and I’m going to buy Korean and Japanese phrasebooks soon. I shall rely on my Chinese friends for help with Cantonese and Mandarin lingo though.

My trip isn’t actually until January, so I have a long way to go… but I plan on immersing myself in the study of far eastern food, so when I do go, I know exactly where I want to go and what I want to eat.  After all, for me, it’s about sight-seeing and the all important discovery and consumption of all things weird and wonderful!  I am brimming with premature excitement which I cannot contain….  Perhaps another trip to the Korean restaurant is needed?  Although I was there only yesterday!  Move out of my way!  Bulgogi… Here I come!

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