Monday, 10 January 2011

Monday conundrum

We were idly chatting in the pub on Friday about our student diets, and my thoughts turned to the menu were I to host a dinner party based on my undergraduate cuisine (1993-1996).

First year was easy: I was still vegetarian, and no cook. Life was far too interesting to stay in the kitchen (other than at parties), and so I lived mostly on bags of carrots and the crisps which inevitably accompanied beer (real ale from the start apart from the occasional vodka and frequent recourse to Chateau Manville from Kwik's: 99p a bottle for this mid-strength perry; I assumed the Chateau was a derelict house in Bolton, and even then suspected that the plastic 'cork' wasn't a sign of quality). This was also the year I was introduced to the curry, a life-long love affair. Our local takeaway was the Shahin in Bangor, run by some Bangladeshis who'd moved first to Sweden then to North Wales (they left Scandinavia for a British education - the fools). In return for helping the teenage lad with his homework a couple of times, excellent free curries were occasionally proffered.

Gradually my palate widened, mostly thanks to housemates with a) cooking skills and b) parents who would pack them off to university with a big box of frozen home-made meals. Left to myself, I bought packets of Sos-Mix vegetarian 'meat' and such things. Other meals I'm particularly ashamed of are packets of dried pasta in dehydrated sauced (Knorr? Batchelor?) which were completely disgusting and took longer to cook than actual pasta in real sauce, the same stuff with rice and Fray Bentos pies served with oven chips.

I think I started eating meat again by the end of first year, and so second year saw an explosion of taste. Suddenly, the world of disgusting cheap frozen food was open to me, mostly sourced from Kwik-Save, Farmfoods and Iceland. Cardboard pizzas. Chicken Kievs, Scampi. 4p loaves of white bread (brown was compulsory at home, so white felt, to quote Mark Corrigan, like pudding -  for a while). Every student kitchen I shared had the obligatory 10kg sack of rice: basmati when I got the chance, horrible brown rice if someone else bought it. Marmite (on crumpets, another verboten foodstuff at home) formed a large part of my diet - the vitamins in that alone kept me alive, and I gradually picked up some culinary skills from housemates. So did Kwik-Save's huge, cheap bags of Broken Biscuits. Mmm.

The joy of being completely new to cooking was that there were no rules. I could put any flavour with any food and be happy. One of my favourite treats was a novel twist on Italian: cooking a good plateful of salted spaghetti, then putting it in the microwave with a bar of Dairy Milk perched proudly on top. I recently bought a bar of Lindt's plain chocolate with salt flakes - sadly, it failed to reproduce the deliciousness of my own invention. The vanilla alternative was vats of macaroni cheese which would last a week.

Sometimes, I'd wildly and randomly swing from cheap horrible food to stupidly extravagant ones. We'd buy steak fairly often, but occasionally I'd appear with a slab of venison and a greedy grin. I have no idea from whence it came, but it was good - probably reduced at the supermarket on Sunday afternoon, just before closing time. I also had my first prawns and mussels at the Bangor Mussel Fair down the docks, and acquired a wok for interminable stir-fries.

I actually can't remember when I started to cook properly. Vegetables did appear at some point, often from Cefni Fruits, the Pot Noodle of grocers: rotting rubbish bought at the wholesalers when the other grocers had gone home with the good stuff. Old Man Cefni was a mean and uncaring character. The windowless rooms above the shop he (illegally) rented to my friends stank of decay, corruption and desperation, to which they could do no more than acquiesce.

Needless to say, I put on roughly 4 stone between fresher's week and graduation, most of which is still, unfortunately, with me. I literally don't remember ever thinking about the health implications of anything which passed my lips, and discovering that I had a gut and needed jeans in more than a 28" waist was a huge mystery. I did give up alcohol for some years but not for health reasons: I was just bored.

Right, your turn. If you're a student, on what are you dining? If you're past that, or never went to university, what did you eat in those early years of independence?

Of course, this is the perfect excuse to play these: it'll happen to you!


Ewarwoowar said...

I live at home so sadly all those culinary delights have avoided me.

Sadly however I've put on so much weight over Christmas. I particularly enjoy it when family members comment on that, and then hand me a present which will consist of one form of chocolate or another. Yeah, thanks guys.

The Plashing Vole said...

They're called 'enablers', Ewar. They're responsible. Sue them.

I'm off swimming today for the first time since last term. It won't be pretty.

Anyway, Ewar, are you claiming that you don't cook AT ALL, because you live at home?

Ewarwoowar said...

Not really. My dear old mother does the evening meal, and offering to do it (not that I would, LOL) would cause a full-blown interrogation as to what was wrong with her offerings.

At lunchtime I'm either out and about or I just have a cheese and ketchup sandwich.

neal said...

My first year was fully catered, which is probably just as well. In the second year I moved into a house with friends who could either already cook or wanted to learn, so I started cooking from scratch straight away. The area I lived in in Leicester had loads of Asian grocers and butchers which I loved, stocked to the ceiling with spices, boxes of coriander leaves and lots of unusual vegetables like karellas and moolis to try out. Wednesday night was curry night. Me and my housemate would cook for another couple of our mates who lived in another shared house then we’d go to there’s the next week. This got quite competitive, so we got quite good, bought recipe books trying to find something different for the following week.

My housemate then got a part time job at the local fishmongers so we got lots of cheap fish. I remember having lobster, scallops, monkfish, carp etc. In my final year we discovered there was a Waitrose a few miles out into the suburbs, with a pub next to it that had a novelty L-shaped pool table. Every Friday we’d walk over, play some pool until 5, when we’d go to Waitrose and follow the guy round who reduced the prices on all the stuff that was going to go off. The go home with our bounty and cook a feast. We once persuaded them to give us a pack of spare ribs we’d found that was a week out of date, pleaded that we wouldn’t come back to them if we got ill, we were of course fine.

The Plashing Vole said...

That's fantastic Neal - really lucky and ambitious. I developed a taste for Okra - first from the curry house and then cooked at home. Haven't had any for ages. I must get down to the market.

Zoot Horn said...

I didn't know you were in Leicester as a student Neal! I did even better - my partner when I was a student (and for the next 20 years) was a Leicester-born Punjabi culinary expert, so I did the prep. and she did the cookin... which left me a bit half-educated when we split up, but I can still knock up a decent paneer or dahl dish (no animals I'm afraid) and okra is one of my faves too! - but I'm scared to try it now in case it goes all gumbo. Bitter gourd, stuffed with caramelised onions and then fried to death again, with cucumber yogurt and fresh chapatis (singe those cuticles on the gas ring) was my fave. We spent about a tenner a week on food in the east midlandsand lived like west midland foodies.

neal said...

yeah, Leicester was a great place to be a student, two university city, lots to do. When I look back I find it amazing that we did so much on so little money. I can't have spent much more than a tenner on food a week either and ate really well.

I love paneer, I like to fry it first so it goes all crispy on the outside, most restaurants just seem to lob it in. Okra can sometimes go a bit slimey but is still good.

Zoot Horn said...

Bitter gourd is good - actual name is karela - it looks like a small lizard until you stuff it and fry it. Never noticed it on a menu come to think of it... You need at least two on a plate and it's an acquired taste, but I love it. Might have a go sometime - I'll let you know if I do!

Imaginary Friend said...

I'd forgotten about okra- we always had a bhindi bhaji to accompany our curries. Haven't had one in years.
I wonder whether the lounge ceiling at Friars Road is still littered with dents from the Chateau Manville corks? That stuff was vile.
Those were the days.

The Plashing Vole said...

They certainly were. I'm definitely going to buy Okra this week. Never liked Karela though - it reminded me of savoury melon. Too watery and a bit bitter. Mooli never did anything for me either.

neal said...

Zoot, next time I see you I'll get that Kerela recipe off you, it's been ages since I've had it.

Moolis are just a massive white radishes, can't see how anyone can't like that.

Zoot Horn said...

No prob Neal - but how's vole cookin' them? Watery? Fry them til they're black is the only way I know them - never done 'em any other way.

Sinéad said...

For a few years towards the end of college and just afterwards, I lived with a couple of guys who subsisted entirely on (a) supernoodles and sausages or (b) instant lasagne sandwiches.
Me? I ate tuna mixed with sweetcorn, cayenne pepper and mayonnaise on toast with cadbury's caramello and coffee for dessert. And spent the 5 years after graduation trying to undo that lack of culinary effort.