Boarding school: hardly something synonymous with cultural diversity, horizon-broadening or wildly new experiences. Nonetheless, it was in my year nine dorm at the establishment I called “home” for five years that my eyes were opened to a ritual that has come to shape my culinary outlook ever since: the Chinese takeaway.
Growing up on the edge of a village so small that most of my friends still struggle to believe it has mains electricity, my childhood self considered takeaways an treat reserved exclusively for metropolitan city dwellers like those I worshipped from Friends. The closest I got to this experience was our weekly fish and chip van pilgrimage, but standing in the rain watching someone throw pale, half-cooked chips into splattering hot oil never seemed to posses what I imagined to be the magic of someone arriving on the doorstop as if from nowhere with a selection of hot, specially prepared exotic food.
So it was that, sitting cross legged on the floor of the room I shared with four other girls, my excitement escalated as we waited for the big moment.
The event had been planned meticulously in advance. The week before, a friend had obtained menus for nearby takeaways, and those in the know (which turned out to be pretty much everyone but me) set about comparing the relative merits and prices of the different establishments, finally settling on the Jasmine Garden because “you get free prawn crackers with every order and they have pictures on the menu”.
It was decided that we would go for a mixture of things, so everyone could share, and this suited me perfectly; the prospect of having to choose alone between dishes as mysterious as kung-po, chow mein and foo yung was not one I would have looked forward to. Once the call had been made, preparations were made for the grand arrival, each of us rifling through the makeshift kitchens for plates, knives and forks with which to delve into our meals.
Then the phone rang.
Playing it cool around the other girls for whom this was a regular, unremarkable experience, I traipsed downstairs to the front door, watching in awe as the exchange took place, £19.50 for two white plastic bags filled to the brim with plastic boxes. Where to begin?
It seemed everyone else was starting with the prawn crackers, so naturally I did the same, dipping my first into a pot of sauce I later would come to recognise as hoi-sin. A sucker for all things with the slightest hint of sugar, I was swept away by the sweetness of the sticky brown sauce that coated the airy, crisp white cracker, and soon devoured several more.
Then began the main event. Everyone set about piling spoonfuls of the immense array of dishes onto their plates, as if following a minutely choreographed routine of this-red-sauce-poured-over-that, these-spring-rolls-dipped-in-this, which I quickly realised I would never manage to fully comprehend first time around. Instead, painfully aware that the longer I took the less I would get to try, I threw hazard to the wind and set about choosing dishes at random and arranging them carefully in separate mounds around the edge of my plate, the egg-fried rice heaped in the middle to avoid cross-contamination; it seemed essential to me that if I were to fully appreciate this experience I ought be able to distinguish between each of its various components, a habit I am prone to slip back into from time to time even now.
My mind soon set to work attempting to compile a hierarchy of each new taste, privileging the lemon chicken, partly because of the amazing golden crispiness on the outside, mostly because Zoe, who was unbelievably cool and had already had 3 boyfriends, said it was her favourite. It is only now that my older self draws more cynical conclusions about the origins of its gelatinous yellow sauce that looked and tasted so much like citrus washing up liquid.
A close second was the crispy duck pancakes, undoubtedly I was won over by the DIY element of pile, drizzle, sprinkle, roll (the one rule I managed to pick up that evening, and which I still follow religiously even now), and they, along with the heavenly golden triangles that are sesame prawn toasts, remain a personal favourite.
Since that night, many a Chinese takeaway as found itself in front of me, and though the bland uniformity of flavour of most dishes so promisingly described by many a menu means few subsequent meals have been the gastronomic eye-opener of that first time, the thrill of opening the door to a hot, additive infused, meal is something that retains the power to banish the fear of even the worst essay-induced crisis.