Crispy prawn toasties on request
Like many a tale full of Eastern promise, this one starts with gentle string instruments, far-flung shores, and melodious waters. Or, at least that was the mood evoked by background music on our local Chinese takeaway’s website. Memories of greedily consuming deep-fried prawn on toast at misnomered “Chinese” restaurants in Bangladesh triggered many a craving during my first year of university. Motivated to fulfil this hunger, irregular orders were made but there was always something lacking (spoilers: Bangladeshi prawns are fabulous, and restaurants were liberal in their use of MSG). To remedy this disappointment I theorised that it could be made at home, and bettered (but not battered, ideally). This must have been uttered as a verbal declaration since a friend and course-mate said she would eagerly await my attempt at “prawn toasties”. Looking back, it is highly likely this is where my mused-out-loud food tangent tics started. It is a blessing, and a burden.
Having warmed up with Thai green curry and discovered the joys of communal cooking, ambitions to increase numbers of hungry mouths and helpful hands were justified: excitement mounted as I realised this would be my first hosted dawaat. Plans were drawn up, pre-Facebook invitations were distributed, and my first ever menu manifested as an Asian meal of various starters, boiled rice, noodles, Thai green curry (if it ain’t broken, et cetera), and stir-fried vegetables. The nature of dessert eludes me as I think back to that time, but it was a trifling matter compared to one person’s excitement for prawn toasties. It may also have been a trifle.
On a crisp Friday in December, last lectures concluded, our motley crew assembled at my halls of residence to prepare for a food shopping trip - the most substantial I had been on to date. Trollies were laden with all manner of ingredients as well as a large number of pre-made starters (a source of utter shame, now) which included subpar potato samosas, stringy chicken satay, and beastly onion bhaji (think of an onion bora without verve, a pathetic pakora). Naturally, all of these were demolished with glee, aided and abetted by our then-underdeveloped tastes. Returning to that legendary kitchen, our end of term party started, setting a template that is continued to this day.
For those about to eat, we salute you
Every edible item ended up in a haphazard tumble on the elongated dining table (seats 10), occasionally coaxed into proximity with related ingredients. One of my closest friends who lived in the same building went to procure entertainment: a pair of angular speakers with a box subwoofer - wired and oh-so retro, naturally - and a laptop full of music of dubious acquisition. Chopping boards were acquired (some borrowed from unwary corridor-mates - yes, everyone is a type of mate here, mate), knives (barely, if you recall the last time this happened) were brandished, and cooking began with a song and dance (literally). As this was not your mum’s (or mine, to be fair) deshi dawaat, a friend started to expertly juggle mushrooms while I engaged in a mock sword fight with wooden spatulas. Rightfully sensing that dinner would not be served at a reasonable time, the more intelligent one amongst us decided to ignore the general brouhaha and started quietly snacking; now the host of our annual Christmas dos, he is always prepared with simpler, filling dishes as a pre-emptive method to abate hunger, and no, I am not offended at all. These vignettes still play through my mind on colder days, and warm me up with memories of laughter and camaraderie.
It was time to make good on my prawn pact, my crustacean commitment. The friend who was most anticipating this dish started to cut cheap white bread (we didn’t have a day to make it stale - now, I recommend toasting briefly in a just-warm oven, and using denser bread) into triangles, leaving in crusts for added crunch. Pre-cooked prawns were also from the economical end of the spectrum, but sufficiently plump and subtly sweet: these were chopped and minced into yet another failed attempt at making a paste. Mixed with sliced spring onions, diced ginger, nutty sesame oil, and lashings of soy, it was still in very real danger of being consumed then and there. A future flat-mate started whisking up eggs to act as a binding agent while some of us teased him on the juxtaposition of his posh, polished accent, and street-savvy (read: baggy) clothing. Once the prawn not-paste was spread on sliced toast, the whisked egg was gently dribbled over and allowed to soak in.
The only item I regret now is not being properly cognizant of a dear friend’s dietary requirements. A year later at another halls of residence would see an even bigger get-together (so many that we had to sit down on the floor in a narrow corridor, chattering away) where I made sure the Thai green curry was vegetarian. Thanks to this friend, I learned a thing or many about being inclusive.
Ain’t no fling without a chicken wing
With the prawn toasties ready to be deep-fried, other items were simultaneously prepared. Pre-made starters crisped away in one of the chunky ovens (which would later scar me for life), and Thai green curry bubbled away in a large wok. Rice was handled by a rice cooker (of a mechanical nature), dishes were washed by a dishwasher (of a human nature), and the noodles were stir-fried and immersed in gravy (of a nutty nature). Poor planning resulted in having to wait for the wok to be freed up and washed for the vegetables, but it meant I had more time to mingle. The highlight dish for me was not even on my own menu, contributed by a friend who my mum once said would contemplate adopting (maybe even in lieu of me). Chicken wings were marinated in a disarmingly simple concoction of soy and honey, and then grilled into a portable machine which is the mainstay of nearly every university-faring student in the UK. Although the machine was designed to let excess oils drip away, the skin had crisped up and withheld some of its lipids - with the first bite, it broke allowing deliciously deadly, liquefied chicken fat to burst through, mingling beautifully with sweet and salty marinade. Alas, the metabolism of late teens, I miss you so.
As suddenly as these plans had started, weeks ago, they rapidly began to resolve to a conclusion. With all items ready and piping hot, everyone sat down to gobble up the food; prawn toasties received a stellar reception and a quiet request, mid-chew: “Can you keep making these for me?” (And I did indeed keep making these for years, but those are stories for another time). Stir-fried vegetables were a little more sour than I had liked, and the noodles had become soggy, but at least Thai green curry was a tad more refined than my debut - and I was the only one complaining, thankfully. Bellies comfortably filled, albeit later than ideal, and someone’s suggestion of enjoying nightlife vetoed, we all sat down to watch the inimitable “Kung Pow! Enter the Fist”, equal parts groaning and laughter carrying down the quiet corridor. Later, an already-wonderful evening was rendered near-perfect as a few of us ambled into the massive shared reception room late at night, and booted up a copy of Halo 2 (officially termed “Haloage”) to play around a flickering screen. To these friends forged in the fires of first year (Derek, Varsha, Viral, Preeti, Hakan, Wing, Samir, Daryl, Lyle - I met others later, and you will feature) who are as close as family: thank you for welcoming me into your lives, and allowing me to make you all happy with my food ever since.