It’s been a rough old few weeks for me lately and the prospect of finding somewhere for lunch before dropping Ian off at Luton Airport last Monday was unlikely to improve my mood. There was nowhere to stop between Ian’s parents’ house and the airport. Not on the M3, nor the M25, nor on that first stretch of the M1. Not a service station. Not a greasy spoon. Nothing.
Then we were at the airport and still there was nothing. Not even a petrol station with a Simply Food attached. So we kept driving towards Luton town centre. Surely we would find somewhere half decent, if only for a sandwich. Zilch. With time ticking on we decided to head for a car park and venture out on foot. maybe there would be a pub that had not been boarded up? Eventually we found an unprepossessing multistorey called The Mall. Surely, a shopping centre would have somewhere that sold food?
Pushing open the dark green steel doors from the car park our hearts lifted. We had, by accident, stumbled upon a kind of indoor market with a muddled range of goods on offer from saris to suitcases. Retailers sat on the threshold of their makeshift stalls on folding beach chairs and lifted their eyes half-heartedly as we approached. No food in sight. But then we noticed a butcher selling halal meat, another selling mezze. Wait, another was selling biryani and dhal and was packed with diners eating with their fingers off plastic plates. We could have anywhere in Asia.
“I can see nasi lemak!” called Sam making a beeline away from where Ian was drooling over the moutabl and flatbread towards where a tiny Asian was scraping a metal spoon noisily against the side of a wok. I was sold.
“Tiga nasi lemak!” I asked, filled with excitement. Could I really ask for three portions of the dish I missed most from our time in KL in the local language?
I couldn’t. The waitress was from China and only the cook spoke Bahasa Malay and he couldn’t hear me over that clanking.
“No one wants nasi lemak,” said the waitress. “Don’t have. But we have char kway teoy.”
Now fried flat rice noodles with prawns and beansprouts is another firm favourite and soon we were tucking in with nothing less than glee.
Food is so important to me and the discovery of the closest thing I have found to a real Asian food court or hawker centre was exactly what I needed to make me forget that my beloved father had passed away just two weeks earlier. In one fell swoop Luton redeemed itself.
And then, on my return to The Hague I noticed an invitation to learn to cook Vietnamese pho at my friend Pang’s. It was a no brainer and I took yesterday morning.
Grief is exhausting. Most days I can hardly find the energy to climb the stairs and the thought of having to be at Pang’s by 9 am on a Saturday seemed a step too far for me, but I knew I had to ‘get back on the horse’ sometime. Of course, I loved it and even found the strength somehow to lug home my huge bag filled with a pot of beef bones and veg ready to boil for the rest of the day until supper time. The aroma filled the house with the smell of promise and hope. Supper was indeed delicious and I had a spring in my step for the rest of the day.
And so I muse and wonder why these two episodes this week could have had such a profound effect on my flagging mood. Could it be because the food, from Malaysia and from Vietnam allowed me to travel a little in my mind to warmer climes and happier times? Could it be something to do with the boost of nostalgia? Or the multisensory experience that food can be – touching, tasting, smelling, seeing took me out of myself for a while? Or could it simply be that I allowed myself to feed two other significant parts of my soul for a while? The traveller foodie within?