A Love Of Packet Food

I work from home. I’m not sure if that surprises you. I love the fact that I have absolute control over my physical working environment, but the thing I got excited about first – when I found out that I’d be working from home – was the fact that I would have access to my own kitchen. I have frequently worked in offices with well-equipped kitchens, but I was usually far too scared to use them.

Food is very important to me, and I love the freedom to eat precisely what I fancy when it is what I fancy eating. And quite often that is Ramen. It took me many years to pluck up the courage to take my noodle bowl in to my last office. When I did it was faintly embarrassing, but I got to eat one of my favourite lunches that day, and it came from a packet. Dried food, wrapped in plastic gets me.

Yesterday morning, for my breakfast, I had a Pot Noodle. I do so once a year or so, but suspect I may have another one next week. Just because I can. Yesterday I went for my usual favourite flavour – Chicken and Vegetable – but I had been tempted by the Bombay Bad Boy. I have heard great things, and I want to verify their veracity. Just add boiling water, and then stir a bit: it’s even hot and filling.

When I was a student, at least in my first year at St Andrews, we had certain meals where we had to fend for ourselves. Most of our meals were catered for (I’ve heard that the breakfasts were good, although I never experienced them in any university accommodation I ever lived in), but Saturday evening and Sunday lunches were uncatered. More often than not I would go to the chippy or get some sushi – but what I wanted more than anything was to use the little kitchen at the bottom of my building.

The kitchen was shared amongst the twenty or so boys who slept in the building. There was a small sitting room opposite. Both of these rooms were used by the boys with the social skills. There may have been a laundry at the back of the building. I was terrified by absolutely all of it for far too long.

What I wanted was to take a little pan, put a packet of pasta in to it, and cook it. Actually, what I really wanted was to cook a chilli or a stir fry, but I readjusted my sights. I would prepare the pan in my room, rush downstairs and heat it all up as fast as I could, and then run back up to my room to eat almost cooked pasta in a bucket of sloppy, pseudo creamy, sauce, replete with dried broccoli.

Initially I had tried cooking Ramen with water from the hot tap. It was far too crunchy, but I had to convince myself that I enjoyed it. There were times when I was too quickly cooking my packets of pasta and sauce that someone would show up in the kitchen and form a queue for the electric hob. It was my worst nightmare, and far more awkward than I could handle. Most people just ate out.

And yet I still remember the warm nourishment of that hot gluey mess on those cold Scottish days. I still have a packet of that same pasta and sauce in my cupboard downstairs – emergency food as I tend to think of it – and I am always half a mind away from pouring it in to a pan, along with the milk and the water it needs, and the butter that it doesn’t, and devouring it greedily. I love the stuff.

Similarly, I have two piles of packet noodles behind me. Not the ones known as ‘super’ – I never got the hang of their texture – but the ones which were invented in Japan to make use of the wheat flour the American government had donated to them after the Second World War. To some they are a food of utter desperation, but to me they represent culinary perfection and an infinity of choices.

I also have a few packets of dried, filled, tortellini. My, do these take me back. My mother and I used to get these years ago, boil them up and eat them with either condensed tomato soup, or just the ordinary stuff. Nowadays I tend to have them in spicy broth (stock gel and a dollop of gochujang in the partly absorbed cooking water – stir until dissolved), but they are still a favourite lunch for me.

They disappeared from the shelves in the UK for far too long, and I still haven’t been able to track them down yet. I spotted them in supermarkets on holidays in countries like Norway, Switzerland and – I know, right – Italy. I even had them in a particularly bad tourist trap restaurant in Sienna. I brought packets home from holidays with me until I realised I could buy them on the internet.

I could only buy 30 packets at a time, however, so I always have a good stock of them. If I want to expand them in to a lunch for two I can add in either a handful of frozen meatballs, courtesy of Ikea, or a handful of rocket and tomatoes. It’s less work eating a full packet with someone else. One of the things I have always loved about them is that there is always one piece which is uncooked. So tasty.

I have spent years obsessing over cups of soup – put the sachet in a mug, add boiling water, stir and wait for a day or two before you can start drinking it. In my poorer days they were multipacks, with the same thin, watery selection in each pack: Tomato, Vegetable, Beef & Tomato, and Chicken. I like a strong big mug of soup, so I would put two in to each cup. The problem was that there were only three of each of the four flavours in each pack, so it would always leave one loner of a sachet left.

In time I progressed to posher and posher soups. And by posher I mean that they had fancy flavours, like Thai Chicken or Golden Vegetable, and that they were thicker. Thicker soups always came with the risk that an undissolved glob of goo would be waiting for you at the end of the mug. Worth it.

And then there were the bits. Standard and posh soups always had two types of bits in them: dried cubes of vegetables and, holiest of holies, the croutons. I would chase them all around the mug as the soup itself cooled, burning my tongue on the still steaming, still crunchy lumps of joy. Then the satisfying pull of the soup itself; if the soup is cool enough you can down it in one glorious gulp.