A spoonful of sugar, and on dining alone.

Outside the UK, Jamie Oliver is probably England’s best known celebrity chef. Among other profitable business ventures, including Jamie’s Italian and a TV program about why British kids are so fat, he operates a chain of kitchen shop/cafes across London which sell Jamie branded products and run a series of popular cooking classes.

Despite some reservations about Jamie’s food,  his name just so happens to start with the letter J, which is convenient, because I’ve finally reached the letter J on my journey through London’s food alphabet. Japan also starts with that letter so faced with the impending expiry of a voucher for a cooking class at Recipease that I received for my birthday last year, I decided to learn how to make myself some ponzu.

Japanese food contains a BUTTLOAD of sugar. Did you know this? I didn’t. Every time I get (vegetarian) sushi, I feel like, so healthy, it’s almost badass. Chicken terikyaki is SO delicious, it must be all natural.

But I’m not. And it’s not. (I am kind of badass though – admit it)

I arrived solo for a 7 pm ‘Taste of Japan” lesson on a Tuesday night at the Clapham Junction shop. On the menu: chicken teriyaki, vegetable and prawn tempura, green vegetables with toasted sesame seed sauce, miso dofu, sticky japanese rice and cucumber pickle.

On the one hand, I was one of the first students there and enjoyed a peaceful glass of complimentary white wine while perusing the shop. On the other – I appeared to be the only person there alone. Since I had been given the voucher as a gift, I hadn’t really thought much about whether or not it would be weird to do something like this by myself. Well, as it turns out, it wasn’t.

Apart from me, present were two couples, two sets of girlfriends, and what appeared to be a posh bachelor party. And one other solitary woman whose daughter had bought her the class as a gift but couldn’t be bothered to accompany her poor mum. So she and I were paired together to begin our culinary adventure.

Wine # 1

We gathered around our work stations and received an introduction to Japanese food and cooking, and an overview of what we would be doing over the next 90 minutes – otherwise known as Lots of Sugar 101. I was a bit disappointed to find that the sushi rice (did you know this also contains sugar?) and the dashi stock had been pre-prepared, but understandable given the time constraints.

The instructor walked us through the first three things we would need to prepare: a ponzu dip for tempura, gomadare and teriyaki sauce. Gomadare, or sesame sauce, to the layperson, is super quick and easy, and goes on just about anything. It is sweet, salty and savoury all in one and can be used equally as a dip or dressing as a stir fry sauce or maybe you just want to eat it with a spoon. This recipe is a good place to start if you want to try it yourself – you can swap Japanese mayo for tahini and you can probably cut down on the sugar a bit.

Ponzu, otherwise known as vinegar punch is also super duper easy to make and rather versatile – after my class, a quick Internet search turned up this page and a shedload of interesting recipes to accompany this sauce (or the other way around, depending on how you look at it).

The word teriyaki is derived from the noun teri, which refers to the shine/lustre given by the sugar in the sauce, and yaki, which refers to the method of cooking. As I dumped four large dessert spoonfuls of sugar into the pot, I decided to open up a tab and order another glass of wine.

Wine #2.

We regrouped to be led through the next steps: cooking the chicken (which we did very slowly and at a very low heat, once I figured out how to operate the fancy magnetic induction cooktop), making the tempura batter and pickling the cucumber. This was the easy part – cucumbers basically pickle themselves (just scoop out the seeds, chop, add salt and set aside) and add iced perrier/soda water to your dry mix for the batter (Jamie pre-prepared this for me himself) and mix until combined yet still a bit lumpy.

As in many other areas of my life (high school exams, university exams, post-grad exams, cocktail parties) I was one of the first to finish. My partner and I were speedy gonzales (after we exchanged niceties and I convinced her to be the one to rip the heads off the prawns) and the first to arrive at the deep fryer.

“If you’re afraid to use the deep fryer – well, you should be,” the instructor explained. I thought about the many reasons why a grease burn would not match with a wedding dress, and offered to tend to our slowly bubbling and thickening teriyaki sauce, while my partner dipped and swooshed and deep fried the hell out of our battered vegetables and crustaceans.

Want to hear a prawn joke?

Q: Why wouldn’t the shrimp share his treasure?

A: Because he was a little shellfish.

Wine #3

Our food complete – chicken gloriously glazed, cooked spinach loaded with gomadare, little rice bundles decorated with sesame seeds (this part we did ourselves) and pretty little purple flowers – we plated up. I felt like I was on Masterchef, except I was the one who got to eat my food. Tables set for two and four were nicely set arranged the back of the shop for the eager Jamie wannabes, which meant, of course, that I would be dining with my cooking buddy, name still unknown after three quarters of a bottle of chardonnay, rather than alone.


What is the big deal about dining alone, anyway?

On my last visit to Bangkok, one quiet night I installed myself on a bench at one of the nice open-air restaurants on Soi Rambuttri with a book, which I would inevitably fail to read while I ate my pad thai and people-watched. A man in his mid-to-late thirties was sitting next to me, seemingly doing the same.

“Do you have a lighter?” He asked, in some kind of European accent. Nope, sorry. End of, right? Not.

“Would you like to join me for dinner?” He asked, assuming that I did not want to eat alone. In fact, I’d already ordered.

“No, thank you,” I replied, much to his surprise. Baffled, he turned to the woman on his other side, who was wearing a much smaller dress and perhaps was more likely to acquiesce.

For some reason, there’s a horrible stigma attached to eating alone. Table for one? “Friendless loser.” “All this poor girl in life has is her book.” Scoffing a sandwich with your feet up in a toilet stall in your office so no one will know is one thing, but grabbing a meal by yourself isn’t as scary as you would think it is. In fact, it can even be a little bit empowering, and guess what, the food will taste the same.

More young adults live alone than ever before, and many choose to eat in restaurants alone because it makes them happy, so try not to stare at them as if they have a third nipple (although if you can see their nipples in a restaurant, that’s a whole ‘nother story) and admire the fact that some people eat out for the love of food, and their own company. In a recent article in the BBC, Ottawa restaurateur Stephen Beckta said that fine dining establishments should see a solo diner as “the greatest compliment a restaurant can receive.”

I know if I owned my own restaurant


I certainly would.

In any case – on this particular night I ate alone with someone else, and had an excellent time.

Speaking of Masterchef (I know, I went on a bit of a tangent there about nipples) I was lucky enough that before I had the time to write up my Recipease experience, none other than 2011 Masterchef winner Tim Anderson set up his pop-up southern Japanese restaurant Nanban at Market House bar in Brixton and I was even luckier to snag a table early on Thursday last week.

I like ramen. Who doesn’t? But this ramen – I can’t help but agree with Chef’s slogan that “a little Tim goes a long way.” For a tenner, I was presented with a bowl of noodle soup which nearly changed my life. I opted for the brown stew chicken ramen – a spicy tomato broth, pulled chicken, thick bouncy noodles with serious star power, scotch bonnet chilies and a cooked egg. Duncan chose the kumatomo ramen – tonkotsu broth with pork belly, a marinated tea egg and fried garlic chips.

photo 2-3

Not only was this the best ramen I’d ever had, but I got to watch a real live celebrity chef cook it right in front of me – it seems as if I’m always reminding out of town guests that Jamie Oliver is not the one cooking in his Italian outlets country-wide. The cherry on top was watching Chef Anderson greet his in-laws, who were seated a few tables over. I had no doubt we were in good hands.

Tim Anderson is in residence at Market House in Brixton until August 31st.

Need to know (it’s a pretty fun bar at all times):

Market House Bar 

443 Coldharbour Lane

0207 095 9443

Nearest tube: Brixton

Opening Hours: Mon-Weds 3pm-11pm, Thursday 3pm-12 am, Friday 3pm-3 am, Saturday 12pm-4 am, Sunday 12pm – 11 pm.