Commonplace Vol. 3 Issue 2
In which the writer talks about having the House Special Curry delivered to the door
Hello! It’s (already) being (another) interesting year, in terms of current events. I suspect that most of us are getting to a state where we’d rather not live in historically significant times, so I’m not even going to touch on much of that in this issue. If you’ve still some spoons to spare for that, watch out for an upcoming issue of Gentle Decline. Instead, I’m going to talk about food delivery, and specifically, cooked food delivery, takeaway, not groceries. Because there is very little to compare to the comfort of going “the hell with it, I am not cooking tonight” and ordering pizza. Or Chinese. Or Indian.
[ Commonplace is an occasional newsletter about food and food history. Drew, who needs to eat as well as read and ramble, has a Patreon page, about which people have said some nice things of late. Show your support, enable Drew’s book-buying habit, and get a look at the behind-the-scenes thinking on both this newsletter and Gentle Decline. Sign up today! ]
Food delivery has been a slowly growing thing in Ireland for the last three decades or so. When I moved to Dublin in the late 90s, there was a Chinese restaurant in every area which would deliver once you phoned them and told them what you wanted, and had cash on hand to pay for it. If you were lucky, you lived in an area which had two. If you were very lucky, there was also a pizza place. This was in extremely stark contrast to my homeplace in Bunclody; there was nowhere that would deliver. Quite possibly there was nowhere in the county that would do so. If you wanted takeaway, you could go to one of the two chippers in the town, and walk out with it, and that was it.
Now, on any given evening of the week, and living on the edge of the greater Dublin area, there are about 30 places that will deliver to my front door. These include Chinese, Japanese, Asian Fusion, Middle Eastern, Pizza, Indian, Balkan, Mexican, Thai, several chippers, and the deli counters in at least two local convenience shops. You can order via the Just Eat app, or you can work your way through the places’ own websites, many of which are powered by Flipdish. You can get special discounts for not using Just Eat. And further into the city, you have Deliveroo (who, in terms of visibility of their delivery people, are all over) and various other services. Apparently drone deliveries will be happening soon too. This plentitude has sort of snuck up on us; there wasn’t any sudden explosion. And even relatively rural places have a few delivery options now; most villages have at least a couple of takeaways that will deliver to 8 or 10km away.
Some - I think still most - of these are actual restaurants where you can go in and sit down. Others have retail counters, but no sitting space. And probably a few are “ghost kitchens”, which is the fascinating name given to delivery services that don’t have a retail presence. Ghost kitchens are seen as some sort of problem by many writers; there seems to be a feeling that they’re not as good as “real” food businesses. For my part, I don’t see a lot of difference between a ghost kitchen and the Chinese place in Kilcock, which is just outside the bus route limits (though well within train and car commuting range), and therefore has little foot traffic and a lot of delivery. Although presumably the workers in the ghost kitchens have fewer evenings when they have to throw drunk customers out of the shop at closing time. The rent in Kilcock is probably a notch less, too.
This leads to an incredible availability of food. There are are parameters of opening hours and likely delivery times (and some of the restaurants are slow about it; the sushi place one town over took more than two hours to get food to us a couple of weeks ago), and while you can get all those cuisines you can’t necessarily get specific dishes, but by and large, you can get nearly any kind of food you can think of in under an hour.
Is it healthy to eat takeaway all the time? Like cooking for yourself, it depends on what you’re eating. If you’re eating nothing but battered sausages and chips, with ketchup as the vegetable, then no, it is not healthy. If you’re getting sushi and dhal and salads, then it’s probably pretty good, really. The method of acquisition has little bearing on its health or otherwise.
There’s a degree to which you get what you pay for. My first memories of getting delivery food, which was Chinese, had most dishes around a fiver - five pounds, at the time - with rice included. 30 years of inflation on top of that have put the same dishes at or above ten euros - which is actually a bit below the broad inflation rate. On that basis, the cost of delivery food has gone down. Delivery fees are now normal, and used not to be, so I expect that that’s kept the prices roughly even in real terms. But the chipper and the pizzas are cheap, and the sushi is expensive, and everything else falls in between.
And in the midst of all this glorious variety, what do I order? I order the same six or so dishes, depending on cuisine, that I have always ordered. If it’s Chinese, I want the house special curry (chicken, beef, pork, prawn) with fried rice, and sesame prawn toast. Maybe chicken balls instead of the sesame prawn toast, if I’m unusually hungry. Pizza comes pretty much exclusively from Pizza Dog, because they’ll do a pizza with garlic butter instead of pizza sauce, and then I order the Meat Special. It probably has some other name, but it’s basically four kinds of meat on the pizza. Indian is invariably chicken tikka masala, with pilau rice, and saag aloo if they have it, and saag something else if they don’t. We’ve ordered from the Balkan place exactly twice, but I know fine well that I’ll be ordering the beef rolls next time.
This seems to be because, despite my never having tasted most of these things until I was at least 19, takeaway forms itself into comfort food for me. It is effortless; there is no washing up (or very little); and most importantly, it is predictable. Unlike many autistic people, I am broadly ok with variety and difference in my food, although I usually want to know what it is a few hours in advance - or at least, know that I won’t know. Because these meals are reliably the same from one occasion to the next - with some very slight variation depending on which chef is in the Chinese kitchen this evening, say - I can switch to them at zero notice and still be comfortable. Not-thinking is also a strong aspect of comfort food, so not having to make choices is important. In particular, this means that after coming back from a trip or an SCA event, that house special curry’s predictableness is a huge factor in its attraction.
Most of my favourites are strong on umami, too, which is broadly indicative of my food tastes in general. Over time, I’ve moved away from sweet toward sour and bitter, but umami remains the baseline to which my tastebuds hew. Which, come to think of it, may explain some of why I have difficulty with vegetarian foods; there’s a lot less umami where you don’t have meat.
That seems like enough rambling. This issue has been brought to you by the trailing end of a mild winter, pandemic restrictions disappearing, just-eat.ie, and a sudden visceral memory of a Chinese takeaway in Goatstown circa 1992. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.
Apparently I don’t take pictures of takeaway. I have more than a decade of photographs in Google Photos, and not a single one of them is of takeaway food.