I was awoken yesterday by a WhatsApp from my neighbour, telling me he was going to the Chinese supermarket (he is Chinese) and then to the Korean supermarket and Vietnamese supermarkets (he is Chinese), and did I want to come. Very few things get me out of bed on a Saturday – a grocery shop is probably one of the least likely, but I have been wanting to go to Asian supermarkets ever since my South Korean phase in order to supplement the meagre Korean foods I am able to find on Ocado (some) or in Morrisons (none).
It was my second shopping trip with him in as many days, after I’d spent Friday night at IKEA helping him take back a freakishly heavy chest of drawers. I wanted to mention this here in case any journalists had seen us carrying it to the car and wanted to write some kind of article about how incredibly puny and weak we looked carrying an extremely small box between the two of us extremely slowly and wheezily along the road to a car. This box was extraordinarily heavy, so much so that I expect an explanation of its weight vs size could only be done by Professor Brian Cox.
While at IKEA, I’d wanted to buy a pot as my stocks of usable pots had recently reduced to zero, and was also eyeing up square plates. I have two of these at home, my favourites, and wanted more but the ones IKEA had just weren’t big enough. There was also a lack of decent sized pots too so I didn’t even get one of them. What I did get was 17 small plastic plants as Whacky had destroyed the few real ones I recently bought to add some nature to my house.
Anyway, back to the Asian supermarket trip: “Is there anything specific you want to get?” my neighbour asked as we drove to Greenwich, sunk in the low seats of his snazzy convertible.
“Noodles,” was my one-word answer. “Noodles,” I said again as if it was the second item on my list “Actually, it could go either way, I will either walk in buy the instant noodles I want and walk out, or I will go nuts and buy everything.” I get a mild level of excitement being in a different supermarket to my usual source, something about the different range, different packaging on the same things, makes them feel exotic. At the extreme end of this scale is your Polish shops, and the likes of a Chinese supermarket, where a lack of English on the packaging makes me feel like I’m on holiday and want to buy everything, because it’s new and foreign and different and better.
You might be saying – “wait, Alan’s neighbour, pull over onto the hard shoulder I have a question for Alan – are you saying you go nuts when you go on holiday and go in supermarkets? I hardly think you’re coming back from holiday with your suitcase full of groceries.”
This is where you’d be wrong. I have done this. The first time I went to Paris, I went to the supermarket near my friend’s house on my last day before heading to the Eurostar. I purchased almost an entire suitcase-worths of groceries, and I don’t just mean quaint snacks and chocolate curios. I bought FROZEN goods, desserts and ice cream, and meat. I then took this on a train to central Paris, waited a few hours, got on the Eurostar, and carted it on the Tube back to Tooting.
I didn’t eat most of it, and I possibly have this to thank for the fact I am alive and writing this story (note to self: must write more anecdotes up before one of them kills me).
But the odds were in favour of me going crazy in these exotic Asian supermarkets, especially when I had a guide with me who could explain what things are and make recommendations.
We arrived and I was in full tourist mode. “Oooooh what’s this curious item?”
“A shopping trolley,” he explained. Cool.
We were straight into the vegetables area. Now I’ll be honest, I find vegetables I’ve never heard of in ASDA, so this was just insane. Spiky cucumbers, some fruit that looked like a huge meatball, thank god I had a chaperone here; even when things were listed in English I would easily have assumed there was a typo. I saw sausages in the distance and wandered off. I would anchor myself in some familiarity and start with some staples. Then it was onto noodles and spicy sauce.
We found dried chillies. I’d had these at Wagamama’s the previous night as a post-IKEA treat. At Wagamama’s I used to only ever have the Katsu, then I tried something called Firecracker and since I’ve only ever had that. I’m a creature of habit. I was complaining about how hard it was to cut these dried chillies with a spoon, and how on earth are people doing it with chopsticks, when my neighbour pointed out you’re sort of not supposed to eat them, that they’re just there for flavour. I was now confused since it had been revealed a crucial part of my favourite out-of-home meal was actually not meant to be part of the experience. I stuck to my ways and chomped my way through the dried chillies.
Now these were available to buy in giant bags. This would mean I could use them in my own cooking and then eat them by mistake at home (with a knife) with no-one to give me funny looks. In they went.
I grabbed some fresh chillies to cook with the dried chillies, some chilli flakes, chilli oil and various sauces. Some fresh noodles, and some spaghetti with Chinese writing on it. Then it was time for the main event. Spicy instant noodles. I almost swept my hand across the entire shelf, collapsing everything into the trolley, but I spotted some were labeled “mild” or “fishy”. I spotted the ones I wanted.
The words SUPER SPICY in English jumped out at me, which was very courteous of the manufacturers. To repay this cultural consideration I will also write the name of them here in Korean. They were called scarecrow-in-a-sombrero/cockerel/dinosaur-in-a-mobility-scooter. Quite a mouthful so I can understand why they went with SUPER SPICY.
It was the perfect translation into English. SUPER meaning “not just good but more so”, SPICY meaning “spicy”, red colour meaning “spicy” and the word RED in red colour meaning “super spicy”.
I started piling individual packs into my trolley, but my neighbour pointed out the shelves above were full of boxes so I could buy them by the crate. Unfortunately, they didn’t have palettes of the one I wanted but we did find 5-packs. I moved on to a few samples of other flavours, but he told me one of them was actually cheaper in Sainsburys. We’d go to Sainsbury’s afterwards, this was already part of the plan as Whacky’s favourite cat toy had recently gone missing and after months of internet searching I had tracked down where I’d bought it – my old local Sainsbury’s in Tooting.
By way of compensation it had been my plan to buy her some exotic meats from the Asian supermarkets, but I couldn’t be sure she’d be into chicken hearts, goose feet, squid tubes, or an entire eel (which was genuinely on offer on one of the counters) so I left it.
We were done at the three Asian supermarkets, I had left with a medium sized box of swag; I’d shown more self-control that I thought I would, but it might have been a sub-conscious awareness of the size of the boot of my neighbour’s car.
I found myself almost equally in awe in the Sainsbury’s. This place was massive. They had a dog food aisle and a separate cat food aisle. I’m used to these categories sharing a shelf. I headed straight for the comprehensive cat toy area, and searched for “cat finger teasers”; their official name for the bird on a string that is known by myself and Whacky as “Mousekabob”. When I found “cat finger teaser” on the shelf all I saw was about a metre and a half deep of empty shelf space. He was the only one they didn’t have. No bag of catnip or laser pointer was going to do, I was going to have to tell Whacky “Mousekabob” was still on holiday and try another Sainsbury’s in the South East England region. I grabbed her a couple of boxes of exotic Sainsbury’s own-brand cat food, and we were on our way.
I filled the trip home with dating app stories, usually ending with “and I never heard from her again” and soon enough we were pulling up outside our houses. As had become the norm today I spent at least 40 seconds hauling myself out of the passenger seat of the car, before grabbing my overspilling box and heading inside. I had developed a strange hissing sound in my ear on the way home and it had continued as I got home. It was only as I started unpacking my box of goodies that I realised I also had a burning sensation on my thigh. Could these noodles be so SUPER SPICY that merely a proximity to the product was causing my body to feel the heat.
A few moments later I realised that my ultra-low seating position in the car had caused my e-cigarette to both turn on and also fire continuously the whole way, burning its way through all the liquid, my wallet, jeans pocket and latterly my flesh.
It was chaotic scenes, I had shopping to unpack, an e-cigarette to fix, jeans to change and now Whacky coming down to ask “did you find him? did you find him?”
What I deserved once I had taken care of all this carnage, was a nice pack of SUPER SPICY noodles. They were instant noodles so would be a breeze. I imagined a Pot Noodle type preparation scenario so when the packet said add boiling water and cook for 5 minutes I knew I was on familiar ground. I emptied the contents into the bowl and was about to empty the kettle on top when I noticed a couple of little bags amongst the noodles. One of chilli flakes and one of flavour powder. I fished them out and opened them and poured them back in, piling half a litre of boiling water on top.
It was a tight squeeze, with only surface tension preventing the top millimetre of now-spicy liquid pouring over the edge. Luckily the packet mentioned nothing of “stir well” or even a half-assed “stir”. All I had to do was leave them here to cook.
Contrary to what you might think from reading this blog, I do actually cook most nights of the week (cooking twice, making enough for 2-3 nights each time, meaning eating food I technically cooked 4-5 nights out of 7 = most nights). I do therefore know what cooking means. I don’t know if it was my mind being fixated on the Golden Wonder variety of noodles and their method, or the fact that these were Korean and I expected mistranslations on the instructions, but for 4 minutes or so I stood impatiently in my kitchen clinging on to the belief that when they said “cook for 5 minutes” they actually meant leave to sit in the bowl of boiling water. A quick internet search during the fifth minute told me I was meant to make these in a pot. The very kind of pot I didn’t have and had been trying to buy in IKEA the day before.
I weighed up the harm that could be caused by just having them as is and decided I didn’t care. I toasted some bread to dip in all the soupy juice which at the time I presumed was a side effect of not “cooking” them, put the bowl on a big square plate to deal with any spillages and to house the slices, and headed upstairs.
I was pleased with the tastiness. They really were super spicy, and shocked as you may be to hear this, even better in flavour and noodle consistency than a Chicken and Mushroom Pot Noodle.
Halfway through eating, I had to fiddle with the remote control, and set the big plate and bowl to one side. As I was shuffling it back onto my lap, the bowl slid, then hit the rim of the plate, causing a tsunami of noodles and spicy soup to pour onto my lap and the sofa.
As I panicked about the sofa – I recently discovered IKEA discontinued this sofa, and the covers that go with it, about eight fucking hours after I bought it – my right leg burned with the heat of the boiling hot broth. I’d burned the same leg twice in the space of half an hour. I carefully cleaned up, the saving grace being that so much of the liquid was now on my jeans and sofa that it was a lot more manageable to move the plate around.
Again, for the second time in half an hour, I changed trousers.
I sent the above photo to my neighbour to let him know how I was getting on with the noodles.
I managed to finish everything without further incident and limped about the rest of my day.
As it approached bedtime, I’d started to become peckish. I don’t usually eat during the day so the noodles had messed with me a little and as they were not as substantial of what I would normally cook – yes, cook – for an evening meal, I’d started to get hungry again. I wondered if I should make something. I was tired so if I was going to eat it should be something light and easy to prepare. Something I could knock up in five minutes or so.
I KNOW, I thought, what about some Korean instant noodles.
And so I opened up my second pack of the day, resolving not to repeat my mistakes of the first. I’d since researched that you can make these in the microwave and since I have my little rice machine, this could be done without any fear of spillages or in-microwave explosions. I poured the contents into the rice machine, added the water and set it to cook. It came out, I have to say, looking less cooked than the one I made earlier, and no less runny so the runniness must be a feature. I opened up the rice machine, and keen to ensure no more spillage, held my bowl over the sink in my left hand, as I poured the contents from the rice machine to the bowl from my right hand.
It was only when I started audibly screaming in burning agony that I remembered that the boiling hot soup came to the edge of the bowl last time, and was indeed doing so again. My thumb was now immersed in boiling hot broth as I gritted my teeth and tried to avoid dropping the bowl into the sink. I tossed the plastic rice machine to the side and grabbed it with my other hand but the bowl was now boiling hot and spilling spicy lava over every edge. Like a scene from Squid Game I now had to endure the pain while trying to keep the bowl level and slowly moved across the kitchen to the big square plate I had ready on the worktop. One slip and both my hands would be incinerated, not to mention the fact I’d be mopping the kitchen floor for days.
I made it, some soup spilled all over the plate, but that’s what it was for, and my toast popped. Again I would need something to soak up the spicy liquid and the toast had been a huge success first time round.
I headed upstairs to stick the tv on to enjoy my late night snack, hopefully without further incident. I was being extremely careful with the volatile, over-filled bowl, until the toast had soaked up most of the danger. I neared the end, and had started to get frustrated again by the length of the noodles (roughly 87 feet) which I was finding impossible to twirl, and also impossible to cut with my fork as I usually would due to the curvature of the bowl. It was not an appealing sight seeing my noodles hanging out of my mouth, but there was no-one to see so I tried not to worry. More worrisome was the fact the noodles I was severing were plopping back into the bowl splashing soup all over the place.
I lifted the bowl up a little closer to my mouth, to try to lessen the distance any dropping noodles were falling. It seemed to work. Until a combination of the heat of the bowl, being held by my already burned thumb, and the slipperiness caused by previous spillages, meant the bowl fell out of my hand.
It only fell six inches or so, and onto my plate, but the force was enough that the bowl smashed the plate to smithereens and pile-drived itself and the plate shards into my nether regions.
My lap was now once again covered in burning hot soup and noodles and, once again, so was my irreplaceable sofa cover. Adding insult to injury, one of my two big square plates, was now in pieces. The kitchen roll, which I would normally have by the sofa, had literally run out with the last noodle mess and a new roll was downstairs in the kitchen, so I had nothing to help me tackle this mess.
For about five actual minutes, I sat motionless, watching tv, noodles dribbling between my legs, trying to calm myself down, although for the first thirty seconds or so the initial scream of “FUCK’S SAKE” was still echoing around the house.
I texted my neighbour the photo “these fucking noodles are cursed”, and checked my watch, it was a few minutes to midnight. I better wait it out. Curses end at midnight, I read that somewhere. I played Dungeons & Dragons a few months ago and I think there was something about the duration of curses depending on the life force of the person casting them, and the checkout woman at the Korean supermarket definitely didn’t have enough to do me in for longer than a day. I texted my family “these fucking noodles are cursed” and a few more people to kill time. When the clock struck midnight I would clear up.
And finish my noodles obviously.
Using shards of the plate as mini dustpans I scooped up enough of the mess to allow me to go downstairs get more kitchen roll, and go upstairs to change my trousers.
This was my third trouser change of the day. In the COVID era, this amount of trousers would usually last me a couple of months. The last remnants of the noodles tasted sheepish, almost apologetic, as if the curse had not been their idea, and they had been powerless until the stroke of midnight.
You’re probably wondering if I’ve sworn off Korean noodles and tossed my remaining packs onto a pagan bonfire. No no. They were EXTREMELY TASTY (business tip, if dinosaur-in-a-mobility-scooter noodle corporation ever want to follow up the SUPER SPICY range, I can recommend EXTREMELY TASTY as a brand name, but they would have to reduce the font size). I might wait until I have bought bigger bowls before enjoying the rest, but even if not I’ll happily take my chances with them again.