• Jake O'Brien Murphy

The Inherent Sadness of Meal Deals

In essence, Malatang is a Szechuan hot pot from Leshan City in the south of China, but now it is enjoyed across the country as simple and cheap street fare. I only know that because I had to google it. Before you titter to yourself at the inherent irony that I have to rely on the Omni-present search engine to understand a country which is dictated to by strict censorship and information laws; I get it, you have Guardian tote bag. Similarly, I had to rely on my unfettered access to the internet to learn what the Sichuanese term for gizzard was. Gizzard, which kept bubbling up in various broths is a firm favourite of the food stalls at E-Joy. Finally, I had to re-acquaint myself with what exactly a gizzard was and what exactly a gizzard does. There are three hundred and two languages spoken in China today. Of which I am wholly ignorant. Mandarin is the most widely spoken dialect across the globe and if pressed I’d struggle to mouth a simple hello, let alone count to ten or find the bathroom. I could chalk this down as a damning example of the Anglocentric colonialism of the British. But I studied French and Spanish at school and save for telling people to “fuck off” in romantic-sounding ways, I’m just as hopeless. So when I visit E-Joy, an Asian food hall and convenience store in Liverpool, I’d have just as much chance of understanding what I’m actually about to order if I were to read Egyptian hieroglyphs through the back of a spoon. I think that’s why China, as a place, and Asia, on the whole, fascinate me so much. There seems to be little cultural analogue that connects my experiences of the world of cuisine, with the Indo-Asian experience of cuisine.

To date, I have endured a shudder-inducing portion of my life in front of supermarket fridges. Cycling listlessly through ready-made meal deal sandwiches. Knowing ultimately no matter what I decide, they all taste in a hauntingly similar way of bad decisions. This stuff can only be described as food as far as Jacob Rees Mogg could be considered a human. It casts the same shadow food would, but in all other qualifying circumstances expresses itself as packaged sorrow. And as if it were possible something worse; chewable loneliness, no mayo. If three-pound buys a textureless bite of existential dread and a packet of salt and vinegar Squares, then surely things can only get better from there? Places like E-Joy and Malatang Shack offer me ready-meal asylum. For the life of me, I still have no idea if the stall is actually called “Malatang Shack”. Any time I broach the question with the perpetually beaming woman behind the counter she exactly mirrors my words back to me and nods enthusiastically. I know very well that she knows that any effort to talk me through the subtle complexities of Szechaun food would be about as successful as teaching a dog a card trick and I appreciate that.

The stall is manned seven days a week by a married couple, again I’m painting with broad strokes of context rather than objective fact here. They could be siblings; hell, they could hate each other but a mutual love of big bowls of spicy soup has forged a fragile alliance. Probably because they found themselves spending most of their day explaining the process of malatang to monolingual morons like myself they’ve created a succinct little order sheet. It lists a whole load of ingredients and comes with joyful little mistranslations that elicit a universal chuckle which shows we’re all as similar as we are different; “Crabhands” and something called “Chickenlobe” being my favourites. You can only tick five and each cost one pound. You absolutely cannot, and I know this because I have both pleaded and offered bribes, break the rule of five. The soup acts as the flavour bass note and is typified like most Szechaun cuisine by one of the weirdest little spices humans cultivate. Szechuan peppercorn is often unimaginatively described as numbing. It’s like calling a punch in the throat from Anthony Joshua a tickly cough. The sensation of eating anything laced with Szechuan peppercorn is as close as I can imagine to licking an infinity stone. It’s a thrumming interdimensional-time travelling spice that tastes like the Dr Who theme music sounds. Also, there’s an ever-present lingering earthiness that I can neither place nor pin down. It’s like trying to catch rainwater in a colander as soon as it’s there, it’s gone. I always order crispy tofu and as many vegetables and green things, I’ve never heard of as I can. Which is four. From what I have seen of Szechuan cuisine it operates on slightly different axes to that of classic European food. The component ingredients are almost always bite-sized. There is an intricate emphasis on shape and texture beyond if it looks pretty on a plate. The Mc-main-stream Western squeamishness is done away with altogether. Hence trays of gizzards and trotters, trachea and tripe and the whole Archdiocese of foul, off brown, looking filtration organs that when seasoned with the pragmatism of poverty are made utterly delightful to eat. Spice, not the cosmic-surfer Szechuan-peppercorn kind, but actual grab you by larynx hot-hot-hot spice is often and startlingly innocuous. That is until you take a bite of some never-before-seen veggie bobbing innocently in your dinner. Then it’s like using hot coals as a throat lozenge. Above all, it’s the kind of deliciousness that makes me go back time and time again. If a three-pound tuna-mayo can offer me only calorific gain and the option of suicide. Then the five-step, five-pound what-on-earth-is-going-on gizzard laden bowls of brothy sanctuary at the newly christened “Malatang Shack” win every time.