Have you ever successfully recreated a fondly-remembered holiday dish or had a disappointing experience ordering one in a restaurant?
A sushi lunch at Nakata restaurant in the Ginza area of Tokyo. Photograph: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
I have a dilemma, one which might not seem particularly pressing to normal, well adjusted people and which, I am ashamed to say, marks me out as an insufferable food snob. Having eaten sushi in Japan I just can’t bring myself to eat it in Britain any more.
The fish usually has freezer burn, the rice is often stone cold and never properly cooked or seasoned, there won’t be real wasabi, the dip will be soy sauce instead of the chef’s own blend, blah, blah, moan, whinge (*places back of hand on forehead and dabs white hanky in corner of eye*).
Partially to assuage the guilt of this outrageous puritanism I’ve found myself wondering whether in some strange way it’s actually quite noble not to want to sully the memory of fantastic past meals. Although considering sushi is probably my favourite food it’s quite possible I’m just cutting off my nose to spite my face.
It used to be that when I went to Japan I’d stuff my suitcase with ingredients to take home but when I visited a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t. I’ve come to the conclusion that the dishes I love in Japan are going to stay there.
I reached this epochal decision after asking a top chef, Yoshihiro Murata, why the dashi I make at home never tastes as good as the ones I try in Japan. He said that when he travels outside Japan to give demonstrations he brings his own water because foreign water just doesn’t have the right pH balance. If even our water isn’t right for making Japanese food then, I thought despairingly, what hope have we got?
Likewise, I’ve spent most of the rest of the year so far in India researching for a book, but have so far failed miserably to recreate the scintillating aromas and complex flavours of the food I ate there back at home. I live in a part of the world where fresh curry leaves and hing are as easy to get as moon rocks and ambergris, and of course even the most inventive substitutions never taste the same.
This set me thinking about other dishes which don’t travel, either because you can’t get the ingredients at home, because the ingredients you can get aren’t good enough, or perhaps because the environment and state of mind in which you ate them were intrinsic to the dish.
Why is it that the grilled octopus you eat on the quayside at a Greek fishing village was so sublime, but every time you try to make it at home, you end up with a charred flip-flop? Why does cassoulet never taste quite as hearty as the one you once had in that backstreet bistro in Carcassone? Why are British ramen restaurants so crap? Have you ever made a truly successful pho at home, or eaten one in the UK at all for that matter?
Have your attempts to replicate fondly-remembered holiday meals back at home ever really worked? More juicily, which restaurants in the UK have tried and failed to reproduce international specialities (I once faced off with a ‘risotto’ at a provincial Welsh restaurant that had been made, badly, with basmati). Ever had ropey cajun food in Wigan, a feeble ceviche in Crawley, or perhaps got any suggestions for how best to recreate tricky dishes that have caught your eye while out in the big abroad?