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Chewing over the prospect of dining alone
2015-03-23
By Fangfang Gong

There was an old Chinese song back in the 90s called “It’s a Shame to be Alone,” and conventional wisdom tells us that living alone leads to loneliness and isolation. However, this fails to make a distinction between living alone and being alone.

Research indicates that people who live alone actually tend to spend more time socializing with friends, exercising, signing up for self-improvement courses, attending public events and volunteering.

And in our digital age, living alone needn’t to be a solitary experience. At home we can be just as connected as we are anywhere else.

In the United States, 28% of all homes are one-person households. In big cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Washington DC and Chicago, up to 45% of households have a single occupant, while in Manhattan, half of the population live by themselves

In most Asian countries, traditional communities are built around families — we are taught to value the group more than individuals. But though most of my single friends in China are still under the tremendous pressure of getting married by a certain age and have a family of their own, China is actually among the fastest growing one-person household countries in the world.

Japan is the pioneer in this category of Asian countries, with 30% of the population living alone. It is also a country that is not ashamed of talking about its ever-growing “isolated” population and their lifestyle. I’d say many actually find a lot of inspiration from being home alone.

And many Chinese are familiar with this particular culture of Japan, primarily due to depictions in Japanese TV series, with “The Solitary Gourmet” and “Shinya Shokudo (Midnight Canteen)” being the most popular, both adapted from award-winning manga.

At the start of every episode of “The Solitary Gourmet,” the prologue states:

“Not being bound by time and society, indulge your appetite fearlessly. During that short period of time he’s freed. Without interruptions from anyone he can gorge himself on delicacies.”

What better restorative experience we can ask for in this modern world?

Well ... even though I do admire the gourmet odyssey of Goro san (the main character), I must confess that dining alone in a restaurant is not much fun for me.

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Being by myself is never painful — solitude can be a restorative wonderland — but if I’m not sharing a favorite dish with friends, chatting over it’s tantalizing subtleties (or lack of), I tend to wolf down my meal.

Having said that, eating alone at home is a different proposition altogether. I wouldn’t say this in front of my dear mother, who always puts my wellbeing first and foremost, but I do enjoy eating on my lonesome while watching my favorite shows — “The Solitary Gourmet” being top of the list.

So what is so fascinating about watching somebody eating by himself for a good 40 minutes? It sounds silly and boring, but before you know it, six episodes are ahem, devoured and you end up rooting around in your pantry in the middle of the night like a zombie, as your stomach’s growling like crazy.

You crave for food at that moment, just because the way Goro san eats makes everything look so damn yummy.

This show perfectly captures the exquisite subtlety of possibilities, of longing, and the anticipation of delights.

In fact, both “lust” and “appetite” translate as the same word in Chinese — yuwang. Once we understand this, it’s not too hard why “food porn” is so popular all over the Internet. Cravings are stirred up and the imagination is sated.

Evidence of this has been the soaring popularity of the past year of South Korean “mukbang” on video streaming websites. This sees young South Koreans sit down in front of a web cam and proceed to devour ridiculously large amounts of food live, while chatting with their online fans watching the “performance.”

For some eating online becomes a full-time job bringing thousands of dollars a month, with fans paying for the privilege of watching.

So why is mukbang so popular? For one, the interactivity has changed the way we traditionally engage with food shows — here the star may cook and then eat the meal, chatting to their fans throughout.

But who are the viewers? There’s no simple answer as mukbang seems to attract all ages. Some watch for vicarious pleasure while sticking to diets themselves; some for entertainment; and yes, others watch because they’re lonely, especially when eating.

It’s no shame to live alone, but it is a shame to eat badly while living alone. Most of you guys are lucky enough to live in the big city of Shanghai, with restaurants on every corner. But it’s healthier — and a lot of fun — to cook for yourself.

Even though Chinese food (especially from Sichuan, my home province) is still my ultimate comfort food, Japanese home recipes have become a staple in my kitchen, as the dishes are healthy and tasty and the steps simple to follow.

One of my all-time favorite super-easy Japanese recipes is tonjoru soup which I learned from cute Japanese online cooking show, “Cooking with a Dog.”

Pork and veggies in miso broth, it’s delicious, nutritious and with not too much prep. What more do you want? And as my recipe is for two servings, if you’re eating alone that means you can have that second yummy helping all to yourself.

So to solitary diners everywhere, Itadakimasu!

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Tonjiru Soup (pork and veggies in miso broth), 2 servings

Ingredients:

Thin-sliced pork belly 100g

Daikon radish 80g

Carrots 50g

Taro potatoes 80g

Konjaku 1 block (tofu block sized)

Fresh shiitake mushrooms (or any fresh mushrooms) 4 large ones

Burdock (optional) 60g

Green onions 2

Water 600ml

Dashi soup base powder 5g (or make your own dashi stock)

Sake (or rice based cooking wine) 2 tbsp

miso 2 tbsp

Shichimi — Seven flavor chili pepper (optional)

Steps:

1. Cut root veggies and Konjaku into bite- size pieces, any shape you prefer, I like wedges.

2. Cut pork slices into squares.

3. Heat a pot, drizzle some sesame oil, sautée the pork slices. Once they change color, add veggies and sautée for another minute.

4. Add dashi stock, or water and dashi powder, sake.

5. Cover and cook until tender, about 40 minutes.

6. Turn off the heat, dissolve miso in the soup (miso loses flavor when boiled, always cook with low heat). Sprinkle some shichimi pepper mix to taste.

7. Enjoy!


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