Lucky 13: The Foods I Crave, to the Point of Obsession

If there’s anything I have absolute confidence in – that I feel I do better than nearly anyone I know – it’s the ability to eat unreasonably large quantities of food. I’d say for my size and weight class, I’d probably rank in the top 5 percentile globally. I’m not sure this is a talent. But hey, ya goes with what ya gots…

Now, I’m not a large man. I’m pretty much average height and weight – about 5’10 and 160 pounds for most of my adult life, until I turned 50 and added an extra 30 or so pounds, for no apparent reason, even though I exercise regularly and eat less now than I have since childhood, and it’s so f’ing unfair that…oh never mind. I’m in good health, and that’s what matters.

Anyway, my appetite. I’ll give you some examples.

When I was in my 20s and 30s – single and pretty fit and lean – I could eat two 14-inch pizzas in one sitting. That’s no lie. I did it, more than once. One of the local pizza delivery places would advertise 2-for-1 medium pizzas. I would order them, usually after a night of drinking beer, and scarf them both down in one sitting. Then pass out on the sofa with David Letterman on.

I could eat two large burgers, one small burger, and two large fries in one sitting.

As a bachelor I would wake up on the weekends around 10 a.m. and make the following breakfast: three scrambled eggs with chopped onion, bell pepper and tomatoes; five strips of bacon; a couple sausage links; a big bowl of grits; and four slices of toast.

A favorite Mexican restaurant of mine in Charlotte had what it called the Special Dinner – one tamale, one enchilada, one taco, one chiles rellenos, one burrito, one tostada, one guacamole salad, rice, beans, tortilla chips and salsa. I could eat the whole thing – with a couple of cervezas. The servers would stare at me, amazed that this average-sized gringo could knock down so much food.

My father, nearly 88 years old, still talks about the time I ate three or four platters of catfish at an all-you-can-eat fish camp when I was 11 or 12 years old. That was in addition to the usual trimmings (fries, slaw, hush puppies).

I could go on, but you get the idea. No need to revel in the gluttony.

Since I was a kid, I’ve just had a bottomless pit for a stomach. It helps that our mother was a very passionate and excellent cook who passed on her love of food and cooking to her four kids. We would eat heaping helpings of victuals at that dinner table.

I’ve scaled way back over the last decade or so, mostly to remain healthy. Breakfast is usually a piece of fruit. Lunch on weekdays is a chickpea salad. Of the 21 meals I eat every week, at least 12 are meatless. I cook all the dinner meals here, and make a lot of different cuisines, but I don’t supersize the portions.

Still, mealtime is something I look forward to with the single-minded passion of a lunatic. Our oldest daughter shares this with me – she’s thin and a champion eater who already experiments with new and interesting foods. A foodie, and not yet a teenager.

I learned how to cook early in adulthood because I wanted to make sure I could always eat well, even when I was broke, which happened a lot for a lot of years. I enjoy the whole process, from prep work to the final bite. Some of it I learned working in restaurants; some I taught myself. We eat dinner at home pretty much every night, and I’m the cook.

I also look forward to our meals out, which usually means weekend lunches with the family, date night with my wife, and Daddy’s Night Out all by my lonesome. Certain dishes I crave more than others, which means I either make them at home or scout them out at restaurants.

Herein lies the list of 13 dishes I crave the most, in alphabetical order. What are yours?

Chicken biryani: There are numerous Indian dishes I could choose – tandoori chicken, chana masala, onion bhaji, etc. – but I like this one because it’s a rice dish with an explosion of spices and flavor (I do love rice). I prefer it medium spicy, served with naan.  

Chicken katsu curry: My wife Susan spent a couple years in Japan as a younger adult and hipped me to all kinds of Japanese food. The first katsu I ever ate was at Katsu-Hana in midtown Manhattan. When we first ate it I was amazed – it tasted almost like the Southern dinners we used to have as a kid: Breaded and fried chicken, chopped cabbage with dressing (like cole slaw), and white rice. They served a dipping sauce similar to A1, only better. Flavortastic! In London I discovered that they like to serve katsu with a curry sauce, and this is now my preferred version (to the chagrin of katsu purists….).

Chili: AKA chili con carne. This is my go-to dish when I want to cook something for myself. A big pot of chili with ground beef, red and black beans, tomatoes, and all the spices (it’s a secret, folks). Served with saltine crackers and hot sauce. I also like mine over rice, like they do here in London.

Enchiladas: The Mexican restaurant scene in London is what I would generously term as “lacking.” There is one really good Mexican eatery – Mestizo – a chain of okay ones (Wahaca), and a bunch of taco/burrito joints that have the nerve to call themselves Mexican restaurants. I’ve learned how to make my own enchiladas since moving here, which is a plus.

Falafel: I got to know these ground chickpea patties when we lived in New York City in the mid-2000s. I’ve been a fan ever since. They are bursting with flavorful herbs and spices and have a grainy texture that completes the effect. My only condition is that they must be fried in hot oil – not baked. I like them with fresh hummus and pita.

Hot dogs: Does a hot dog count as a sandwich? Oh, who cares? I have always been a big sandwich fan, though I don’t eat that many these days because the bread just carries too many calories. But I still crave them, particularly Reubens, Italian hoagies, Pastrami on Rye, and Vietnamese Bahn mi. But the good old American hot dog still carries the day for me. I prefer the all-beef variety, grilled over charcoal, with that nice snap as you bite into it, served in a wholegrain bun with chili, mustard and slaw. Carolina style.

Lebanese Kofta: A flavorific Middle Eastern/Mediterranean ground meat sausage that I have never been able to duplicate in the kitchen. My favorites are served at La Shish Kebob in Charlotte, an unassuming but excellent little place on the east side of town. A Mediterranean chain here in London called Comptoir Libanais serves excellent kofta as well. The classic dish is kofta served over delicious and aromatic Middle Eastern rice.

Pasta and sauce: I could just say spaghetti with meat sauce and a big serving of garlic bread, just like Mom used to make. But I’ve found myself gravitating toward linguine these days, and though I personally make the same kind of meat sauce I’ve had my whole life, when we are out at a restaurant, I order the Bolognese sauce. Fresh pasta is always best. And fresh tomato sauce, when you can find it.

Pulled BBQ pork: Eastern North Carolina style, with a vinegar and red pepper sauce base. Served with white bread, mustard-based slaw, Brunswick stew, onion rings, fried okra, and hush puppies. A childhood craving that will last till my dying day. There’s a restaurant here called Big Easy that does a pretty good version of this NC staple, God bless ‘em.

Singapore Rice Noodles: One of those spicy, flavorburst dishes with a complex combination of spices and peppers, including curry and red chilis. Usually cooked with shrimp and chicken. Oh, I want a plate now – right now!

Stir fried Chinese noodles: I prefer it simple – just lo mein-type noodles stir fried in soy sauce and whatever other sauce they put it in, with the usual ginger and garlic, some sliced onions and carrots, some bean sprouts, and a protein like shrimp, chicken, pork or beef.

Tamales: My first experience with tamales was eating the canned variety that our mom served with her homemade chili (delicious). When I started eating at Mexican restaurants as an adult, I usually hit Tex-Mex joints that serve tamales in a red sauce (delicious). It wasn’t until I lived in Los Angeles in the early 2000s that I first ran into tamales served in the corn husks they were steamed in. A couple of native Angelenos took me there. I had no idea what the husk was for, and nearly bit into it before noticing that my friends opened the husk up and ate the tamale inside. So, I avoided embarrassing myself just in the nick of time. Here in London, I have found exactly one Mexican restaurant – one, in all of London – that serves tamales (Meztizo: delicious!). Luckily, we found a native Texan who lives in England and started her own homemade tamale business (Tex-Deb Tamales. Delicious!). She delivers them to your home in a Styrofoam cooler packed with ice packets. A Godsend…

Wonton soup: My favorite soup these days, by a pretty fair margin. I order it every time we eat Chinese here, which is often, because the Chinese food in London is the best we’ve had anywhere. East Asians are masters at soup. The best.

Special Mention

Filipino Saifun: Our paternal grandmother used to make this dish when we visited our grandparents in St. Louis – our grandfather was Filipino – and I have yet to find it anywhere else in the world. Not in restaurants, not online, not anywhere. Now that my Grandma and Mom have passed on, I sometimes wonder whether my siblings, our father and I are the only ones in the world who even make it. Maybe it was a Grandma original, inspired by Grandpa and our Filipino uncles. It’s a very flavorful dish made with Mung Bean noodles, chicken, tomatoes, onion, lots of garlic, fresh ginger, soy sauce, celery seed and soy sauce. It fills the house with a luscious aroma and is great for leftovers. Served over rice.

Close runners up

Fried chicken (Korean style)

Red beans and rice (N’awlins style, natch)

Ribeye steak (Medium rare, with a nice salt & pepper crust)

*Side note 1: Yes, I realize there are no sweets or desserts on this list. I’m more of a salty/savory guy. But if I were to include a dessert it would be, hmmmm….Apple pie? Pineapple Upside Down Cake? A Krispy Kreme doughnut? Yes! A Krispy Kreme doughnut.

*Side note 2: As a special blog bonus, I’m including this picture I drew of our stove. I’ve taken up drawing lately, and I thought about using this as the main graphic, but then chickened out.

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