In these times of financial penury, tightening the belt can sometimes feel like suffocating yourself, especially when it comes to the little 'luxury' of dining out.
If you're a city dweller and immersed in the cut-and-thrust of full time employment, eating out is more of a lifeline than an unnecessary extravagance. With jobs proving more difficult to come by in the first place, and still harder to maintain, many inner-city professionals feel that they have to go the extra mile in the workplace. Often this means clocking out late in order to tackle an extra workload, if only to prove to your boss that you're worth your salt.
Few people, having left the office at 7pm will have the time, the inclination or the energy to rustle up a tasty and fulfilling dinner at 8 or 9, after a long, stressful day. Some will opt for the trusty old M&S ready meal, others might choose to sack off supper altogether. I know that, from my own experiences of post-work victuals, a bowl of crisps and a glass of wine in front of The Apprentice often sufficed. Nine times out of ten, many will decide that somebody else can do the washing up tonight, and arrange with their partner, friends or family to eat out. Yes, going to a restaurant is still something of a reward for a job well done, much like popping to the pub with your work mates on a Friday night, feeling like you've earned it. This is clearly a trend that has been noticed by chains like Pizza Express and Strada, companies who, among others, offer discounts like 2 for 1 or buy one get one free on main courses to their punters during the week.
The same principle applies to the London-weighted Taste Card business. Winers and diners can purchase a Taste Card for the price of a meal for two at a mid-range eatery and enjoy half price dining for an entire year at selected restaurants. The only catch is that, in most cases, you can only use your card from Sunday evenings until Thursday. This is a clever trick from the marketers of restaurant vouchers and Taste Card. Obviously their business is assured at weekends, when tourists, wealthy Londoners and passing visitors come flocking. The main thing is to keep overworked, underpaid, city dwellers coming running back for more food-related bargains that will make their stressed out existences seem easier to swallow.
When I first joined the ranks of the unemployed, almost eighteen months ago, there was no discernible belt tightening when it came to eating out. Going to restaurants had become an integral part of my social life, and this proved to be a hard habit to break (cue that Chicago song being in my head for the next three weeks), regardless of the small barrier of losing my income. Budgeting did not improve during the months I spent travelling around South America. Well, I was hardly going to forgo Argentina’s famous steaks, the odd Chilean pisco sour or a spot of Peruvian llama stew in favour of a cost-effective homemade sandwich with a cup of tea, now was I?
Having been without a cash injection for some considerable time, my bank balance finally screamed at me to stop with the extravagant eating out already and get real about my finances. So I bought a Taste Card for the nominal sum of £30. It was on special offer you understand, and obviously I will only go out for dinner now if I can use the card for a hefty discount on my food bill. And if it’s a special occasion, like a birthday, anniversary or a Wednesday, for example. But, whichever way you look at it, restaurant dining is still regrettably a lot more expensive than self-catering, discount or not.
So how is a nouveau pauper to eat in the style to which she is accustomed without breaking the bank? Three letters –D.I.Y.
Sushi, containing (hopefully) the freshest raw fish possible, and being painstakingly rolled, seasoned and presented by professional sushi chefs, is very much a ‘luxury’ product and can be prohibitively pricey at a Japanese restaurant. But if you’re willing to improvise on ingredients, using smoked salmon and mackerel, rather than their fresh counterparts, and perhaps compromise on aesthetics, there is a way to enjoy your favourite maki on the cheap.
What you’ll need: Shopping List for 2 people:
· Half box of sushi rice: 79p
· Sushi nori (seaweed) 6 sheets: £1.89
· Small pack of smoked salmon: £2
· Small pack of peppered mackerel: £2
· Veg – cucumber, avocado and pepper, approx: £1
· Wasabi for seasoning. Potent stuff, so a tube lasts a long while: £1.58
· Jar of pickled ginger. See above for longevity: £1.58
· Bottle of soy sauce – a little goes a long way: 76p
· Roll mats for creating your masterpiece X2: £2.36
If you’re a vegetarian sushi lover, than things will be a lot cheaper. But if, like me you love fish, than the damage is still less than £7 each. This translates into roughly 24 pieces of maki (the sushi roll wrapped in seaweed) per person, more than enough for even the healthiest of appetites. The equivalent at a Japanese restaurant would be at least double that. So, I hear you ask: What recession?
And now the real fun begins. As Oasis once espoused, bang in the middle of a drug addled nineties – ‘you gotta roll with it’. And so you have, although, unlike the narcotics favoured by Britpop ‘s finest, I don’t think sushi had quite reached British shores in those days.
The method: So, you take your roll mat, placing it on a sturdy, flat table. Put your seaweed sheet atop this – shiny side down, as far as I can gather. Now spread a big spoonful of sushi rice (cooked as per the pack instructions) over the half of sushi nori (seaweed sheet) that is closest to you. Pat the sticky rice down to make way for your fillings. These can be any of the above ingredients or something totally different, but each to his own. Don’t over fill your roll, but don’t be too stingy with the contents either. Having done that, you need to take the side of the roll mat that’s closest to you and, well, roll it over away from you, encompassing all your ingredients.
If you’ve ever rolled a cigarette in your life, this will come a great deal easier to you, as my friends Anna and Clemmie sagely observed.Next, you have to tighten your grip around the contents of the roll, compacting them into a sushi-shaped parcel. Then all you have to do is complete the circle, rolling the rest of the seaweed around with the aid of your mat to make a beautiful sushi roll. Once you have your (not necessarily even) roll, the next stage is to apportion it properly. Ideally, you’ll be aiming for eight one - inch thick segments. Pop your roll onto a flat surface, get a very sharp, preferably hot, wet knife, and slice through your sushi roll with gusto. And there you have it. Season with wasabi, soy and ginger, close your eyes, and you could be in any decent sushi emporium, except that you wouldn’t have had the joy of creating your own brand of luxury cuisine for dinner. Or for less than £7, for that matter. And you won’t have to tip at the end of the evening. Or do the whole pretentious ‘would you like to try the wine?’ pantomime with the waiter. And that’s a bonus. Credit crunch or not.