There are times in life when it’s just you. Whether by choice or circumstance, you are going it alone. It’s how it is.
And then there are times when someone joins you for the journey. It could be a relatively fleeting moment, a momentary crossing of ways, a connection that somehow touches you and makes you take notice of something you’ve not noticed before, or helps you along your path, whatever that path might be.
And then sometimes there are those that are with you for the long haul. Through thick and thin. Through richer and poorer. Till death do us part.
Human beings are social creatures. We’re built to be together, at least for some of the time. Milennia have ingrained in us a unique and deeply adverse emotion – loneliness – to corral us into the company of others. After all, in the evolutionary currency of survival, being part of the pack makes us safer and stronger.
So when we find ourselves alone, it can often feel devastating – from the bewildering pain of a child all alone in the playground, to the profound, existential loneliness of the elderly and isolated. Loneliness can strike at any time.
I’m incredibly fortunate that loneliness has, so far at least, only descended on me sporadically – occasional moments in my early months at university, and when, in my late teenage years and early twenties, I went off backpacking by myself.
Travelling alone was admittedly a rather self-inflicted, indulgent even, route to loneliness. Still, I was young and green. And being far away from home, in places so unfamiliar, led to pangs of loneliness that felt startlingly vivid and disorientating.
But travelling also taught me something else about being alone: that, for much of the time, I actually liked it. I found it nourished my introverted side, even if it meant exposing my extroverted side to the winds of loneliness.
Ultimately when it came to travelling, I found loneliness a price worth paying, especially for the liberating freedom of the road, and the unexpected and often magical moments the road would sometimes throw up.
I also learned how much I loved the opportunity of being alone and still and present with a scene or landscape.. or even just a plate of food, because it was this time of my life that really cultivated my love for eating out. I discovered that eating alone could actually be a joy, rather than an awkward ordeal.
My solo backpacking days may well now be long gone, but their legacy has meant I absolutely relish getting out the proverbial walking boots and hitting London by myself. And particularly its food venues: from the cutting-edge eateries that line the streets of Soho and Shoreditch, to the heroic hole-in-the-walls and immigrant-run corner cafés that thrive all over Zones 2, 3, and beyond. London has a magnificently diverse foodscape.
Then, in recent years, I’ve also valued having some quiet moments in between all the exploring. Little interludes where I can stop, take stock, and get my notepad out and write. So in addition to my genuine love of food, and the thrill I find in the creative process of writing, my blog was also born from introversion, or at least the part of me where introversion resides. And in so doing, it remains an important counterpoint to my intensely people-orientated day-job in the NHS.
Yet, at the same time, I also feel utterly indebted to, and often energised by, the people around me. From relatively brief encounters that nevertheless feel significant, to family, friends and colleagues whose ongoing company and support I value beyond anything else in this world.
Some of these connections I’ve found in retrospect to have crystallised into some quite pivotal moments, ones I look back on with warmth and gratitude.
For instance, the time when a walk with my aunt along the Vancouver coastline helped guide me through some teenage anxieties. And the nights sharing peach schnapps and warm camaraderie with fellow backpackers on Prague’s Charles Bridge, an eye-opener to the global community out there, and the start of friendships that have lasted over 25 years. And the mentorship of an inspiring university lecturer, lending me the confidence to step off life’s well-worn paths.
But beyond all this, there’s one person whose presence and love I feel eternally blessed to have in my life. One person who is always with me, even when I am alone.
Sophie and I first met at university, half our lifetimes ago. But it wasn’t until many years later that we actually got together, possibly thanks to a lovingly-prepared dish of grilled lemon sole, one that I’m forever thankful to have pulled off – and yes, she’s been my ‘sole mate’ ever since..(!)
I know there will come a time, hopefully still long in the future, when one of us will be alone again. And that it will be profoundly painful and lonely when that moment arrives.
I have faith in memories however. Faith that a treasure trove of images and emotions, accumulated from a life spent together, will serve as a balm to stem the tide of loneliness; a well whose waters forever bestow meaning and solace.
And faith too that love itself endures, lasting long after the loss of a loved one. That through all that raw hurt, love itself transcends: a fire whose hearth continues to provide comfort and warmth to the soul.
Life will always throw up times of solitude and times when there are people by your side. Sometimes they are moments to cherish, sometimes they are deeply unsettling. But either way, it’s all part of the human experience.
Unwined in Tooting is a rather unique place: it cannot function alone, it always needs a companion. And when that one leaves, another arrives – a veritable merry-go-round of cooks, each setting up stall for a few weeks or so.
The place itself comprises a collection of rickety wooden tables on one side, framed by a backdrop of shelves laden with wine bottles, wine being the core business of this enterprise in Tooting Market.
Meanwhile, tucked in a tiny corner opposite, lies an open kitchen. From such a small sparse space – a couple of stoves and an oven – the resident chefs whip up some wonderfully inventive food, each dish uniquely paired with a wine from the retailer’s stock.
What I particularly love is how the chefs often pay homage to the food of their heritage – a loving testimony to their culinary roots and history.
So the residency by Tokumbo’s Kitchen showcased some traditional dishes from Nigeria – a rich slow-cooked stew of ayamase beef, and a fiery dollop of jollof rice. And that by Marlon’s Kitchen served up some scintillating Columbian cuisine, such as rainbow-coloured arepa corncakes and fried plantain patacones.
Like with all the places I review, I have been here alone, just so I can focus all my energy on the food and the setting, with no other distractions.
But here’s a first – on this particular visit, the one that stirs me to write, I’m here with Sophie. Quite apt really, given the theme of the post. Not to mention that Sophie’s been with me all the way on this writing journey; in fact, she’s been an integral part.
It all started on my second post, the Apollo Banana Leaf one back in 2016, the one that kickstarted the blog in earnest. Before posting it, I thought I’d get her feedback, expecting perhaps some breezy encouragement and a resolute thumbs-up.
Instead, I found ribbons of purple print sprawled all over the copy, surgical lines carving up letters and words, whole sentences reworked and rewritten. And all of it was totally spot on.
Turns out Sophie’s a brilliant writer and editor, as well as her day-job as a coach. So henceforth, I’ve never posted anything without running it under her scrupulous gaze. So even in my writing – an activity I’ve pursued for its very solitude – there’s togetherness too.
We have timed our visit particularly well – the resident chef Alex, aka ‘Eastern Bloc’, was serving up some intriguing dishes harking from her Romanian homeland, as well as from those neighbouring nations that encircle the Black Sea.
Her passion for the cuisine of her birth is evident throughout, and particularly in her homemade flatbreads, served both as a side and in some of the mains. From nothing but flour, oil, water, herbs, and an intuitive sense of her craft, she kneads it all together and bakes it into some heavenly-light morsels, rich and sweet despite the lack of sugar or butter.
The flatbread also stars as the base for an innovative take on chicken shawarma – a fried pillow on which lie tender morsels of chicken, heady with cinnamon and nutmeg, a crunch of pickled red cabbage, a dab of sweetness from pomegranate molasses and roasted carrots, and a sprinkling of a crispy dukkah made from deep-fried corn-kernels.
Partnering this dish, a glass of Mosel, whose peppery aromatic notes and hint of sweetness are a perfect foil for the spicy food.
Food and wine. That most ancient relationship. Biblical even, when we consider how the coming together of bread and wine is so fundamental to both Jewish and Christian traditions, as kiddush and communion respectively.
What’s special here is how the food and wine are each brought to the table by different parties, reflecting a coming together that shows what can be done when we work in collaboration with others. That we can be more than the sum of the parts. It does help when the parts also happen to be just so damn delicious, but the true deliciousness of this enterprise is in the partnership.
So whether you come here alone, or with friends or family, a loved one or even a stranger, just take a moment to stop, raise a glass, and toast this venture: a celebration of what can happen when people from all walks of life come together.
A fitting opportunity for me to pay tribute to all those who have so far helped me on my own writing journey. For as I said, as much as I value the quiet solitary time when I write, the blog wouldn’t be what it is without the help of others too.
Various friends – some going as far back as kindergarten, some relatively new from Twitter, and even one met on that memorable backpackers’ bridge in Prague – have kindly given their time to review posts, offering me valuable feedback before I published them on the blog.
So in addition to Sophie, a big heartfelt thanks to Seetal Savla, Snigdha Nag, and MiMi Aye (‘Kaki, One Year On’), Dan Malakin (‘Plot’, ‘Viennetta’), Helena Lindqvist and Marc Frank (‘Climate Emergency’), Sarada Krishnan (‘Gunpowder’), and my sister Rachel (‘Grandma Beryl’s Chicken Soup’ and ‘Daddy Bao’).
The response to that piece has just blown us away too. From Nigella sharing it on Twitter, to Lianne Kolirin picking up the story for the Jewish Chronicle, and all the generous and heartfelt comments that we’ve received besides. One friend, Shikha, even read the whole thing out aloud to her family – something that just touched me to the core.
I’m also grateful for the guidance and kindness from food-writers Sudi Pigott and Sejal Sukhadwala, as well as all those who have supported my writing in other ways: from posting their own comments and thoughts via social media or on the blog itself, to sharing my Twitter posts too. It’s always incredibly touching when a post has prompted people to reflect on the piece, and pick up a pen to tell you about it.
Finally, even if no-one were to be reading my blog, I think I’ll still be writing it, such is the sheer joy and meaning that it instills in me. But that doesn’t mean I love knowing that, somewhere out there, there are at least a few of you following it, paying with your attention and time, something which I am truly thankful for and humbled by.
It means so much to me, so thank you.
Eastern Bloc @Tooting Unwined