Róisín Ingle: Spiceburgers are the Dublin falafel and only savages use paper napkins

The things you learn and the things you remember when you are allowed be together again

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It was getting late. I was in my good friend’s yarden trying to avoid the surprisingly speedy slugs and snails who don’t seem to believe in social-distancing, when I felt a pre-Covid kind of contentment spread warmly through me.

Before the pandemic, G & E ran their home like a bohemian community centre. I remember there was always at least one house like theirs growing up. An expansive drop-in place of open doors where many more people felt at home than just those who actually lived there.

Now that lockdown has lifted, they’ve been able to let small gatherings of exceptionally noisy, fun-seeking adults and children across the threshold again for table tennis marathons, TikTok workshops, TV binges and all day tapas.

My kids spent much of last week there at G’s Hell’s Kitchen Cooking Camp. He’s like Gordon Ramsay but with a much wider world music collection. I mean, there’s a whole section of his CD Wall dedicated to a genre I like to call “nuns in caves”.

He also has a Spice Wall even Ottolenghi would envy.

“Racks of any kind are for amateurs,” is the kind of thing G might say but you forgive him because he is also the kind of person who will spend weeks forensically deconstructing and reproducing a superior version of a sausage and egg McMuffin.

In normal summers, we’ve sent our children to cookery camp. They’d come home laden with perfectly acceptable if unambitious pasta bakes and scones, brownies and chicken curries. But in the absence of a normal summer, trained chef and renaissance man G took them off our hands and whipped them into culinary shape for a week. (As an aside, we are still arguing in a delightfully Irish manner about an acceptable way to recompense him for this. “Put your money away” “I will not indeed” “You can pay me in turnips” etc.)

Every day they came home with a family dinner and various rite-of-passage survival scars. They came home with exceptional knife skills and bandaged fingers. They came home with rice paper rolls and hot oil marks on their arms. They came home knowing how to set a formal dinner table with flowers and the best cutlery. They came home saying things like “only savages use paper napkins”.

This last part was awkward. Living with a Northern Irish protestant, we tend to use industrial quantities of kitchen roll in this house, much of it employed as dinner table napkins. We even fold the paper sheets into oblong napkin shapes or triangles if we’re feeling really fancy.

The crumpled, mismatched cloth napkins languishing at the back of a cupboard are usually only brought out at Christmas. Our kids came home from G & E’s with an exceptional chicken tikka masala saying “G taught us how to iron the crease into a linen napkin … where are our linen napkins?.”

He has created two kitchen monsters. We couldn’t be happier.

It was getting late in the yarden. The dregs of the dessert wine were being tackled. The week had ended with a three-course dinner prepped, cooked, plated and served by the junior chefs under the benign but exacting tutelage of G.

They made Ginger Rocket cocktails, poured wine, served prawn spring rolls with satay sauce for starters and epic fried chicken with potato salad made with home-made garlic mayonnaise and charred romaine lettuce with crispy bacon bits for main course. They had made a very alcohol-forward tiramisu for dessert.

In addition, there was after-dinner cabaret including sweetly harmonised hymns and curse-laden sketches from Derry Girls. As a cultural and gastronomic evening out, it had pretty much everything.

Now the children, exhausted from their exertions, were in the attic whispering secret things to each other while watching something inappropriate on Netflix. Meanwhile, the adults were outside listening to “nuns in caves”, fifth movement: the stalactite years. And a bit of Prefab Sprout.

I realised how much I had missed it, that part of the evening when enough drink has been taken but not enough so anyone is messy. When you’re talking about nothing but it seems to be about everything. When conversations happen that will be taken out, and polished up to enliven future gatherings. I had one of those moments when my friend G failed to offer to make me a spiceburger, assuming that S, the other man in our group, would be the only one interested in such a proposal.

G was standing over at the kitchen looking out at us, talking about how E – who grew up in Asia – had her first spiceburger the other day. She took one bite of this delicacy and declared it, with astonishing accuracy, to be “the Dublin falafel”. G remembered he had spiceburgers in the fridge. He offered one to S, who was now contemplating the offer.

I waited, as someone with a known and clear interest in all foods of the fast genre, to be asked.

And I waited some more.

“What am I chopped liver?” I eventually said after it became clear an offer was not going to be forthcoming.

“Why did you ask S and not me?”

“Because the patriarchy,” said S astutely, him being the biggest feminist in the yarden.

A contrite G made both of us spiceburgers then and came out with them on plates with some of the garlic mayonnaise on the side. S, a purist as well as a feminist, eschewed the mayonnaise while I closed my eyes, alternatively dipping and chewing mindfully and marvelling at how a “burger” containing 10 per cent mystery meats and a load of spices of unknown origin could be so sublime.

An educator who is always willing to be educated, G said he intended to reflect deeply on #spiceburgergate and develop “learning outcomes”, which would be employed at a later date.

The things you learn and the things you remember when you are allowed be together again, talking shite, eating Irish delicacies and setting the world to rights: Always offer a woman a spiceburger.

And feck the patriarchy. Obviously.

roisin@irishtimes.com