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Morsels of optimism: The Wagamama in Terminal 5 (©WAGAMAMA)


Passing through Heathrow Terminal Five with an American colleague recently, he asked me: “How come you guys have such great airports? LAX sucks, JFK sucks, but in Europe they’re amazing.”

I pointed out that the UK also has a free national health service and far greater social mobility, but he seemed a bit put out by that. To distract him, I explained that when Heathrow Five was built, BAA executives were so enamoured of the confluence of form and function the structure represented that they employed a writer-in-residence, one of our best-known philosophers, Alain de Botton, to spend a week in the terminal and compose an encomium on its beauties at a specially constructed desk in full public view between departure zones D and E. A bit like Andrew Marvell at Nun Appleton, but with more discount fragrance options.

Although he modestly dismissed himself as BAA’s “favoured baboon”, poor Mr de Botton was much ridiculed at the time for the pretentiousness of the project, but perhaps his opening premiss really had a point: “Standing before objects of technical beauty, we may be tempted to reject the possibility of awe for fear that we could grow stupid through admiration.”

Consider for a moment the superhuman logistics involved in processing thousands of passengers successfully towards the no less superhuman “calculated defiance of our species’s land-based origins”, and an aesthetic does emerge, one of fluid functionality directed to the spread of culture, pleasure, emotional connection and financial growth which, every time, engages us in a fairly extreme degree of risk. No matter how blasé we have become about the flight safety demonstration, the airport experience is designed to lull us into an appropriately accepting state of calm as the jet leaves the runway. Awe is maybe the correct response.

 I am, I admit, also pretty inspired by UK airport catering. Leaving aside the dispiriting eternal wedding buffet of the executive lounge, I’m really impressed by the niceness of what one can eat at the airport. Given that we’re all stuck there at some point or other, why not provide something semi-decent to eat?

I took my colleague to Wagamama, the mostly Japanesey noodle chain familiar from many a high street. We were seated immediately, water was provided without asking and within minutes a briskly smiling waitress came to check off our order on the menu-cum-tablemat. Whilst not quite attaining the poetry that Mr de Botton was able to discern in the room service menu of the Heathrow Sofitel, Wagamama’s suggestions possess a cheery clarity: a “Meet the dish” section explains its origins and composition and proposes individual amendments.

I’ve eaten at Wagamama a gazillion times, but in the spirit of mindfulness, I paid attention to this and was rather charmed. How brilliant that I can customise my teriyaki donburi with kimchee and a tea-stained egg. How refreshing to have a choice of ponzu or soy-honey dressing on the raw salad, which came generously-portioned with bouncy edamame beans, crisp leaves and crispier scallions. What does it say about the ways in which airports have expanded our cultural as well as literal horizons that we even know what ponzu is? We ordered most of the gyoza dumplings on the menu — pulled pork, yasai vegetable, fried prawn and chicken, and although the yasai were a touch on the rubbery side, they were pretty good, neat and flavourful.

Wagamama does a lot of pan-Asian dishes, and the choices acknowledged the current fashionability of Korean cooking, not just in the densely-spiced kimchee, but in a hirata steamed bun with barbecue beef and red onion and a steak bulgogi, a sauce of citrus (in this case pineapple), soy and sesame which drenches the thinly-sliced meat. I haven’t eaten in a great many Korean restaurants, but these dishes were certainly better than several I have tried. No one could seriously claim that Wagamama represents the acme of what the Nineties referred to as “fusion cuisine”, but this was more than decent — fresh, mostly healthy-feeling ingredients, attention paid to contrast and texture, efficient staff. Lose the franchising and on flavour alone you might think you were in quite a smart place, an opinion which was only reinforced by a brilliant banana katsu pudding.

Whoever invented this dish should be given an award. Two actually. One for shamelessly and thoroughly embracing the fat/sugar possibilities of the traditional banana split and taking them somewhere that sensible people have no business going, and the second for a defiant middle finger to the nonsense of cultural appropriation. Panko-breadcrumbed fried banana with salt-caramel ice cream is a step towards sundae nirvana that in daintier quantities wouldn’t be out of place in any Michelin-starred joint, but it was the extent of the dish’s culinary embrace that really titillated my airport flaneuse. Katsu forms part of the range of recipes known as yoshoku, Japanese versions of popular Western dishes which were introduced in the imperial restoration of the Meiji period in the later 19th century, when among other innovations a ban on red meat was lifted. Tempura-method frying, here adapted to panko breadcrumbs, was a 17th-century import from Portugal, giving the katsu style, frequently served with a curry sauce (Indian subcontinent), as in the popular tonkatsu-kare (pork katsu curry).

Bananas were being imported from the Caribbean as far back as 1633, when one Thomas Johnson proudly displayed a bunch in his Holborn shop, but the majority of the fruits eaten in Britain descend from a strain developed in the 1830s in the hothouses of Chatsworth House, named the Cavendish banana for the family name of the Dukes of Devonshire. Salt caramel is from Brittany, ice cream from Arabic Sicily via Persia. If de Botton’s airport aesthetic were to have a slurping, tooth-aching, tongue-hypnotising objective correlative, banana katsu is it.

De Botton saw the airport as a “worthy and intriguing refuge of elegance and logic”, which might stand as the summation of one of the best puddings I have ever eaten. “Britain: Our airports don’t suck” might not be so eloquent a slogan, but that deep-fried toffee banana was a little morsel of optimism and possibility in what in March 2019 felt like a sadly shrinking world.
 
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