Sesame Dim Sum & Noodle Bar
31, Old Theatre Street, Valletta
Tel: 2732 2022
It’s far too hot for Christmas but my eating during the week that’s just ended felt like a second festive season. Sometimes events align in a way to chuck copious quantities of food in my direction. Birthdays and celebratory meals, barbecues and planned weekend lunches, and friends visiting from other lands could easily be spread out over the summer but they weren’t.
I spent the week carrying my ever-growing girth around from meal to meal, consuming food and talking about it, usually trying not to do both at the same time. If I can look back at it all and try to distil the content of all the conversations, there was a definite skew towards the quality and provenance of food rather than what it tastes like.
As with every other topic, there are some strong opinions out there and I tend to make friends who wield their opinions like a weapon they’re an expert at using. I like to think that a little balance could be in order though. One meal put me in touch with two people who are vegetarians – one a recent convert and the other having made the choice two decades ago.
We were at a fish restaurant that I shall not name. The man taking our orders wasn’t exactly sympathetic to their dietary choice. When asked whether there was a vegetarian option, his first reaction was to ask what they were doing in his restaurant. He softened the blow by suggesting that they walk up the hill to a field and that they should just sit and eat whatever’s growing there.
The noodle is cut thin, long, and slightly firm to the bite, with a textured surface
I expected to see a twinkle in his eye as he said this but there was no humour to his statement. He just could not see the world from the position of someone who has made a different choice. When he’d gone to bother someone else at a different table, our conversation progressed to the difficulty of making a dietary choice in a country that’s not completely ready for it and, from there, to the provenance of all the food that lands on our tables.
I’ll skip straight to this last bit because it turned into the theme of the week’s chats about food. Most seem to think that the way food has been industrialised is a bad thing all around. A couple of friends who regularly snorkel and fish off their boats had a go at the way in which fish are farmed and the fallout this has on our seas. Those with wider concerns take exception to the beef industry around the world, its dependance on corn as a feed, and the genetic modification of crops to suit higher yields.
It all does sound like a terrible situation to be in. Surely we ought to grow chickens and cows the way our ancestors did, in rolling meadows where they can graze and peck at food to their heart’s content. In the same way we ought to favour more diversity of crops rather than those with shortest times to maturity and highest yields.
Everyone I spoke to, however, is as privileged as I am. Quite possibly, as a reader, you’re in this privileged demographic as well – the one that has a roof over its head and three meals every day. It is easy for us to criticise the way our food is grown because we get to choose what food to buy. If we want sustainable fish, we can shell out for the cost of spear-fishing or choose mackerel and other shoal fish that’s in season. If I want a corn-fed, free-range, organic chicken I can pick one at the butcher’s and pay the premium for it. In short, we get to choose and we have to pay for our choices.
But the times that we romanticise, the times when my grandparents chose the chicken they wanted to eat from the farmer who raised these chickens, were different in a crucial way. There were just over one and a half billion people on the planet when my grandparents were born. Today, we account for 7.4 billion bipeds, and the poorest places on earth are more densely populated than the statistics actually account for.
So before dismissing industrial production of food and the occasionally questionable practices this leads to, stop for a moment and think of those who cannot afford to buy food unless it has come from an incredibly cheap form of production. Short of a cataclysmic event, the population of the planet will only increase, with more mouths to feed competing for the same resources.
Of course, industrial food processes should be forced into adopting responsible practices. But no amount of privileged indignance will stop mass-growth of basic foods without starving those who are most in need.
At this point I ought to write about a meal and the hands that provided it. I’ll pick a quick meal I had in Valletta because it turned out to be quite unexpected. I was with a friend who’d heard of a dim sum and noodle bar close to the old food market. I’ve been in noodle withdrawal since a near death-by-ramen in Japan so I was all enthusiastic about the suggestion.
Sesame is a tiny place that’s just beneath the old Aladdin heaters sign so it has full view of what will one day be a restored food market. In my head, the place would turn into a centre for arts and creativity but I suppose turning it into a modern-day food market is more appropriate to the building’s history.
There are two tables outside and they were both occupied. The man who took our orders explained that they were very busy, with both tables occupied. There’s a table inside and we decided we’d eat there but, as luck would have it, five minutes after we’d placed our order a table was vacated so we sat in the shade and enjoyed a cool breeze.
To start with, we shared a dim sum combo. Eight, bite-sized, pieces were served with two little pots of sauce – one filled with soy sauce and the other with hoi sin. All steamed, the dumplings were variations on ways with shrimp and pork so there isn’t a staggering gamut of flavours. They’re fun and delicately flavoured though and made for an excellent way to stave the hunger while our mains were being prepared.
Just as our starters were thoughtfully served within a very short time, our main courses followed with similar alacrity. This is predominantly a lunch outfit and they’ve understood that most of us are on the clock at this time. I’d ordered the beef curry served with noodles and was pleased to see that the curry and the noodles are served separately.
This gives the opportunity to serve chilled noodles, ideal for lunch when the sun is gently roasting every masterpiece the Knights left behind. Crunchy bell peppers, onions and carrots give texture to what they describe as a green curry.
I’m more used to the Thai version and this one is similar but with a riper sweetness to it and a perfectly decent heat. The beef is tender, so tender you know it’s been tenderised, but we’re paying for street food here so I wasn’t about to complain. The noodle is cut thin, long, and slightly firm to the bite, with a textured surface that pulls up plenty of sauce with it.
The braised beef, with carrots, spring onions, cucumber and broccoli, is served part of a cold dish. It is mild-mannered compared with the curry, perhaps too mild mannered. Once again, the beef is tender and thinly sliced so it’s easy to eat with just a fork, even if I think chopsticks are better suited to this kind of dish.
I paid €20 for the lot, including a couple of drinks. Considering the speed at which we were served and the well-prepared food that’s unlike anything else in the area, we’d scored a pretty good deal. And matters were on the up and up even as we left Sesame. Right next door there’s the fabulous Lot Sixty One Coffee Roasters and we popped in for an exceptional espresso and the agonising choice of cakes on display.
Valletta is rapidly catching up on the benefits of a more multicultural society and anyone out for a new set of flavours ought to be glad for it.
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