The unique conditions of 2020 have seen eating habits change across the globe. Alongside the sourdough preppers and physically distanced diners, perhaps the biggest difference of all can be seen in the world of home delivery.
For some cities in lockdown the only life on the streets has been thousands of scooters, cyclists and drivers zipping from restaurant to house, feeding families and keeping businesses running.
But most food wasn’t made to be sealed in plastic and bounced on the back of a scooter for 20 minutes before it gets to you. Let me take you through a few delivery favourites and their pros and cons in search of the answer to which food reigns supreme in the world of home delivery.
Pizza is the OG delivery food, which is why it’s so surprising that it’s not a particularly good one. Steaming a baked product in an insulated bag after it’s cooked is not exactly keeping it in prime condition.
The heavily processed chain-store varieties get away with it because you’re not expecting perfection, but the problem is I’m a snob and like my fancy Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana-approved pizza to arrive as it would fresh from its wood-fired oven.
The saving grace is that pizza reheats exceptionally well. After I’ve placed my order I turn my oven on as hot as it goes. When the pizza arrives, it goes straight on to a tray and into the oven for a couple of minutes to bring it back to its original glory. This method works for chain-store pizzas, too (though their original glory isn’t quite as glorious).
Why there hasn’t been a family-sized lasagne delivery service that has taken the world by storm and become some kind of billion-dollar tech unicorn through this Covid period is quite beyond me.
Pasta is *OK* for delivery but it really is better freshly prepared. The exceptions, however, are the “al forno” baked varieties of which lasagne is the undisputed king. It might be a little time-consuming to make at home, but it can be prepared relatively easily and in bulk in restaurants. Combine this with its excellent deliverability and it’s a wonder why Italian restaurants haven’t pivoted to this sooner.
Fine dining: 🤷🏻♂️/10
With restaurants severely restricted in what they can serve, many fine-dining establishments have pivoted to home delivery. Some do it well, others not so well, so it’s hard to give this one a score. While it’s good to see many restaurants giving it a go, I can’t help but feel that fine dining is more about the experience than the food alone.
A bit like watching Hamilton on the telly, it might be OK as a novelty but it really isn’t the same as being there.
The major burger chains have all jumped on the home-delivery wagon as a source of revenue, but getting burgers delivered generally sucks. The fries are irredeemable, any semblance of freshness has wilted to mush, and the sauces and meat juices have soaked into the bun, destroying any integrity it may once have had.
If you must send for burgers, try to keep them as simple as possible. A simple cheeseburger – the smaller the better – will roughly approximate a White Castle-style steam-grilled slider after the trauma of delivery. Load up on these and leave the fancy burgers and fried sides for dining in.
Sushi began life as delivery food. It was originally a product of packing fish in rice for weeks long road transport by horse and cart. The fermentation of the rice preserved the fish, and that souring is mimicked by the vinegared rice used in modern sushi. Even the nigiri sushi that we see whizzing around on conveyor belts these days was originally sold door-to-door by a man named Hanaya Yohei who in the 1800s wandered the streets of what is today Tokyo’s Ginza district selling rice balls he moulded by hand and topped with pieces of raw fish.
Sushi’s delivery credentials are well established, but its main benefit is that it’s served at room temperature, meaning that the insulation and transportation process doesn’t generate excess heat or steam. Rolls are likely to fare better than nigiri, as balancing fish on top of rice is not a process designed to survive transport across these mean streets.
Chinese/Thai: 3/10 – 7/10
You might think it’s strange that I’m lumping these together, but there’s such a variety of Chinese cuisines that even keeping those into one category is weird enough, so you may as well throw the stir-fried Thai takeaways in there as well.
My issue with these is twofold. I’m no fan of the “pick your meat and sauce” Thai-ish takeaways at the best of times, so how they’re delivered doesn’t matter much to me. But one thing the various Chinese and Thai cuisines have in common is that they thrive on variety and the juxtaposition between the different characteristics and textures of dishes, and that’s something that delivery doesn’t do justice.
A braised dish might arrive in good condition, but a crisp-fried fish or chicken won’t. Soup will need to be reheated, and stir-fried dishes will lose much of their wok hei. It won’t stop me ordering good Chinese or Thai food for delivery, but having it in a restaurant will be so much better.
Getting slow-braised dishes from the subcontinent delivered is perhaps even better than cooking them yourself. There’s little difference between the delivery version and fresh in the restaurant for most of the wet dishes, but anything from the tandoor will suffer from the journey. I reheat breads like naan and paratha on a hot, dry grill pan after they arrive, and can confirm it’s a step worth doing.
If I had to pick a favourite food to order in it would be dumplings. Dumplings are the *chef’s kiss* of home delivery foods, and they’ve been hiding in plain sight the whole time.
While many of us have missed the joys of circulating yum cha trolleys over the past few months, if you think about it, getting delivery is kind of the same thing except the trolley is a scooter and it travels a greater distance. Re-steam them if you want them piping hot, or even just give them a zap in the microwave.
Steamed foods thrive in the steamy environment of packaging and home delivery, so break out the lazy Susan and teapot and gird your loins for yum cha at home.