It is great when someone else is paying. You go to restaurants that you would never dream of frequenting if you were picking up the tab and they make a very welcome change to the local KFC. I have enjoyed many such lavish and sometimes damn unusual evenings out as my waistline and two visits to casualty will testify.
The most exquisite and possibly risky places I have ever dined in were in China including Hong Kong. The further you get out of the main centres of mass tourism the greater you test your taste buds and the more you discover just how squeamish you are.
On one visit to Hong Kong our local hosts decided to show us the ‘real China’ so they loaded us onto a coach and we headed off to the then border with the mainland. The thinking was to take in the sights and enjoy lunch in a well known restaurant where Chinese tourists went. It seemed a fine idea at the time and I think our hosts were prematurely congratulating themselves for thinking of it.
Unfortunately I nearly brought the whole thing to an end before it started. We arrived at one of the most dangerous looking borders I have ever seen. There were barracks around it and razor wire everywhere. Worst of all it was full of small fanatical looking soldiers who looked as though they would like nothing better than to shoot someone. We were told not to ‘do anything sudden’ and sit quietly at an outside table in the baking sun whilst our documents were checked. We were being chaperoned by two armed guards who looked like a pair of pit bulls straining at their leashes. ‘Make my day Punk’ they seemed to be thinking.
It was at this point my lighter exploded in the sun sending shards of plastic everywhere. I had bought it for next to nothing in the street outside my hotel and the combination of the sun’s rays and cheap components were all too much for it. I found myself the centre of attention. Guns were pointed and I had to lie on the floor with the rest of my bemused lunch companions while being screamed at in Chinese.
It took a while but eventually my explanation was accepted and off we went into the New Territories to find our ethnic restaurant. We eventually arrived after a hot and gruelling journey and got behind a huge queue of local tourists. Why anyone would queue to get in that hell hole I do not know. It seemed to be made of concrete squares and contained home made tables and a range of 24 different types of chairs (we counted them).
Our hosts soon discovered their big mistake. Being local there was no menu translation and no pictures of the dishes to decipher. There was nothing to tell us what we were eating so we ordered the ‘feast’ set meal. This arrived on 10 different types and colours of serving plates (we counted them) and their contents looked like the reject pieces from an abattoir.
The silence was palpable as we all sat there with our chopsticks staring at bits of beak, feet, possibly eyes and fins. The waiters extolled the virtues of each dish (in Chinese) and started ladling the choicest bits on our plates. It was bad for most of us but worse for our German colleague who was trying to explain she was vegan and American asking if it contained gluten. I do not think either got a conclusive answer.
The time had come to eat. By now we had become the centre of attention in the place. Other tables stopped to watch and even the chef had come out of the kitchen to see us enjoy his ‘feast’. I was first with a chicken foot and it was truly disgusting. Others started picking at their plates as it soon became clear that an international incident would be created if we refused to eat. It soon became a relay race to the toilet as one by one we bolted off gurgling like cats bringing up fur balls.
Somehow we managed to eat enough off our plates to make at least an appearance of having dined. We attacked the water and rice wine and started on a large bowl of rice that had mysteriously arrived unordered. Unfortunately the rice heralded the final dish which was the chef’s particular special that he prepared just for us. It was a stew. Well it had some kind of fatty liquid and there were lumps of meat in it.
The meat looked like a kind of pork belly. There was a strip of meat with a layer of fat covered with black crackling type skin. Unfortunately some of the skin still had a few hairs sticking out of them and it proved not to be at all crispy. With the chefs eyes boring into us we decided that the only way to deal with this was to swallow chunks whole. We were even quite organised and allowed the women to go first and swallow the smaller bits. Somehow we managed.
The chef was pleased to bits and shook all our hands. A Chinese lady from another table came over and asked in halted English whether we enjoyed Doll. ‘Doll’ we queried? ‘Yes Doll’ she replied. “You know, Woof Woof” she mimed. "Oh my God she meant dog not doll" said our vegan as the fur ball imitations started all over again.
We fled to the coach and many of us could not look a dog in the face for weeks!