I have a bit of a head today. I know, I know, nothing new there – but this is a different kind of head. Thicker, blunter, stupider. And I only even had half a glass.
Getting ahead of myself already. Let’s backtrack.
K has lunch at the Man Ho restuarant about once a week, as his business partner has been a regular there for years. (Word to me homies: top of Hockley, where it meets Pelham Street. Yeah, that one.) So when the subject of my imminent business trip came up, the manager’s wife kindly offered to lay on a special “Hangzhou menu” for the two of us, comprising local specialities that don’t appear on their English language menu.
(Incidentally, I do love it when Chinese restaurants grant you access to their “Chinese only” menus. They sometimes take a little persuading, as they tend to be of the opinion that no English person could possibly want to be so adventurous – but if you’ve got to know them over time, then you’ll stand a better chance.)
All I can say is this: if I eat even half as well when I’m over there, then I’m in for an extended culinary treat. (Although judging by some of his blog postings over the past few weeks, I can hear my colleague JP’s hollow laugh from here.)
Our three main courses were as follows:
- Tung Pau Yuk: Chunks of belly pork fat, slow-cooked for five or six hours until they become all soft and tender and caramelised and sweet and gooey, with the most heavenly concentration of flavour.
- Sunn Hou Kok: deep-fried garlic ribs with five-spice seasoning.
- Shanghai Noodles: long, fat, slippery and glistening, tubular in shape, and served with strips of meat and steamed vegetables.
While we ate, the manager and his wife took it in turns to come and chat to us. The manager’s wife had brought a photo album along to show me, consisting of photos from her trip to Hangzhou and Shanghai over the spring. This afforded me my first glimpse of Hangzhou’s major tourist attraction, the West Lake. It looked beautiful, dotted with pagodas and bridges, and with mountains in the background.
K looked up at me with wide-eyed amazement. “I had no idea that where you were going was so beautiful. You’ll have a wonderful time. I love the Far East. Wish I was going with you.”
(Did I mention that we looked into this? But with K’s company entering a crucial stage of its development, the timing isn’t right.)
The manager wrote down the names of our three dishes on a piece of card, so that I could point to them in restaurants. What with this and the “flash cards” that we’re issued with, to show to taxi drivers when we want to get to the office or to our apartments, I’m going to be doing a lot of pointing.
A quick language lesson ensued. As a result, I can now say “hello”, “how are you” and “thank you” in Mandarin. (Or was it Cantonese? Nope, Mandarin. I’ve got a lot to learn.) But only if I get the intonations right, of course. God knows what vile oaths I might be uttering otherwise. I bet that puns are big in China; there’s so much scope.
At the end of the meal, an elaborately cut bottle of rice wine was produced, still in its presentation box, and complementary glasses were poured for us with some degree of ceremony.
“Very strong!”, we were told. “50 percent! Very special flavour! It stays with you!”
About ten years ago, in the flock-covered dining room of possibly – hopefully – the last hotel in England which still subscribed to the Fawlty Towers management style (dinner at 7pm sharp, fixed menu, no choice of dishes), the ex-military owner served us with bowls of a “Chinese kidney soup” which looked and smelt exactly like hot urine. It was quite the most disgusting liquid I had ever tasted.
This was worse.
“I can’t drink this!”, I hissed at K. “They’ll be so offended. What can I do?”
“Wait till their backs are turned, then swap your glass for my empty one. I’ll polish it off. I actually quite like it.”
“You like it?”, asked the manager, collecting the empty glasses. “Give me the card, and I’ll write the name down for you: Wu Liang Ye. Now you can enjoy it wherever you go.”
Oh, bloody great. I know exactly how this is going to pan out when I’m over there. I’m going to end up with a bloody cocktail cabinet full of the stuff, aren’t I?
By this time, K was pie-eyed and burbling. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone get drunk quite so quickly. Christ, I felt bad enough; and that was just from the half glass that I’d managed to force down without gagging.
We staggered home, talking shit and giggling, as the vile flavour of the wine “repeated” itself in my mouth, bringing fresh waves of nausea with every gastric lurch.
Four cigarettes later, and all I had to show for my efforts was a mouth like an ashtray, and the same bloody taste, undimmed by my attempts at flushing it out with a cocktail of carcinogenic toxins. Very special flavour; it stays with you. Sheesh, they weren’t wrong.
It is now almost exactly forty-eight hours until my plane takes off. (Perhaps by then, the taste will finally have left my system. Yes, even as I type.)
None of it seems real yet. I can’t get my head around it at all. But I’m glad that last night at least gave me a hint of what’s in store.