COLUMN: July 12, 2018

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A perfectly normal Chinese dish

THERE are some experiences we repeatedly undergo because we forget about the bad parts and only remember the good parts – buying a car, or jogging, or childbirth, for instance.

To this list of infamy we must also add the act of going to a Chinese buffet restaurant. Visiting a Chinese buffet restaurant always seems like a good idea at the time. “What?” you say. “All I can eat for £9.99? Did they not see me take the last piece of Dundee cake on December 29?”

Challenge accepted, you walk inside. Because you have forgotten about The Chinese Buffet Trap.

You take up a seat and order a small beverage, perhaps a Coke. “THREE POUNDS?!” you think. “I wanted a Coca-Cola, not cocaine. So that’s how they make this pay.”

You pick up a bowl and take it to a couple of tureens. One of them is filled with hot and sour soup. You can see one prawn in there. “They must be saving the prawns for the sesame prawn toast,” you think. Then you look in the other tureen. It is labelled “sweetcorn soup”. “Where’s the chicken?” you wonder. The floor, you realise at this point, is going to be strewn with cut corners.

“I didn’t come here to eat bits of sweetcorn,” you tell yourself. You take some hot and sour soup, and the three prawn crackers that you can carry, and sit down. The soup is both hot and sour, and so you cannot complain, even though you didn’t get the prawn on this occasion.

Now for the bit for which you really go to Chinese restaurants, the dim sum/hors d’oeurves. “Take me to the sesame prawn toast, feet,” you say. You fetch up at the buffet area. There is no sesame prawn toast. Instead there is sesame chicken toast. “Oh,” you think, “that’s where the chicken went.”

You pile your plate with ribs and dumplings and chicken wings and crispy seaweed – because what could be healthier than deep fried kale? – and sit down again. You realise that 70% of what is on your plate is bones. “So that’s how they make this pay”, you think again. You try to pick up crispy seaweed with your fork. Neither the fork nor the crispy seaweed is having it. It is like trying to pick up water with a tennis racquet.

The napkin you have been allocated has given up the ghost, defeated by hoisin sauce and your skin. Your plate is now 95% bones and 5% crispy seaweed. It is time to return to the buffet.

The buffet is a free-standing thing filled with vats of stuff. You take a fresh plate and pay close attention to the flow of traffic. It is moving anti-clockwise. You find a gap and join the queue, planning to furnish yourself with a bed of rice on which you will later sit a variety of what the Chinese think the English will eat based on years of the Chinese’s bitter experience. A nearby waitress watches and inwardly shudders.

Your plate filled with a variety of rice and noodles, you move anti-clockwise towards a vat of vegetables in something when somebody swoops in from the clockwise direction and swipes the serving spoon before you can touch it, and you have to wait for them, like a seaside gull waiting for a dropped chip.

“Fine,” you think. “Anarchy it is.” And you plunder the remaining vats, pushing children and little old ladies out of the way, piling some very undistinguished sweet and sour chicken and beef in black bean sauce onto your plate, not caring that it is the equivalent of piling pizza, fish fingers, and shepherds pie onto your plate, and forgetting that this is lunch and not a Man V Food challenge.

And then you remorselessly work your way through the meal you have carefully curated. It turns out that “all you can eat” is roughly equivalent to a normal meal. And now you have found yourself in the Chinese buffet trap.

There is a sign saying, “Please do not take more food than you can eat.” But also you remember that bank advert that says that Chinese people take it as an insult if you clear your plate, because it implies they haven’t given you enough food.

So how much food are you allowed to leave? You have no idea, and you remember that’s why you told yourself last time you would never go to another Chinese buffet restaurant.

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COLUMN: July 5, 2018

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It wasn’t like this. And even if it were, it still would have been unacceptable

I HAD to catch the bus for a meeting and it was warm, early July warm. And I don’t mean normal early July warm, where we are insulated by off-white clouds and the rain is slightly less cold.

No, I mean this early July warm, where the sky is an unbroken blue and the grass verges are an unbroken yellow, where the tumbleweed blows across the cracked soil and tongues dart in and out of the mouths of lizards.

I do not know if you have ever been on a bus in such weather, but it is like a greenhouse on wheels, a portable Tenko, a charabanc outing for the Body Odour Pride Support Group.

Windows are abundant, and windows that can open are rationed, because it’s a nicer design, and air conditioning is restricted to the breeze caused when somebody rushes past when he realises that the bell didn’t work and he has to alert the driver to his stop sharpish.

And I was wearing a dark suit and trying not to perspire, in circumstances expressly designed to make a body perspire, because I was going to a meeting and did not want to give the impression that I had stopped off at the baths in order to dive for a rubber brick.

“Think cool thoughts, chum,” I told myself. I imagined Rihanna and the late Sir David (Aptly-Named) Frost sitting on thrones of ice while making short work of a pile of strawberry mivvis, and, for a moment, this inspirational scene fooled my easily-led body into holding off on the sprinkler system.

“This is good,” I thought. “The important thing is that nothing enrages me in the next five minutes…”

And then I saw him. Across the aisle, there was a man, also dressed in a dark suit, the sweat on his neck making his hair curl. Had things turned out differently, I might have shared the Rihanna/Frost secret with him and changed his life.

But they did not. I saw him reach into a carrier bag and bring out a cheese sandwich. And instead of him saying to the rest of the passengers, “Who has put this in my bag? I mean, what sort of absolute psycho eats a cheese sandwich on a bus as hot as the core of the sun?” this man actually took a bite of the sandwich.

I do not want you to think I am against cheese sandwiches in general. There is little that gives me greater pleasure than Cheshire cheese and tomato on some thickly sliced wholemeal bread. And I am a big fan of the cheese toastie.

But it is utterly unacceptable to attempt to make a cheese toastie by using the heat of an early July bus, no matter how hot it is.

Just imagine what this cheese sandwich would have been like – medium-sliced Mother’s Pride slowly drying out on the outside, butter melted into bubbling liquid, and cheese, sweaty and floppy. What kind of monster could actively enjoy that?

Reader, I baulked, involuntarily and loudly. I am sure I was not the only one.

Because you can’t do that. Cheese sandwiches are on the list of things you cannot eat on a hot bus, because of the effect they have on normal people like me. The other items include – and this is not a complete list – egg sandwiches, fish sandwiches (specifically tuna), sliced ham, slices of melon, peaches, and yoghurt.

And then he took another bite, and a small morsel of cheese attached itself to his chin. Did he not know, or did he not care? I expect it was the latter. Either way, it remained on his chin as he polished off the rest of his vile sandwich, as if he were taking part in some sort of Japanese gameshow.

I felt the heat rising in me throughout, and the sweat ran down my face and the back of my neck, and I turned up at my meeting looking as if I’d been sculpted out of strawberry ice cream.

Some of you – the worst of you – will be thinking, “Just get over yourself, Gary. He ate a cheese sandwich on a bus. What’s it got to do with you?”

But what if he’d been flossing his teeth, or cutting his toenails right in front of you – both examples of behaviour I have witnessed on the bus?

We have to draw the line somewhere. And this is where I draw it. No cheese sandwiches on hot buses.