COLUMN: July 12, 2018

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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