I have dined in a handful of Michelin Star restaurants in my time, taken lunch with high society at The Ivy and had the world famous salad at The Waldorf.
All enjoyable in their way, but nowhere near as much fun as dining with locals in a far flung location in a culture very different to one’s own.
Asia definitely gives the widest variety of opportunities for such experiences be it a madras in Chennai, nasi goreng in Java or pad thai in Chiangmai.
My stand-out restaurant experience was in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, or Canton to give its anglicised name.
My brother and I had travelled to the birthplace of Chiang Kai-shek, who served as the leader of the Republic of China between 1928 & 1975, on a slow boat from Hong Kong in 1996.
We had seen Michael Palin eat there during his ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ series, and decided we had to see it for ourselves.
The journey from our hotel to the Snake King Completely & Restaurant was epic in the first place. My brother Ed rode pillion on the back of a Yamaha, whilst my taxi motorbike tried to keep up, hindered as it was with me in its sidecar.
The ride was hair-raising as we sped the wrong way up one way streets, mounted pavements, swerved to avoid potholes come craters and got perilously close to various forms of transport & unwitting pedestrians.
Ed arrived a good five minutes before me and I found him staring into the restaurant window with a mix of shock & awe. There were snakes galore, black ones, brown ones, striped ones, spotted ones. Tanks, baskets & cages full of writhing starters, main courses and who knew, even desserts.
Just for variety they also had a water vole, totally skinned, but with its long whiskers still intact. We nearly baulked at the sights and it was only our brotherly bravado that saw us enter, somewhat reluctantly. “I don’t mind going somewhere else if you want to?” “No I am fine with it, unless you can’t stomach it?” Damn, why couldn’t we just be honest?
We were led upstairs into a very plain room with white walls, six or seven tables with stained white tablecloths and wooden chairs, the uncomfortable kind that we used to get at school. As we sat, the adjacent table were brought their appetisers – a bowl full of crispy black beetles. Yuk!
We had already had a couple of beers for Dutch courage, ordered two more large Tsing Tao to help obliterate the fumes we had just digested, and then bit the bullet by ordering our food, sweet & sour snake for me, fried snake with egg fried rice being Ed’s choice.
Some of the meals on offer were just incredible. My brother pinched a menu, such was his desire to impress his friends with the less than appetising contents. Tortoise, Beaver, Toad, Silk Worm, Scorpion, Vole, a bird called a Francolin and Jellyfish were all on the menu!
As we waited for our delicacies, the table who munched on beetles as if they were potato crisps, were brought a live black snake and shown it as if they were being shown a bottle of claret to approve its vintage.
The squeamish may want to avoid this next line……………
The unfortunate snake was then shredded alive, before what seemed to be an organ that had been vital to the ex-snake, was presented to one of the diners, who gratefully gobbled it up. Yuk!!
Soon after, our eyes not believing what we had witnessed and our stomachs starting to churn, our meals were plonked in front of us. At least the rice was delicious! The few pieces of snake that we tried were full of small bones and as tough as old rubber.
We probably had a couple of pieces each, woofed down the rice, drained the beer and requested the bill. We had eaten and seen quite enough.
We managed to get a more conventional taxi back to the Friendship Hotel and headed to the bar for a beer and a recap. We hardly noticed the females dressed as geishas who sat next to us. Now that’s another story that we laugh about to this day……….
As I mentioned, my brother purloined a menu that has become family treasure. I have scanned the pages into my computer, with some of the most interesting pages shown below. Enjoy your breakfast!