As it was a pre-opening and we had time on our hands, my Executive Sous Chef suggested that since it was now winter in Hong Kong, I might like to go with him to a game restaurant to explore possible menu ideas. Not really knowing what he was talking about, I went along anyway because I was keen to try as many new things as possible. We arrived at the appointed restaurant, which was located down a back street, or more rather some dark alley, such that you would never be able to find it a second time even if you wanted to. The owner and chef came out to greet us, and told us that if we were willing he would like to play a little game with us. He would bring out the food and as we finished each course, we would have to guess what we had just eaten. It sounded a little scary to me given that this was Hong Kong, but as I did want to try things, and was also keen to fit in, I went along with it.
The first dish we ate was a very strong smelling, yet clear soup, which the chef said was, “Good for the body”, which part I wondered.
He asked us what we thought it was. Well I surmised, it was a game restaurant, and it was a soup. “Pheasant” I said.
“What, what the hell is pheasant?” came the reply.
I knew then that I was in trouble, and this was going to be a long, long night.
Our host went into the kitchen and brought out a large cage on a wheeled trolley, covered by a dirt white blanket. He did his trick of pulling away the blanket like a television magician, revealing a huge, slimy, long-tongued, uglier that anything I had seen…lizard. My stomach started to turn over straight away and I thought I was going to throw up on my shoes, and for that matter, on everyone else’s.
Then came the next course, a small bowl of some kind of stronger smelling heavy stew. I nibbled at it since my appetite was already suffering under the enormous strain. “Game Restaurant”, I whispered to myself, “I’ll give him GAME restaurant.”
Out came the dreaded cage once again, and away went the blanket to reveal a beautiful Snowy White Owl, it’s huge eyes looking deep into mine. That, my friends was the last straw.
I didn’t care any more if I was going to fit in or not. Dinner was over for me and, as the next course came out, I announced that I was out of the game. So as not to cause offence, I decided to ask for something safe instead, and with which I was familiar.
“Hey, how about just giving me some chicken chow mein” I asked pleadingly.
The manager looked at me extremely confused, “Chicken chow what?” he said. “Chow mein” I reiterated.
“Are you trying to be funny?”, he responded angrily. “If you don’t like the food, I understand but there is no reason to be rude.”
“What the heck was he talking about?” I asked Tan my assistant, and then he told me that he had been living in Hong Kong all his life and he had never heard of this dish. What was worse, “chow” translated from Cantonese to English is “stink!”
For the full years I was in Hong Kong, I was unable to find a single restaurant that had heard of the famous “Chicken Chow Mein,” much less had it on their menu.
My protestations of being full had still not spared me from the third course. This was another thick stew, which the owner told us, “Is made especially to keep the body warm during winter,” while pulling away the trolley curtain to reveal a somewhat scabby-looking dog.
This time I tried a different track.
“I think I must have eaten something which did not agree with me at lunch earlier today.” I mustered.
This at least seemed to do the trick. Though still trying to extend hospitality and feeling sorry for me being unable to eat the delights of the main meal, he brought out some steamed prawns and fish insisting that it would make me feel better. Guess what, my appetite was indeed encouraged back to life!
The whole experience showed me though that if you have the taste for something and the money to pay for it, you can find it and eat it in Hong Kong.