In the second installment of a regular series featuring our witers’ worst meals, David Wrigley looks back on some questionable decisions made in the face of sensible advice.
I have a terrible memory. I can’t remember faces and I can’t remember names. My kids don’t have birthdays so much as nominal birth seasons. I have no idea when to celebrate the anniversary of my partner and I getting together, I just know it was cold, there were heaps of tui around, and there was a possum involved. I couldn’t tell you what happened three weeks ago or yesterday. Did I take my medication this morning? It’s a hard maybe.
My memory functions in relation to two things and two things only: the New Zealand one day international cricket team between 1985 and 1988, and food.
I can remember details from meals I ate in the 90s. I remember having dinner on a friend’s dime at Il Casino in Wellington in 1996. I remember the medallions of lamb were slightly overdone for my taste and that the side of spinach was under seasoned.
I remember every single dish I ever ordered from an East London restaurant called Brawn. I probably ate there 50 times, and it was a small plates kind of place so that’s a lot of dishes.
I remember the name of the fisherman who caught the turbot I ate for Christmas dinner in 2017. Thanks Steve.
The terrible meals that really stand out for me are not the ones that were overcooked or under salted or past their sell-by date. The real horror shows were the ones that I was warned about. Dishes that simply weren’t for me but I ordered them anyway.
The first of these was in a backstreet restaurant in London’s Chinatown. I was several pints deep and feeling adventurous.
“What would you recommend?”
“Is the duck good?”
“The duck is good.”
I flicked towards the back of the menu where there was a section with Chinese characters and no English translation.
“Congee. It’s not for you.”
“What do you mean? What is it.”
“It’s like porridge. With fish.”
How bad could it be? I imagined myself finishing off a second helping and the elderly matriarch coming out of the kitchen to marvel at this congee loving white man. She would embrace me and call me son.
“I’ll have that.”
“No. You won’t like it.”
“I’ll have that. I bet it’s lovely.”
Suffice to say, 20 minutes later I was placing a £20 note under the mostly untouched bowl of fish porridge and slipping quietly out into the night.
A similar situation in the French town of Troyes in the Champagne region. The regional specialty in those parts is andouillette de troyes, a tripe sausage. You might be surprised to hear that this sounded good to me.
There were three options on the menu of the little bistro I’d wandered into: A, AA, AAA. This was to indicate to what extent the tripe had been washed: A meant that it had been careful rinsed and briefly bleached, AAA meant it had had a quick pat down with a paper towel and sent over to the sausage guy without further ceremony. I ordered the AAA.
It looked lovely– a golden, plump sausage all alone on the plate, steam gently rising into the French night.
I sliced it open down the middle and the smell of the sewer rose to meet me. I gagged a little. The waiter came over,
“Oui, oui. Moutarde, sil vous plait.”
This time, determined not to look weak in front of all these Frenchmen, I finished the meal with the help of half a bottle of mustard and a couple of glasses of scotch. The smell lives with me still.
I made my worst mistake, as is so often the way, in Bangkok. I was there with a friend from London who grew up in the city’s suburbs. We were wondering round late one night after drinking far too much Thai whisky.
My friend saw a food stall, one of those places that was little more than a bicycle, a table, and a pot sitting over a gas fire. This was a forever pot. A stew on an eternal simmer, just hot enough to fight off bacteria. Ingredients were added as necessary to replace the bowls ladled out for hungry customers.
“I’m going to get a bowl from this guy. There’s another good place down the street. We’ll get you something from there.”
“Why don’t I get something from here.”
My friend looked at me straight in the eye.
“Listen Dave. I know what you’re thinking. But this is black crab. It’s not for white people.”
I was shocked and affronted. How dare he.
“Black crab. Sounds great. Get me one.”
“Black crab is sewer crab.” He pointed down at the pavement. “It’s for Thai people. We grew up on it. It’ll make you sick.”
“Nonsense. I’ve got a strong stomach. Gimme.”
In contrast to the congee and the andouillette, the black crab curry was delicious. There was an unbelievable depth of flavour, a depth that can only come from years rather than mere hours. There was just the right amount of sweetness to counter the heat of the chillies. A biting tamarind sourness lifted by roughly torn sprigs of thai basil and coriander. The crab meat and claws were rich and tender and savoury and just a tiny bit… off.
The next three days are lost to me. My friend and his mother managed to keep me alive somehow. I won’t go into too much detail. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t dignified.
What have I learnt from all this reader?
Well I’ve learnt the Thai words for ‘white boy’ and ‘idiot’ and ‘hospital’. Other than that?
Reader, I’ve learnt nothing.