Chinese-Mexican, English-Style Fish and Chips

I guess it started way back that evening in a restaurant in Kampala when my younger son was really young.

‘Look, Daddy,’ he said, ‘There’s a Chinese eating Indian.’

It’s a nice one, isn’t it? Says something about the importance of punctuation – which can’t be one of the most riveting topics in the world. But there really is an important difference, isn’t there, between ‘a Chinese-eating Indian’ and ‘a Chinese, eating Indian’?

It was then I started collecting the odd, sometimes bizarre, things you hear or read in restaurants.

Like this latest. We were in a Chinese-cum-Mexican restaurant just the other day. With the same son, actually – but a good ten or so years more mature but no less observant. We felt we had to try this new place, all hung with red lanterns and fairy lights on the trees – and quite strident in advertising the mixed delights you could taste inside.

The menu was one of the most elaborate and extensive I have ever seen… But then the let-down came as the waiter told us that all the first three things we tried to order were not on offer that day because the Mexican chef was off ill.

‘OK,’ I said, ‘I’ll go for the English-style Fish and Chips’

‘Sorry, Sir,’ the waiter said, ‘But we can’t do that because it’s the Mexican chef who cooks that…’

‘That’s one to remember,’ my son, Jan, said, ‘English-style Fish and Chips in a Chinese restaurant, cooked by a Mexican chef!’

It was only the next day that we were in a Japanese restaurant with a very French name and I collected a card from the guy who seemed to be in charge and read that he was called, not a ‘Sous Chef’ but a ‘Soul Chef’. Is that someone who roasts you in Hell?

It was in that same restaurant that when I asked whether they took credit cards, I was told that the machine was ‘having a problem’. Usually a bad sign, that. An indicator that the place could be on the way down.

It reminded me of my father back in England, who had a lorry and who used to sell vegetables in Nottingham, our nearest big city. In school holidays I often went with him – to the wholesale market and then on his ‘shop-round’. One day, after selling a couple of crates of cabbages to a back-street shop, my father said. ‘That place will be closing down soon.’

‘Why do say that?’ I asked.

‘Well, didn’t you see the goodie jars? Some of them are empty or nearly empty. You can tell how well a shop is doing if you look at the goodie jars.’

With restaurants, the indicator seems to be credit cards.

But back to the more amusing things…..

Restaurants in Tanzania in the Ujamaa days were often places for memorable quotes. Like when I was with a colleague in a hotel in Dar es Salaam, and, when she saw that the tea was well-brewed and rather too strong for her taste, she asked the waiter if he could bring a pot of hot water.

He grimaced and didn’t move.

‘Is there a problem with that?’ she asked.

‘Not really madam – but it means I will have to go back to the kitchen’.

One of my funniest waiter incidents, however, was in a hotel at Diani. I was running a workshop for a group of public health officers. At dinner, the waiter passed round the menu and took our individual orders. Some 45 minutes later the food came – all of us got ugali and bones.

‘Why is this?’ I asked.

‘Orders from above,’ he replied.

In those days of the old regime, it seemed, that was an answer that allowed you to get away with anything.

But since I started with the Chinese, let me finish with them… Well, with Vietnamese, actually. But, like the Chinese, they often give us some delightful English on their menus. Like in the Army Hotel in Hanoi – where, if you wish, you can have their ‘Crap Soup’.

I hope you will forgive the reminiscing. But I am chair-ridden with a stiff leg – so the actual going places is on hold for a few days.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation