Sometimes things don’t go as planned – and those moments often make for the best stories. Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their wild adventures from the road.
To get a feel for a country, you must eat with the people.
When my husband and I visited Kuala Lumpur, we were invited to a 12-course banquet. I had met a gregarious young local in the lobby of our hotel. His father was hosting a large banquet that night for his employees, and the son thought we should come too for a true Chinese/Malay meal. We accepted, thinking that this would be a great way to meet the people of Kuala Lumpur.
The huge restaurant, set on the outskirts of town, was housed in a plain, one-storey concrete building. Everyone at this party was Chinese, one of the city’s largest ethnic communities. We were the only Anglos. I was the only woman.
We were seated at a large, round banquet table with eight men, who attempted to be cordial. They’d bob their heads up and down as they spoke to us in terribly broken English. But I was the quintessential American, unable to speak their language and not willing to try.
After a while, our tablemates quit talking to us. They were obviously more comfortable conversing among themselves.
The beverage of choice that night was bourbon – straight, strong and filled to the top of 12-ounce tumblers.
Every few minutes, a guest would stand, strike his spoon against a glass, mumble a few words, and chug-a-lug the bourbon. The room rang with applause and laughter. Every so often, one of those chug-a-luggers was carried, unconscious, out of the room.
Waiters eventually started coming around with dinner. The first course was soup – big bowls with little duck tongues floating on top.
Next course, broiled chicken feet with crinkly, blackened skin, toenails pointing out and off the serving dishes. When the third course came out, an orgasmic moan of pleasure rang out. This was obviously the pièce de résistance – huge pig heads with no bodies, just skin, lying on gigantic oval trays. Imagine a large, flat slab of bacon – that was the body.
Our waiter politely placed this prize in front of me. The pig and I were eye-to-eye.
My husband whispered “I’ll give you $5 if you eat the pig’s ear.” Unfortunately, at that moment, the room was unnervingly quiet and our dinner partners heard the challenge.
The ear was sort of like my dog’s waxy inner ear, but with more hairs and veins. Of course the pig’s ear was cooked – charred, with dots of secreted oil dripping from the ridges. Actually, it looked exactly like Frisky’s ear on a hot day.
Mr. Chan, seated next to me, said, excitedly, “Oh yes, you must have the ear. It’s a delicacy.”
With that, he reached over, plucked the ear off the pig, and placed it in my plate. All eyes were on me. My husband smiled, devilishly.
Eat that pig’s ear? An abominable thought. But what would my dinner companions think of America and Americans if I refused their delectable delight? Sure, I should do it for the good of the U.S.A. We need to upgrade our PR. But my stomach was in an upheaval. What if I couldn’t keep it down? I thought of those embarrassing news clips of President Bush, many years ago, losing his lunch on the shoulder of the Japanese president.
“No thank you,” I said, meekly.
But Mr. Chan wouldn’t let go. “Are you sure?” he asked. “Try it. You won’t be sorry.”
I couldn’t. I wouldn’t.
“Well, if you don’t want it, I’ll take it,” he said, plucking it from my plate and snarfing it down with hardly a chew.
After that, Mr. Chan and I began to chat. I was really getting a feel for the people. Yes. That’s what this was all about.
But the food? I worried about the next course.
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