Ian McMillan: The sweet and sour hazards of a Chinese takeaway

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When I was first courting the girl who’s been my wife for over three decades, I went to her house one Friday night and her sisters announced they were going to get a Chinese takeaway. It’s hard now, in 2012, to recall with any clarity how exotic that felt in Darfield in the early 1970s; indeed at that time there wasn’t a Chinese takeaway in the village and they had to go to the bustling metropolis of Goldthorpe to pick it up.

My heart sank; how could I tell them that I’d never been inside a Chinese eatery before, and that the extent of my culinary adventures was to have brown bread instead of white with my tin of oxtail soup?

One of the sisters had a menu from a previous visit, which she passed to me. “What do you normally have?,” she said. Well, I normally had oxtail soup with white bread but I don’t suppose they did that. I glanced at the list; I may as well have been looking at ancient Anglo-Saxon Runes or a transcription of a Sanskrit text. Chow Mein? What on earth was that? Fried rice? How (or why) would you fry rice? I usually had rice from a tin with jam in. Sweet and Sour? Now that was just daft. What would be the point of something being sweet and sour at the same time? I looked blank. I felt scared.

What if I ordered something and then I didn’t like it? What if it made me hiccup or, worse, burp? What if I spilled some on my matching paisley shirt and tie? The sisters chose theirs and my new girlfriend wrote it down.

I was still pretending to study the menu as hard as I could, as though I was a man of the world whose palate was jaded from all the exotic food I’d chomped over the years and so I was searching for something, just something, that could revive my over-stimulated taste buds. There was a long pause. “Boiled rice,” I said.

“And what else?,” one of the sisters said. “Nowt. Just boiled rice. I like boiled rice. I find it… satisfying.” My girlfriend wrote down “Boiled rice” in her careful hand. I’m eternally grateful that she didn’t put an exclamation mark after it, or write the word “satisfying” after it. Boiled rice. Surely I’d be all right with boiled rice. There would be nothing spicy or exotic about boiled rice.

One of the sisters went off to get the takeaway and the rest of us sat and waited. I tried to make culinary conversation. “I prefer brown bread with oxtail soup, don’t you?,” I said to nobody in particular. The words hung in the air like an unfortunate smell.

The takeaway arrived and was plated up. My boiled rice sat there like a mountain of baby food. The others had delicious-looking and excitingly-scented plates of all sorts and they tucked in. I picked up a spoon and filled my mouth with too much boiled rice. I didn’t realise how hot it was going to be and my eyes bulged. I went the same colour as my paisley shirt and tie.

I tried to swallow the rice but that would have singed my throat. In the end I managed to work most of it one side of my mouth and then, with the other side of my mouth, gasped, “Have you got any strawberry jam?”