Maybe it's just that I don't move in the right circles, but I'd never before encountered the all-you-can-eat restaurant in a truly grandiose style until I travelled to Asia.
My first experience was when we were on holiday in Hong Kong. One night, as we were wandering around trying to find somewhere to eat, we followed some food signs to a basement restaurant beneath a department store in Nathan Road. We were blown away when we saw the range of food to choose from. In a normal restaurant you expect to see several dishes for different kinds of meat, fish, seafood, vegetarian, plus staples such as rice, noodles, bread and potatoes. All you can eat Asian style means very many more dishes of every kind, plus several you've never heard of, and lots more that were until that moment beyond your imagination.
Even four years later the memory of my first encounter with this phenomenon is so strong I can recall details vividly. I remember wondering what the people in the long line were waiting for, and then seeing someone walk away with half a lobster, eat it quickly, then rejoin the queue for another one. And then do it again. To save time people in a large party would load plates to spilling point with just one dish and take it back to their table to share. I had my first, and last, taste of jellyfish there (there are some Asian foods that I don't think I'll ever understand), and my final memory of the evening is waddling to the dessert counter and trying to choose from fifty different types when I was already too full to eat even one.
Luckily for our waistbands, we haven't got heavily into all you can eat here in Taiwan. Such restaurants tend to be packed on weekends, which is mostly when we eat out due to weekday evenings being taken up by homework. But now that it's the summer holidays and our evenings are less busy, we took the opportunity to visit an old favourite on floor 12 of the building above Uniqlo at Zhongshan Dunhua MRT station.
This restaurant is the largest and best we've yet encountered. Called Guo Ran Hui (which means...'really'...ummmm...something) it must seat at least two hundred people, and when we'd been there before we not only hadn't been able to fit in even the smallest taste of everything available, we hadn't even been able to see it all. Afterwards, comparing memories, we'd all seen things the others hadn't managed to get around to.
Our most recent visit was on a Tuesday evening, and this time there was a small surprise in store. While waiting to go in, the waitress explained that there was no beef or seafood that night. At least, that's what we thought she said. We were okay with that and just put it down to the fact that it was midweek so they probably didn't go the whole hog, or cow (okay, that was bad, I know).
I'm not that quick at the best of times, and when I saw the rows of vegetarian dishes I thought, great, they're catering really well for the vegetarians. Now, what am I going to eat? It was only when my husband brought back his vegetarian dishes from the other side of the restaurant that the light began to slowly dawn. Tuesday night was vegetarian night, and we'd misunderstood what the waitress was trying to tell us.
Oh well, it was time to eat healthily for a change. Having several vegetarian friends, I've been treated to many delicious vegetarian meals over the years, but the choice and quality of meals we ate last Tuesday were a wonder.
Long rows of ever-replenished plates of food.
This was my first plate. I was hungry, having not eaten for several hours in preparation for the evening. Mexican omelette is peeking out at the top. Mushroom risotto to the right. Vegetable curry at 6 o' clock, ratatouille to the left, roast vegetables and baked tomato with cheese, topped with a small rice cake.
I lost count of how many plates Andy had. This is roast baby corn at the back, bamboo shoot kebab in front, cooked melon gourd (or something like that) in front of that. I'm not 100% sure what the other two things are.
This is my second plate, which is sweet and sour tofu, Kong Pao tofu, tempura vegetables including some kind of fern shoot, more stir-fried shoots and a sesame ball. Which was a mistake, because that's actually a dessert, haha.
One of Conrad's plates. He had some kind of Italian bread thing, deep fried broccoli, salad leaves, rice cake and one of the many dumplings. I couldn't fit any dumplings in, unfortunately.
Because I had to leave room for dessert. From the twenty or thirty on offer, I chose morello cherry pie, longan cake, choc chip cookies and a square of chocolate fruit.
Who knew stuffing yourself to the gills could be healthy?
All you can eat Asian style is a lesson in excessive eating that I'll hopefully never learn to master like a local. It's feasting in a grand style that's both amazing a kind of mildly disappointing, because your stomach can never possibly fit in all that your eyes can behold.