So near yet so feared: beggars' banquets
Cecilie Gamst Berg
Photo: Cecilie Gamst Berg
It's a phenomenon I've noticed many times but only ever in the mainland: when it comes to food, cheapest is best.
Not only is this true, but the fanciest and most expensive is often unbelievably, wallet-shrivellingly bad.
Take Guizhou province, for example, where I spent Christmas with various chums. We thought we'd do something special on Christmas Eve, dinner-wise, and let a taxi driver take us to a "famous and a little bit nice Sichuan restaurant" as we were starving and too cold to walk. That was mistake No1.
In my experience, taxi drivers don't understand Sichuan food, even in Sichuan province. They invariably take you somewhere they think they would go if they weren't themselves.
So we ended up in a cavernous, morgue-like structure that was several degrees colder than outside, in a district full of Lexuses (Lexi?) and BMWs but without a single interesting thing to look at. The staff, although wearing Santa hats (flat on top of their heads and fastened with hair clips), didn't seem to know they were working in a restaurant. Every order we made was met with the same incredulous stare even when we pointed to it on the menu, which - and this was our second mistake - we thought actually listed Sichuan food.
But they were inventive - "dry-fried four season's beans", for example, arrived on the table as "pig's stomach in spicy sauce". You may suppose the difference is negligible, but I am prejudiced against innards. (So I've finally eaten stomach, although it was the knowledge of what it was rather than the taste that made it so disgusting.)
Being such a modern and happening venue, every surface was marble, which must have helped lower the temperature. It was the most miserable, tasteless, overpriced meal I've had since I was forced to visit a McDonald's in 1990.
When we noticed they had charged 88 yuan (HK$110) for a pot of lukewarm tea we considered our Christmas Eve to be well and truly ruined. I should have known better - at least 90 per cent of all upmarket mainland restaurants I've visited have been a disappointment.
Come New Year's Eve, however, we knew what to do. Down a back alley was a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant heated by a coal-driven stove that also served as our table. And there we had the best meal of the whole trip: proper Sichuan food the way it should be; food of the gods, invented by angels; divine fare to out-food all other foods - except that from street stalls, which is even cheaper and better than the food from holes in the wall. At minus-three degrees Celsius, though, I prefer my table to be a stove rather than the street.