MEALS served with a sprinkling of 24 carat gold by a restaurant in Guangzhou have fuelled debate on whether China's new rich should be allowed to indulge in such extravagance while millions go hungry. The Guangzhou Restaurant started serving dishes decorated with gold leaf at the beginning of last month, and has already served the opulent fare to 100 tables. A restaurant manager quoted in the Shanghai newspaper Wen Hui Bao said the Japanese had been eating such ''golden banquets'' for two or three decades. The goal of the Guangzhou Restaurant was ''to develop Chinese food culture, and not let the Japanese have a monopoly on beauty'', the manager said. For 3,980 yuan (about HK$5,370) a table, guests can dine on such delicacies as abalone, sharks fin, crocodile and clam sprinkled with gold leaf. A bottle of foreign alcohol is thrown in for free. Or they can order a la carte. A dish of ''golden unicorn beancurd'', for example, goes for 168 yuan. The cost to the restaurant of the gold leaf itself is 300 to 400 yuan per table. The newspaper did not say what the restaurant's mark-up on the gold leaf was. ''Of course, the gold leaf has no taste,'' the paper said. ''The main function is its colour, shiny and splendid. So people say that going to this kind of banquet is simply to enjoy a certain feeling. One has more psychological enjoyment than material enjoyment.'' The newspaper said eating gold had become a hot topic, and many ordinary people felt this sort of ostentation should not be encouraged. Golden banquets have attracted so much attention that they have given rise to a doggerel which runs: ''Cut gold very thin and cook it/ All the plates glisten and smell fragrant/ Yang Yuhuan [a fat Tang dynasty concubine] and Zhao Feiyan [a thin Han dynasty concubine] roll up their red sleeves/ They have forgotten there are IOUs in the countryside.'' A commentary alongside the report called eating gold a phenomenon ''satisfying the abnormal psychology of enjoyment of fat-cats''. ''On the one hand they wash down gold with alcohol, on the other hand there are people who just have enough to scrape by, or who don't have enough food and clothing,'' it said. The newspaper said that even in many parts of Guangdong, China's richest province, there were children who could not afford to go to school. In some areas of the country, the state is so strapped for cash that government employees like teachers and officials must wait months for their salaries, and farmers are paid for their grain in IOUs rather than cash. According to government statistics, China has 60 million people who do not have adequate food and clothing. The commentary said that anyone found to be using government money to dine on golden banquets should be dealt with according to the law. ''We should not let this craze spread,'' it said. The newspaper said Chinese people began eating gold in search of longevity as early as 2200 years ago.