It was our first day off and our minder Benny came early to pick us up from the hotel. As soon as we got into the car, he announced that we were going to have “farmer’s food” for lunch. In China, that could be lunch in a farmer’s home and not a regular restaurant, or it could be in a restaurant that serves authentic, local food.
“We are going to have fish for lunch,” Benny was rubbing his hands with glee. “The fish live iin mud. They do not live in water.”
In the back seat, J and I exchanged a look: “I certainly am not going to eat any fish that do not live in water,” J muttered.
Benny drove in the general direction of the “restaurant” and, at every intersection, he stopped, put his head out of the window and asked the passers-by where we could find a restaurant that served loaches. Like all the other trips he had taken us on, he really had no clue where we were going.
Anyway, at about 2 p.m., way later than our usual lunch time, we hit upon the restaurant. It was just a shop front with two tables for the customers and several basins on a ledge in front of the shop window. “Come, look, ” Benny beckoned to me, “see how fresh they are!”
In each basin there were some forty or fifty black, snake-like fish. Because it was so crowded, they were mostly squirming rather than swimming in the water.
By this time, Benny was close to drooling. “How spicy do you want the dish to be?” he asked me. I gave my usual answer, which was, “As mild as they could make it.” But, this time, my preference, despite that it was in response to Benny’s question, was totally ignored. “No, no, no. You want to have it spicy, if not, it won’t taste good.” In Sichuan Province, the land of spicy hot pots, regular spicy food could easily cause third degree burns.
As the husband and wife who owned the restaurant were cooking our lunch, Benny made one of the young helpers move one of the tables to a grassy area outside the restaurant. “For atmosphere, ” he looked at me and smiled.
What atmosphere? The patch of grass had not been mowed for months, and there was garbage strewn all over the place. So, there we were, sitting in the sun, with grass up to our shins, waiting for “the most delicious meal we would ever have while in Sichuan.”
When the food came, there was the huge tureen of loaches in a red hot chili sauce, another tureen of pig’s trotters and seaweed soup and boiled beer with goji fruit in it.The chili sauce was so hot that I spent a whole ten minutes coughing after the first mouthful. J would eat neither the loaches nor the pig’s trotters so he was slowly getting drunk on the rather delicious boiled beer served from a large kettle.
Benny ate his fill and what was left over, he took away in a clear plastic bag to take home. He even managed to get the owners to give him two squares of tofu to put in the chili sauce. He held the bag up to show me as we were walking back to the car, “Mmmm, just think how the tofu will soak up the chili sauce. My son thinks this is the best food in the world!”
He never did ask if J and I had had a good lunch.