It had been about 10 days since we’d eaten anything but rice, tofu, and stir-fried lettuce (and the occasional Snickers bar). In winter, in rural southern China, there wasn’t much for vegetarians to chow down on. As we road along the quiet Provincial Road S373 from the mid-size city of Zhanjiang to the smallish city of Leizhou, we weren’t holding out much hope for a decent lunch.
There was nothing back here but cows, factories, and piles of rust-red dirt.
Around lunchtime, we passed by a few eateries where factory workers had gathered for their midday meals. In the shadow of the factory, people laughed and smiled and stuffed their faces with food. We couldn’t bring ourselves to do the same, not relishing a rest stop that involved breathing whatever was being pumped into the air from those forbidding smokestacks.
Another hour along the road, hunger finally forced us to stop in what was (we now know) the village of Bailongcun. It’s barely a bump on the roadside. We quickly spotted a typical village restaurant – with no door or front wall, the space was completely open to the street.
Just at the edge of the road, two giant woks were sizzling over open coal flames. We leaned our bikes up against a huge stack of coal bags, not expecting to get much more than rice for lunch.
What’s So Great About It?
That’s when we spotted the plastic baskets full of vegetables. Red and green peppers, onions, garlic, and even eggplant! Our eyes popped and huge grins spread across our faces. It had been weeks since we’d seen real vegetables. We pointed to each veggie in turn, miming that we wanted all the vegetables mixed up together in a stir fry.
Using a giant clever on a wood block that looked like it had seen its share of animal parts, the chef sliced up the ingredients for our lunch at warp speed. Food prep in China is mind-bogglingly fast. Into one wok went the onions and garlic and a huge slug of vegetable oil. This was quickly followed by the peppers and tofu. Another wok received our eggplant and more tofu.
The chef tossed our meal in the huge pans for a minute, and then, using a huge ladle, he started adding sauces. I counted 9 different ingredients, including hot sauce, a little MSG, a molasses-like concoction, and several brown sticky liquids and white powders I couldn’t identify.
When your wok is sitting on an open flame, it only takes two or three minutes to cook a meal. Ours was served on large oval plates with an enormous bowl of white rice for each of us. It was the best food we’d had in weeks, and possibly our best meal in China.
How to Get There
Unless you’re on two wheels, chances are you won’t come this way. But for bikers heading from Zianjiang to Leizhou on the S373, keep your eyes open for an open-fronted restaurant on the north side of the road, about 3.5 kilometres after you cross a bridge over an inlet (around 35km from Zianjiang). The piles of coal bags will be a dead giveaway. You won’t be sorry.