Thursday, November 29, 2012

Chinese hotel breakfasts

The poverty (almost total absence) of bar facilities in most hotels in China is by no means the greatest hardship visited upon the Western traveller.

No, the winner of that prize is surely the breakfasts.

Many hotels surreptitiously slip a wad of breakfast vouchers into your keycard holder and levy an additional charge - anything from 15 to 100 RMB per day - without telling you. Check. Complain. Refuse. Even 15 RMB is not worth it.

One of the problems is that Chinese cuisine doesn't seem to have much in the way of specialised breakfast foods: apart from zhou (a very runny rice congee, usually completely tasteless),  youtiao (fried dough-sticks that, alas, rather too often taste unpleasantly of the very old and contaminated oil they've been cooked in), and a few types of mantou (steamed buns: inoffensive, but stodgy and desperately bland), you just get the same old stuff you'd eat for lunch and dinner. I love noodles and dumplings - but I can't face them three times a day.

Another problem is that Chinese hotels will almost invariably try to offer a few token Western breakfast dishes (to pander to the fetish-with-the-foreign of their Chinese guests; most of them don't see a Western visitor from one month to the next), without having any real understanding of or sympathy for this genre. Chinese 'breakfast sausages' are peculiarly disgusting, and best reserved for possible emergency use in the poisoning of a dangerous dog.

The real problem, though, seems to lie in the perennial deficiencies of the Chinese service culture - and the associated lack of quality control or effective management supervision. Large-scale buffets are rarely much good, anywhere in the world. But in China, where the staff very often quite evidently don't give a flying fuck, they attain spectacular levels of AWFULNESS. And the breakfast service - where presumably the kitchen staff resent having to be at work so early in the morning and so do a particularly half-assed job - is the nadir. The hotplates and warming trays, of course, never function very well. But Chinese chefs on the breakfast shift seem to take a perverse pride in cooking everything at least half an hour before the service begins, just to make sure that even the early bird guests who arrive on the stroke of 7.30, or whatever, won't be able to find any food that's anything more than tepid.

To set the seal on the unpleasantness of this start to your day, you usually also encounter at least one of those mindfuck oddities of Chinese taste - like mystery fish (fried to the point of carbonization), or fruit salad presented with a selection of mayonnaises.

The only consolation I found on my recent travels (particularly valuable on the morning I was to run a marathon!) was that - presumably in response to this ubiquitous shortcoming of hotel catering - there's almost invariably a very good noodle shop almost next door to a Chinese hotel.

Exceptions prove the rule. At the hotel where I stayed in Shanghai last week, the breakfast was included in the basic room charge, and was really pretty good. The Western options were a particularly pleasant surprise (apart from the sausages, which were the standard-issue condom-filled-with-E-numbers): self-made toast (disappointingly pale; but at least it was good, plain bread, not the sickly sweet stuff you're commonly given in China), decent and very plentiful bacon, and eggs fried to order (though I couldn't persuade the server to add some cherry tomatoes to her pan, so I had to eat those uncooked). A nice experience to end my trip, except... well, the one fly-in-the-ointment on this occasion was that the dining room provided no cutlery. Bacon-and-egg-on-toast is really NOT a chopstick-friendly meal!

I suppose I should have got another slice of toast and made myself a doorstep breakfast sandwich. But bloody-minded pride demanded that I show off my chopstick prowess to the Chinese guests. It got messy.


Gary said...

True, you nailed an important phenomenon there. The breakfast buffet is one of the things that makes business travel in China so miserable, even in some of the more high end hotels.

And you ate a fried egg sandwich with chopsticks? Respect!

Froog said...

Gary, great to have you back.

Yes, I did indeed eat a whole plate of bacon and eggs on toast with chopsticks. The spectacle attracted an admiring audience.

Froog said...

This was at a place called the Dongding Hotel (hard not to think of it as the Dingdong instead), at the corner of Xietu Donglu and Xizang Nanlu. Not at all bad - and fairly inexpensive if booked via Ctrip.