As well as travel guides based on literature (whether visiting the places where stories are set, or places of significance to authors), my good friends over at A Pie de Página also publish stories that take their readers on a journey. One such story is Hazael Valecillos‘ Un cuento chino, a short story of culinary discovery in Mérida. Hazael kindly agreed for me to translate and publish the story here. Read the original in Spanish at A Pie de Página.
A Chinese Tale
The cities in the interior of a country always imply a bet on the unknown. In Latin America, this phenomenon is even stronger as, depending on who is looking and visiting, perceptions of the province can swing between bucolic and wild, barbarous, dangerous. In a city like Mérida, situated some 800 kilometres from the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, the situation becomes even more interesting, being as it is the seat of the principal university in the country and not having more than a handful of avenues.
For Kostas, born in the mythical Greece and raised in the rapidly changing Caracas of the 1960s, Mérida meant nothing but the chance to continue his studies after the President at the time, Rafael Caldera, closed the Universidad Central de Venezuela. Moved in reality to chase some long legs rather than by a vocation as a student, Kostas did what innumerable compatriots had done before him: he set out on a journey into the unknown.
But the unknown in this case did not include Cyclopes or Laestrygonians, and the cold was too fierce to even think about mermaids. For the rangy Greek, the adventure was more pedestrian and mundane, to face being far from home for the first time, and most importantly, far from his father’s cooking.
From a young age, Kostas’ father, Petros, became a renowned cook – it always seemed pompous to him to be called chef -, eventually acquiring so much prestige that even the president of Greece was a regular at his table. Kostas never knew to which president his father was referring, but the latter assured him with pride that he was his godfather. The successive conflicts, the unending periods of crisis in their native land, made them emigrate and no sooner had they arrived in Caracas than he opened his own restaurant. His enormous talent and tenacity turned Petros into a star almost immediately, removing him and his family from the scarcities common to immigrants.
It’s not surprising, then, that with the economic solvency afforded to him by his father and all of the comforts offered by this city which seemed much older than any that he had known in Venezuela, the principal problem which Kostas had to resolve was that of food, not for a lack of resources, but for gastronomic quality.
Too far from the heat of the fasolada which had so helped him to cope with the climate, the explosion of flavours of mousakka or the afternoon gyros on workdays, Kostas had no other choice but to try his luck in the limited options offered by the small city, immediately becoming acquainted with the rigors of the restaurante ejecutivo and the popular menus. A few weeks after his arrival, a friend from university recommended a place right in the city centre, just next to the School of Arts and a few blocks from his halls of residence, where you could eat the very best for just five bolivares (less than one dollar).
When Kostas arrived at the indicated address he saw a very austere frontage, with a glass door and a sign that announced Chipén. The long minute that he spent standing in the road opposite, with his eyes glued to the sign, served to bring him face to face with his demons. Today there is a Chinese restaurant on practically every corner, and with the passing of time it has become the number one fast-food option in many places, but 40 years ago, entering a Chinese restaurant was more reproachable than leaving a brothel. If you add to that Petros’ legends of the culinary habits of these people, the sense of discomfort and the shivers that Kostas felt at the moment are understandable.
That day he understood that, like all human beings, he had prejudices and that those would remove him from what was definitely cheap, and according to his friend, even excellent quality food. He started to walk away from there and ended up chewing meat and potatoes at an ejecutivo nearby, with an expression of disappointment that was difficult to hide. The following day he left classes and walked up to the road in question, he stopped in the same place and stayed for around five minutes, trying to leave his thoughts to one side and act; however, he only managed to look strange to the passers-by and ended up copying his actions of the day before. He tried the same thing a couple of times more until he surrendered and from then on, during the year that he lived in Mérida, he avoided passing by the Chinese restaurant in any way possible.
Later they reopened UCV and Kostas returned to Caracas to complete his studies. The shadow of the Chipén came to affect him so much that when he returned to Mérida after a couple of years, this time for good, although he did not know that yet, following the same long legs as last time, the first thing that he did was go directly to the restaurant, park his brand new yellow Volkswagen Beetle and open the door with a shove.
What he found surprised him greatly, it was more of a Spanish tavern than anything else, with an enormous bull’s head on the right wall, a few tables crammed into five square metres and walls papered with bullfighting posters. Kostas cursed his prejudices and before the disconcerted faces of the waiters walked in silence to the bar and asked for the menu. That day he ate the most delicious plate of king prawns – each one the size of an arm, so he says – that he had ever tried – he still maintains today-, while the owner explained to him the origin of the name and they laughed together at his idiotic confusion.
Sitting at what became his table, right next to the kitchen, Kostas watched an enormous number of bullfighters parade by, each one more renowned than the last, he even came to share his chicken stew with one of them, apparently the best of all time, but not knowing anything about bullfighting, he never knew who he was. He also saw, with the passing of the years, couples begin and end beneath the serene head of Manolo (he thought it was stupid to give the name Minos to the bull’s head which he had grown so fond of). Later, the toreros, the banderillos and the novilleros were replaced by poets, short story writers and novelists, or at least by men and women who referred to themselves as such. Some very good, others moving, the majority just good-for-nothing drunks. At the peak of the poets, as they liked to be called among themselves, he saw how one day they arrived liked a cloud of mosquitos around a disproportionately tall bearded man with bulging eyes, who sat in front of the door to watch the falling rain through the glass while the others did not stop talking. That day Kistas understood that, even though he had never read more than the Selected Works, there was an enormous difference between writers and poets.
Forty years later, the yellow beetle can still be seen outside the Chipén periodically. Kostas sometimes gets his son to accompany him, although in general he prefers to go alone, he says that that way he can keep reading the world while he eats the best liver in the world, at his table in the Chinese restaurant that never was a Chinese restaurant, in a city that never quite became a city.
 Restaurants mainly serving fast and simple lunch, offering a choice of set menus.