Text and photos by Lucy Gordan
To write an article about Guangzhou and Cantonese gastronomy for a e-zine published in California and in the Bay-area no less may seem like carrying coals to Newcastle, but even some Epicurean Travelers may be going to China for the first time as I have just done, whether it be for pleasure, business or adoptions.
China is like Italy when it comes to food. The repeated famines and poverty of the past leading to mass emigration, combined with a national passion for preparing meals and offering hospitality, have turned eating into a national pastime for the Chinese abroad and at home.
Although I may be oversimplifying the cooking methods of 1.3 billion people not including the ex-pats and their descendants, Chinese cuisine can be divided into eight styles and four tastes. These are based on location, climate, and which food products are available locally and seasonally. Jiangsu, Anhui, and Shangdong dishes in the north, considered China’s least imaginative cuisine if you omit Beijing, are often salty and grain-based; Sichuan and Hunancuisines in the west are renown worldwide for being hot and spicy; Fujian and Zhejiang in the east for their wide-variety of soups and fish; while Guangdong in the south is well-known for shao: its ingredients first boiled and then stir-fried, or bao: its ingredients either boiled or steamed.
Unlike Italy, where many regions are appreciated for their individualistic cuisines, in China the Guangdong region is universally considered the best. Beijing may be the political capital of China, but Guangdong’s capital city Guangzhou is hands down “China’s Capital of Gastronomy,” the most deserved of its nicknames. Others include: “The City of Five Rams,” .”..of the Goat,” .”..of Flowers,” .”..of Grain,” .”..of Wooden Wool” after the magnificent scarlet flowers of a beautiful local tree. With almost 13 million inhabitants, Guangzhou, better known worldwide by its westernized name of Canton (a French transliteration of the city’s name in Cantonese), is the fifth largest city in China after Chongqing, Shanghai, Beijing, and Tianjin. Like many other port cities (Los Angeles, Vancouver, Sydney, Bari, Durban, and Bristol), it is also known as “The Gateway to China” because it was the final destination of the southern branch of the Silk Road; the first Chinese port opened by the Portuguese in 1511 to European merchants; and, lastly when speaking chronologically, the 19th-century departure point of millions of emigrants leaving for Europe (Liverpool is home to Europe’s first Chinatown, now almost non-existent) and North America.
But to get back to food, why “China’s Capital of Gastronomy”? The reasons are fourfold: Guangzhou’s proximity to a fish-abundant sea and to Macau and Hong Kong (only a two-hour trip by fast train); its sub-tropical climate; the nearby fertile coastal plains which produce an infinite variety of fresh fruits and vegetables; and the population’s affinity for trade, in tea, porcelain, and silk — at first with the Arabs, Persians, and Indians, dating to the Tang Dynasty (618-609 BC), so over 2,000 years before the Portuguese arrived in Macau.
In the 17th century the British, closely followed by the Dutch and the French, broke the Portuguese trade monopoly, and, after 1760, all foreign trade was restricted to the city of Guangzhou. In 1842 the Treaty of Nanking opened up foreign trade to Fuzhou, Xiamen, Ningo, and Shanghai as well, but Guangzhou received the duty-free status it still enjoys today. In fact, Prime Minister Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of the 1970s singled out Guangzhou as the vanguard of Chinese modernization and capitalism giving the city and its province a net advantage over the rest of the nation. Today catering is the leading industry here with annual increases of 25.7% every year over the last twenty years. For example, at the impressive catering center of my host, China Southern Airlines, which in 2007 will become a partner of Skyteam Alliance with KLM, Air France, Alitalia, and Delta, to name a few, I watched the chefs and assembly lines producing 50,000 meals a day.
China Southern Airlines Catering Center
Even the legend about how Guangzhou came to be founded has a food-connection. Supposedly five gods descended from heaven riding on goats and bringing with them five ears of corn to appease the population’s hunger. Historically-speaking the first documents concerning Cantonese cuisine go far back in time: dating to the Dynasties of the South and of the North (220-589 AD).
Chinese proverbs also always connect Guangzhou to food. One says: It’s best to be born or find a spouse in Suzhou (considered the birthplace of the best-looking Chinese), to live in Hanzhou because of its beautiful views, to eat in Guangzhou, and to die in Liuzhou (because coffins made from local “lammu” wood preserve the cadaver the longest). Another goes: “Go to Beijing for business, Shanghai for shopping, and Guangzhou for food.”
Favorite local sayings are: “Whatever walks, swims, crawls, or flies is edible in Guangzhou” or ” On earth the only four-legged things that the Cantonese don’t eat are tables and chairs; in the sky are airplanes.”
To confirm my doubts, I paid a visit to Qingping Market, opposite the island of Shamian. Definitely off-limits to squeamish stomachs and to vegetarians, Qingping Market is one of China’s largest and most famous markets. In the stalls and along the curbs of its narrow labyrinthine alleys, I probably saw every possible ingredient of Cantonese cuisine and medicinal plants, spices and species of mushrooms elsewhere unavailable, a veritable Noah’s Ark of exotic creatures, both alive and dead, including deer’s horn, bear paws, unrecognizable tendons, seahorses, starfish, and dried snakes.
Speaking of snakes, I didn’t have the courage to accompany one of my colleagues to Snake Restaurant at no. 20 Jiangla Road. It’s the largest of the few restaurants left in China (it’s forbidden in many regions) to have a thick menu of snake dishes. According to Martin, the house specialty is a soup called “Chrysanthemum-dragon-tiger-phoenix”! I didn’t ask for the recipe.
Probably not without reason a writer for a British travel magazine recently commented: “It’s not always possible to translate Chinese menus because many of the ingredients are either unknown or unmentionable to Western barbarians,” but, similarly to Venice, which has the unfair reputation as the only city in Italy where you eat badly, it’s absolutely not true that in Guangzhou you are obligated to eat stewed dog, fried scorpions, and snakes on a spit.
Dried Seahorses, Dried Starfish and Mushrooms, Qingping Market
In this bustling city on the delta of the Pearl River, there are over 18,000 restaurants, teahouses, and snackbars for a total seating capacity of 500,000. Most restaurants serve three teas, two meals, and an evening snack called yexiaoevery day and are open from 5 AM to midnight, although some stay open 24 hours.
A recent survey showed that of the restaurants which still serve “Laozihao,” the Cantonese name for traditional local dishes, fewer than 50 have been in existence for more than 50 years. Guaranteed by the municipal government, the best of these 50 are: Beiyuan Restaurant at no. 202 Xiaobei for its oiled shelled shrimps, sweet-scented balls of roasted goose, fish with pinenuts, and pastries; Lianxiang Lou at no. 67 Dishipu Jie for its mooncakes filled with lotus-seed paste; Taotao House at no. 20 Dishpiu Jie for its chicken with ginger and chives; Nanguo Restaurant at no. 899 North Jiefang Lu for its gow or dumplings filled with lotus seed, stewed wild goose, and its country-style cooking; Datong Restaurant at no. 63 Western Yanijang Lu for its roast suckling pig and home-made custard tart; and ranked as the city’s very best Guangzhou Restaurant at no. 2 South Wenchang Lu and Panxi Restaurant at no. 151 Western Longjing for their magnificent gardens and for their more than 1,000 different dim sum snacks.
Dim sum, which derives from yat dim sum yi or “little token,” literally translated as “dot heart” or “order heart,” means “order to your heart’s content.” It can also signify “touch the heart,” “dotted heart” or “snack.”
I won’t have to explain to San Franciscans that dim sum is the no. 1 gastronomic specialty of the more than 2,000 different dishes and snacks of Cantonese cuisine or yue cai. To tell the truth, dim sum is not a meal; it’s an event, a party. When you order dim sum, you don’t get a menu; waiters pass between the tables or the guests with carts or trays piled high with temptations to choose from. Because of all the chattering, the clatter of plates, and the vast choice, a non-habitué may not notice that there is a definite order to what’s being served. The first dishes to arrive, ubiquitous to all dim sums are bao (buns) and gow (steamed dumplings) filled with a choice of vegetables, shrimp, meat or pork, because they are the easiest to digest. They are presented four in each bamboo steamer-basket. These are followed by exotic dishes like fung zau, translated as “Phoenix talons,” but in actual fact the omnipresent chicken’s feet, after which come a seemingly never-ending procession of fried courses and sweets. Other common favorites include cheong fun (rice noodle rolls), lo bak go (mooli cakes made with mashed daikon radishes mixed with bits of dried shrimp and pork), steamed meat balls, juk (semolina), steamed spare ribs, lotus leaf rice, congee(rice porridge), cheon gyun (spring rolls), har gau (finely chopped shrimp) and crispy fried squid.
The Cantonese are sweet-tooths and can choose among an assortment of 1,000 different desserts. Those that frequently wind up a dim sum are mango or almond pudding, sesame seed balls, dan tat (egg tart), Malay steamed sponge cake, cha siu sou (a baked flaky pastry with sesame seeds and honey on top), and chien chang go (a type of “thousand-layer-cake”). Panxi Restaurant is particularly renowned for its desserts.
Selection of dim sum sweets at “Food Street” in Mariott’s China Hotel
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that dim sum is the best-known Cantonese dish abroad, particularly appreciated in Hong Kong, Singapore, Vancouver and San Francisco, here because of the huge numbers of Cantonese who emigrated to California in the nineteenth century to help build the Transcontinental Railroad. For San Francisco’s best, head to Tom Kiang (5821 Gerry Bvld), Yank Sing (427 Battery, tel. 415-362-1640), Harbor Village Restaurant(4 Embarcadero Center, tel. 415-781-8833), and Hong Kong Teahouse (835 Pacific Avenue, tel. 415-391-6365).
No matter where you are or how fancy the ambience, dim sum, are dishes shared with a group of friends and family, definitely not a tête-à-tête occasion. The Cantonese equivalent of brunch, entire families congregate on Sundays and holidays to enjoy the feast served from early morning through lunchtime, never in the evening.
Dim Sum at “Food Street” in Marriott’s China Hotel
No one is expected to eat all the offerings. Traditionally, the cost of the meal was calculated on the number and size of the dishes left on the patron’s table. More commonly today, the waiter marks down all the individual choices on a card left at each place setting which ends up at the cashier.
Yum cha or tea is always served along with any self-respecting dim sum. The most popular type is bolay (pu erh), a strong fermented tea, one said to aid digestion. Other choices are chrysanthemum, oolong, and green tea. The waiters fill your cup immediately after you sit down and it’s an important sign of good service that they make sure it stays filled at all times; otherwise it’s up to your neighboring table mate.
A custom unique to the Cantonese is to thank the person who has poured the tea by tapping a bent index finger on the table. According to legend, this tapping tradition derives from the Emperor’s habit of going to teahouses incognito. He couldn’t bow in thanks because emperors don’t bow to anyone. A more likely explanation is that, since tea is served frequently at a meal, bowing would be impractical and saying thank you idem, as the guest might have his mouth full of food or be engaged in an important conservation.
Speaking of emperors, the tradition of drinking tea in Guangzhou harks back to the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Today’s numerous teahouses are like French or Italian cafés, where people pop in for a stand-up quickie on their way to work or in mid-morning or for a leisurely evening sit with colleagues or friends. To get an idea of how important teahouses are in Guangzhou’s daily routine today, try one for an early breakfast. It’s really ironic to think that in the distant past, that is until it was discovered that tea aided digestion, eating food while drinking tea was taboo because people believed it would lead to excessive weight gain.
Besides dim sum Cantonese specialties include: jidi zhou (porridge), chao shao (roast pork strips), choi sam(blanched brocoli in oyster sauce), yuntan mian (wonton noodles), lap cheung (a sweet sausage), lo mein (noodles), char su (barbecued pork), hot pot, all types of fish, and lao huo liang tang, one of the many, many seasonal local soups — all boiled very slowly for hours and hours in a clay pot.
To go back to dim sum for a moment, in addition to the Guangzhou Restaurant and Panxi Restaurant, the White Swan Hotel and the China Hotel (Liu Ha Lu) serve unforgettable dim sum. They are both five-star hotels as is the Garden Hotel (Huanshi Dong Lu 368). The White Swan Hotel is located on Shamian Island, a sandbar in the Pearl River. Its extraordinary circular lobby houses a two-story tropical waterfall and the largest statue in the world carved from a single piece of jade: a sailing ship.
After the Chinese were defeated in the Second Opium War (1856-1860), Shamian Island was leased to the British and to the French and was off-limits to the Chinese until 1949. Today it’s still a jewel of uncontaminated 19th-century colonial architecture, beautiful gardens, a favorite location for wedding photographs, and the home to most western consulates.
Since Americans who adopt a Chinese baby must complete the final paperwork at the US consulate in Guangzhou no matter which region of China was the baby’s birthplace, the White Swan Hotel is particularly convenient and offers lots of perks to new parents not to mention that the Island is a peaceful place for strolls. I had a delicious meal of local specialties at Nanguifan on Shamian Island, as the guest of Southern China Airlines.
I was also a guest of the China Hotel, the first 5-star hotel opened in China on June 10, 1984, and today a super-awarded Marriott with 1,013 rooms on 18 floors, making it the tallest building in Guangzhou. Bordered by two magnificent municipal parks, Yuexiu and Liu Han, it’s directly across the street from the Chinese Export Commodities Fairgrounds. It houses a breath-taking spa and four restaurants with two different kitchens, one for Western — “Cafe Veranda” and “The Roof,” where the multi-prized Executive Chef Hardy Lung is a master of “fusion,” and one for Chinese — the elegant “Four Seasons” and the informal, bustling, entertaining “Food Street.” Here you can watch Kimfung, whom I called by his English name Alex (it’s customary for Cantonese parents to give their babies a Chinese name and a Western name), prepare his divine dim sum as well as many of the scrumptious snacks sold along the “food streets” of Asia. At first it was a difficult decision for my colleagues and me whether to eat breakfast at “Cafe Veranda” which offered four different buffets of Japanese, Chinese, Western, or Fusion breakfasts or begin our day with dim sum at “Food Street.” A highly-recommended solution: breakfast at “Cafe Veranda,” lunch at “Food Street” and dinner at “Four Seasons” or “The Roof” stopping off at the spa before and after dinner and ending the day at the unforgettable “Cigar Bar.”
Western Chef, Hardy Leung, and Chinese Chef, Chow Kim Fung
at Marriott’s China Hotel
Although the China Hotel is a splendid example of why Guangzhou is the “Capital of Chinese Gastronomy,” guests like me who want to see some of the city’s non-edible sights don’t have to travel far. Within easy-walking distance are the Sun Yat Sen Memorial, built in 1931 to commemorate this revolutionary native son (1860-1925), who on this spot in 1923 was proclaimed the first president/and the father of modern China; the Statue of the Five Rams, the symbol of the city’s foundation, both in Yuexiu Park;
Sun Yat Sen Memorial
and the Nan Yue Tomb, discovered by chance when Mariott was excavating a new parking garage. This 2,000-year-old tomb contained magnificent burial items made of gold and precious stones including the deceased’s perfectly-preserved jade burial suit. A video and many of the tomb museum’s captions (9 AM – 5:30 PM daily) are in English.
Monuments farther afield are easily reached from the Mariott because it’s the only hotel in Guangzhou with direct access to the subway (stop: Yuexiu). No need to worry about getting lost if you don’t speak Chinese, the hotel reception desk gives every guest a card with the names of all the monuments, markets, and malls, written in both English and Chinese.
Not to be missed for any reason are: Liu Rong Si (The Six Banyan Temple), established in 537 AD to house a portion of Buddha’s ashes; Chen Jia Ci, the magnificently decorated temple built by Chen family for ancestor worship and luckily not destroyed by the Cultural Revolution’s Red Guards; a walk or a ride in the cable car (the first in China) up the White Cloud Mountain (c. 1000 ft. at the peak) for its magnificent views of Guangzhou; and a two-hour nighttime cruise (from April-October) on the Pearl River to admire the unforgettable illuminations on the facades of the skyscrapers along its banks. Diehard foodies should opt for the 7 PM departure because a splendid supper is served aboard!