Few people in the world have a more passionate relationship with food than the Chinese. And thanks to the large-scale emigration of Chinese from the southern province of Guangdong to elsewhere in the world, Cantonese is by far China’s best-known cuisine. Cantonese food originates from Guangzhou, the city that used to be called Canton. Today, Guangzhou’s food culture is known as one of the cuisines that worships unusual foods in China. In fact, a popular saying describes Cantonese food like this: “Anything that walks, swims, crawls, or flies is edible.” The city boasts the largest number of restaurants per capita in China. Combine that with some of the world’s most innovative chefs and countless rows of cheap food stalls on every street and you’ve got yourself one vibrant food scene. I began my trip with my favorite hallmark of Chinese food, a cuisine that originated in Guangzhouâ€” dim sum. I headed to the best dim sum joint in town, Guangzhou’s most popular restaurant, creatively called the Guangzhou Restaurant. The tea service is quaint and served on ancient carts, the chicken feet are fried to make them puff up, then marinated, then steamed, and served with a black bean sauce. Eating the chicken feet feels like a wad of chicken skin slip-sliding around your mouth, then you spit out the bone. The congee, the dumplings, the noodles and the famous iconic dished created 80 years ago by the restaurants master chefs and duplicated around the world are treats no food lover should miss.
Street food is popular in Guangzhou, especially with the younger crowd and there are three main streets that people flock to for adventurous eating. The steamed buns, grilled squid and shrimp noodle bowls that you see everywhere are delicious.
Many Chinese like to relax with a cup of tea at a local tea house. I went to the neighborhood’s best tea house for a cup of Chinese chrysanthemum tea and a classic desert called double-skin milk. Double-skin milk is made by boiling fresh milk until milk skin is formed. After the milk cools it is separated from the skin. Next, the skin is braised with sugar until you get another layer of milk skin. The braised milk is poured into a bowl, and you have double skin-milk. Caramel-dairy heaven!
The primary components of many Chinese dishes are noodles. At one time, noodles were made by hand in homes and restaurants all over China. Modern machinery has since taken over that process, but I found a place where the art of making hand-pulled noodles is still practiced. And this guy above me is the dude in the show who rolled noodles so thin that he put three through the eye of a needle. At the Jiu Mao Jiu Noodle Restaurant, chefs fold, twist and stretch dough until it separates, as if by magic, into perfectly equal noodle strands. I got invited behind the bar to try my hand at this difficult technique. But making the noodles is half the job. The chef must now turn the noodles into innovative dishes. First off we fell in love with the Cats Paw noodles in black vinegar, and the spicy peanut noodles, fried noodle platters and noodle soup bowls were all flawless. This is a must go of you ever visit this city
Ask anyone who’s been to Guangzhou where the best place to find unusual foods is and you’ll get the same answer every time … The Qingping market. With over 2,000 stalls and 60,000 customers per day, Qingping is the largest street market in Guangzhou. Although it’s well-known by travelers all over the world, it’s not so much a tourist attraction as it is a fascinating look into the local Guangzhou life. That’s exactly why I love markets, to find out what the locals are bringing home for dinner and spend time with real people. A first glance at the market reveals things like dried fruits and vegetables from North China and salty fish from the south. A closer look exposes the infamous meat section where you can bring home just about anything that walks, flies, swims, or crawls including snakes, turtles, frogs, and all kinds of fresh seafood. But the section that peaks my interest the most is the medicine street, full of peculiar foods that will cure any ache or pain. I tried the dried lizards on a stick, used to strengthen the immune system. Next its dried seahorse for strengthening the kidneys. How about some dried deer tail to cure back ailments, or dried extract of tiger penis to enhance sexual virility. And finally, after all those tasty treats, I tried some dried puffer fish, good for digestion which i could really use right now! Scorpions and snakes, why did I ever say yes to this job!
I adore food that is all about “cooking fresh, local, and best.” This theme is the backbone of restaurants all over Guangzhou, and the Summer Palace at the Shangri-La Hotel is no exception. In fact, Chef Jacky Chan prides himself on using only the freshest local ingredients every night at Summer Palace. Known as the Genius Chef, Jacky Chan became the youngest executive chef in Hong Kong at the age of 18. Since then, he’s racked up 31-years of devotion to the art of cooking. With a reputation like that, I was dying to work with such an expert in his field. Jacky showed me how to prepare some of his favorite and most famous Cantonese dishes- the extraordinary and very seasonal hairy crab and his signatures, like sweet braised pork and jellyfish salad. This restaurant is wonderful, and the picture above does not do it justice.
In China, mushrooms are valued as much for their healthful properties as for their taste and texture. The Chinese incorporate a wide variety of fungi into their diet for specific medical purposes as well as for general good health. Chinese doctors have been using fungi medicinally for twenty-five hundred years, calling them the “fruit of the earth.” Because of the enormous population in China, hunting wild mushrooms is almost impossible as they have all been overharvested. But there is one spot to find these exotic treats, and to get there, I traveled up into the mountains about an hour outside of Guangzhou visiting a mushroom farm where they cultivate unique fungi like Bearded Tooth, Wood Ear, Oyster, Velvet Foot, King Bolete, and Long Net Stinkhorn mushrooms. After a quick lesson on the tastiest morsels, we picked a bunch and brought them to the countryside restaurant located in the town adjacent to the mushroom field. Here they cook up the freshest mushroom dishes Guangzhou has to offer and the young chef who prepared all these dishes for me was talented in the extreme. Her version of steamed chilled chicken is still the best version of that dish I have ever had.
Guangzhou has seen its fair share of urbanization over the years, but the surrounding villages remain untouched. We made our way to a village about two hours outside of Guangzhou for a look at some traditional Chinese foods and cooking techniques. I love having an opportunity to visit a family who live on a farm and grows all their own vegetables and raises chickens and pigs. It’s a much simpler way of living and everything is guaranteed to be fresh as it’s grown right on their land. This style of life is disappearing all over the world faster than you can say Starbucks but on the menu tonight are some very interesting dishes made from every part of the chickens and pigs they raise. We picked vegetables for the meal, butchered a chicken, netted some prawns and feasted on 12 dishesâ€¦as always the meals I share in homes with real people always end up being the highlight of my trip.