China, Part 2: Guangzhou
There's an old Chinese adage that says a person should live in Hangzhou, marry in Suzhou, eat in Guangzhou, and die in Luzhou. I think Suzhou girls are supposed to be pretty, and Luzhou has got forests full of trees perfect for building coffins apparently. The rest of our trip was spent in Guangdong province, which encompasses Guangzhou, Jiangmen, and Hong Kong. Guangdong's anglicized name is Canton: hence, Cantonese dialect and food and people - represent!
We flew from Beijing down to the city of Guangzhou. We were picked up at the airport by another of my mom's friends, who was also a classmate and current employee of the illustrious Mr. C. We were also given a chauffeur, the company driver of Mr. C's company. Wild!
Our first dinner in Guangzhou was in a fancy restaurant near the Pearl River. We had a lot of tasty food, which were much more familiar to us. Whole boiled shrimp, fatty pork belly, steamed fish, roast goose, and tons more. One of the most memorable (and cute) dishes was the pineapple bao. What we got looked like a plate of chubby brown toadstools, but what we ate was sweet bread with that iconic crisp crust on top and a very gooey pineapple jam-like filling.
One strange thing about eating in China is the lack of napkins. I heard from my family and locals there that apparently restaurants think it's not cost-effective to provide napkins for diners! Some of the nicer restaurants provided a couple of tissue packets, but how are you supposed to clean up splattered shrimp juice from your shirt and hair with just a thin tissue?! We found quickly that not only do you have to carry a roll of toilet paper around in your purse, but you also need to carry tons of Wet Wipes and napkins.
The next day, we planned to go on a day trip out to a suburb of Guangzhou called Panyu. For breakfast, we went to a food stand near the hotel. Outside, they made fresh dumplings, cheung fun, congee, bao, and other typical breakfast foods. Adults on their way to work and students on their way to school stood in clusters ordering food and jostling with takeaway plastic baggies of food. Oddly, we opted to eat in...which meant we sat in a dark room where the lights were literally off (imagine my surprise when a few other locals were actually there too, eating their breakfast in the dark). I was a little skeptical at first, not to mention sweating bullets, but breakfast was fantastic. We had some xiao long bao (soup dumplings), but not like the Shanghai versions that are so popular here: instead of the soup dumpling style, I'd actually call these tiny soup baos (meat and soup contained in a bready bun). My favorite dish, though, was the cheung fun rice noodles. We had beef and plain noodles drenched in light soy sauce. These were beyond any cheung fun I've had in America. Here, I actually do not like cheung fun that much: there's something weird about eating a tube of mushed beef, which is then wrapped in another tube of chewy rice noodle. In Guangzhou, the cheung fun was thin and delicate. The meat was ground, not pureed beyond recognition. The best part? Breakfast for the five of us probably cost about $4. Actually, that's false: the best part for me was watching the cooks outside make cheung fun. Here's how it goes down: they have a hot plate/griddle where they ladle the rice noodle batter, almost like a square crepe. Then, they sprinkle toppings like ground beef or crack an egg on top, and then jostle the griddle back and forth so the noodle folds in on itself repeatedly. Et voila, cheung fun!
In the morning, we visited a beautiful serene park. For lunch, we met with Mr. C's brother in law in a very modern, stylish Panyu restaurant. The first dish we had was a little shocking: sea cucumber in a wild rice stew. This was a common trend during most meals: one of the adults would say in Chinese what the dish was, and my sister and I would pick up a word here or there and feel the immediate surprise and sometimes disgust. Sea cucumber, frog, pigeon/squab, you name it. We did have some delicious dishes at lunch, though. There was a beef dish with large cubes of mushroom (what kind of mushroom has stems this big??) and sesame candied walnuts. We also had noodles sprinkled with chives, and what our host informed us was a Chinese type of truffle.
There were two fun desserts for lunch: a tray of glazed baos (filled with a paste of peanut butter, chocolate, coconut, and...pork fat! It was a very Western take on sweet-savory, especially with the bacon craze that has swept America in the last couple of years...pork fat on everything!) and an elaborate display of...birds' nest soup! In beautiful gold plated bowls, we each got a pretty tasteless soup of what seemed like little bits of plastic. I'd had birds' nest soup before in very sweet broth, but this was intentionally bland so you could add your own mix-ins from dispensers of simple syrup, hot almond milk, ginger syrup, or coconut milk. It was pretty fun to eat; I drizzled a little bit of each syrup on each spoonful. When we left, my parents remarked that the final course of birds' nest soup probably cost $60. Per bowl.
That night, we met my dad's friends for dinner in a rather hole-in-the-wall near the hotel. We had more of the dreamy cheung fun (this time, one was topped with char siew, mmm!), congee, beef tendon, wonton soup, and some rice bowls topped with various meats and veggies. It was a nice change in pace from the other meals we'd had so far: certainly authentic, with more of a traditional feel. Ironically, a lot of the restaurants we visited in Guangzhou were palatial and instead of eating in one dining area, we were sequestered in private rooms. This hole-in-the-wall reminded me of the basement restaurants on St. Mark's Place: dark, a little dingy, but clearly beloved by locals.
The next morning, Alex and I popped out for a breakfast stroll around the neighborhood. We loved seeing the local way of life in the streets. Incidentally, our hotel was located on a major street with many hotels, department stores, and high-rise apartments, but just a few blocks over were the more rugged, gritty working class neighborhoods. Our first stop was for a large pineapple bao at a cute bakery. The crust on top was very crisp and sweet, and the filling inside was very warm and gooey.
We continued along a street lined with small markets where people purchased their groceries every morning. There are fewer major supermarkets here, and the stores are more specialized (butcher, produce, fish market, etc.). Sandwiched between a few of these markets was a food stall with giant scallion pancakes in a greasy display case. Looked sketchy...but I had a good feeling about it. The sales lady only spoke Mandarin, so I thought I heard her say 10 RMB ($1.50) and I was ready to fork over the bill when she shook her head and held up five fingers instead. Ok cool, 75 cents, even better for me. She grabbed a big slice and chopped it into smaller pieces with a larger-than-necessary cleaver, then gave them to me in a little paper bag. Turns out I would have paid 10 US dollars for that same scallion pancake (I'm sure people at Smorgasburg would not only pay $10 but also wait in a long-ass line for this scallion pancake). This was one of the most amazing things I've ever eaten anywhere. The pancake was crispy and flaky and just the right amount of greasy, but the thing that differentiated it from others I've had was a sweet chili glaze on top. I think when I took my first bite, my eyes bugged out and I nearly swooned. It was basically all of my favorite things in one compact food: crunchy, oniony, a little spicy, pretty salty, and just enough grease to make you feel guilty about eating it...but not that guilty. We ate while we wandered, so as we got farther from the stand, I was wondering if I could find my way back and stuff my suitcase full of pancakes to bring home.
Mr. C invited us to his company for a brief tour, and then we went to lunch with him and his partners, who were also classmates of my mom's. We went to an elegant Japanese restaurant for sushi. The first course was three delicate tiny bowls with mustardy octopus, a lightly cooked cube of salmon, and shredded kani. Next, we had a beautifully presented dish of assorted sashimi. The whole meal was a feast for all the senses, but this dish was particularly beautiful: orange salmon, pink tuna, red surf clam, set atop a striking green bowl.
Sashimi was followed by a tempura shrimp and veggie, which turned into an amazing foie gras on toast and a garlicky scallop. The main entree was three pieces of nigiri.
Finally, dessert was a cube of coconut pudding coated in toasted sesame seeds. Wow, what a stellar meal! The food was amazing - fresh, sophisticated, and certainly expensive - and I felt like royalty.
The next day, we were headed for the heart of the motherland, Jiangmen, where most of my family actually live. Guangzhou was good to our bellies, as promised. It was really eye-opening and fun to see both the modern global influence, but also get a taste of the local life of a middle-class Chinese person.