In April, I spent a week and a half in my hometown in China – the city of Guangzhou, otherwise known as Canton. It’s been 3 years since my last visit. Having previously realized that I don’t know much about the city anymore, I decided to be a tourist for 10 days and (re-)discover Guangzhou, the new, the old, the good, the bad, and of course…the food! Cantonese people are known worldwide for amazing, delicate cuisine. While people who are into heavier and stronger tastes might think that Cantonese cuisine tends to be bland and tasteless, we focus on preserving and bringing out the fresh flavour of each ingredient without adding too many spices – that is the unique essence of Cantonese cooking, and even without the heavy spicy and salty flavours, Cantonese dishes are delicious!
But OK, I’m not here to give a lesson about Cantonese cuisine. As I’ve mentioned, food exploration was one of my main missions during this hometown trip, and I sure ate a lot of great food that I’ve missed in Europe, especially in Scotland 😛 This post, however, will not highlight the types of food that you will often see on the dinner table in Cantonese restaurants – stuff like seafood, roast meat, stir-fried vegetables. Instead, I’ll be highlighting dim sum, street food, and home-cooked food.
Let’s start off with dim sum. I’m definitely no stranger to dim sum and in fact, as a Cantonese, it is a semi-staple for me. However, I’ve never experienced the full glory of dim sum until the visit to Guangzhou this year, and just look at this magnificent scene. Let’s not ask ourselves why we needed 5 orders of ha-gow (although we did have a lot of people), but I’ll take any amount of ha-gow (shrimp dumplings) and spring rolls and chicken feet and pan-fried dumplings you throw at me, ha! And really, no one does dim sum better than Guangzhou, where it originated. Proud to be Cantonese, indeed! I just got super hungry…and unfortunately I only managed to take individual photos of two dim sum items because I didn’t want to be a jerk and make my companions wait too long before they get to eat 😛
Ha-gow is indeed the classic of the classic Cantonese dim sum. There’s a reason why it’s often at the top of the list of dim sum, but when they come in the shape of little crystalline rabbits, that’s plus marks for aesthetics! Though common on the dim sum table, I could imagine that ha-gows take a lot of skills to perfect. A good ha-gow must have a fine balance between taste and texture. The skin wrap should be translucent with a subtle fresh flavour, and the shrimps should be bouncy and juicy. Culinary fine arts combined with traditional Cantonese culture – exquisite!
I don’t usually order desserts at dim sum, but since we had about 10 people at the table, somebody was bound to order some dessert. These are mini green tea flavoured cakes sprinkled with coconut bits and is a great finish to an exceptional breakfast…or lunch? Brunch?
Moving away from dim sum, we have another classic Cantonese favourite hidden in the corner – literally. Many restaurants and dim sum places sell portions of “niu za” (ngow-jap in Cantonese), or cow offal, but I always prefer to get them from the carts that are usually found in random alleyways and street corners. I’m not even kidding. There’s something about these small joints that makes me reminisce about the old days and brings back the taste of childhood. Ah, the time when I’d have cow offal on a stick – they don’t do that anymore, and I miss that! Granted, in terms of sanitary conditions these may not be the best, but we’re in China anyway, so what doesn’t kill me will only make me stronger…right???
Some people might wonder what “cow offal” is, in the first place, and be warned that if you’re not accustomed to weird things that Chinese people eat, this will not sound very appetizing. A portion of cow offals will contain a mix of various internal organs taken from a cow, including lungs, liver, stomach, intestines, and so on. Most of the time there will be daikon radish mixed in there and the flavour and odour are oh-so-very-irresistible. Convinced yet? Go to your local dim sum restaurant (since I doubt you’ll find street versions of cow offal outside of China) and pick up an order, try for yourself!
Next up, dumplings. Alright, perhaps southerners are never too big on dumplings, but I’m half a northerner as my mom is from the north-western province of Gansu, and from childhood I’ve always loved dumplings, especially ones with chives! Pan-fried dumplings with chive and pork fillings? Give me some – and seconds too, please!
Our food adventures continued as my friend and I visited this fast-food-style restaurant that my mom discovered, which serves traditional Chinese items such as congee, various types of noodles, dumplings, soups, dim sum, and desserts. We weren’t here for the dim sum though. Get ready for…
…wonton noodles! There are some days when I just CRAVE nothing but a bowl of wonton soup noodles, and nothing beats the simplicity of the most basic ingredients that make up another Cantonese classic. Somehow the wonton soup noodles just taste better in the place where it originated compared with the overseas versions. If “authenticity” were a flavour, it would be my favourite 😉 The wontons, filled with either pork or shrimp or a mixture of both, are so fresh and delicious, while the noodles were the perfect firm texture without being overcooked. If you prefer a stronger flavour, add a few drops of chilli oil to enhance the bowl, but having it without adding any sauces or condiments preserves the original fresh flavour of the soup, which I like to devour when I finish the noodles. Mmmmmm~
Here is something “new” that I discovered call the “salty fried cake”, literal translation. It is not a new invention, as it has been very popular in Guangzhou for a while, but I was surprised that I’ve never actually tasted one of these before. AND IT WAS SO GOOD OH MY GOODNESS? When I took a bite of the crispy, oily goodness, I couldn’t describe the taste other than that it was DELICIOUS. I actually went back and got a few more afterwards because I became instantly addicted, though the oil content probably meant that it wasn’t exactly the healthiest snack out there. Maybe I can call it a Cantonese donut, a lot less sweet than the western versions, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and slightly salty. This was such a mind-blowing discovery that it made me a bit ashamed that as a Cantonese, I didn’t know about it before!
Spicy pig intestine bits
Dry-fried green beans with marinated salty pork slices from Gansu
Fried eggs with yellow garlic chives
Fresh steamed fish
Finally, we come to some home-made food. My aunts and uncles are amazing cooks and I always look forward to the home meals that I get to eat with them when I’m in Guangzhou. Here we have spicy pig intestine bits (top left), dry-fried green beans with marinated salty pork slices from Gansu (top right), fried eggs with yellow garlic chives (bottom left), and fresh steamed fish (bottom right). Oh man. I was definitely way too spoiled!
In the house where I grew up, here’s the whole feast! Very simple, very homey, but a feast in taste and warmth nonetheless! And this concludes the summary of my food tour in Guangzhou, though trust me, this is just a very small sample of what Cantonese cuisine offers. I think if anyone asks me what my favourite food or type of food is, my answer would probably be Cantonese food, not only because I’ve been eating it my entire life, but c’mon, it’s delicious, if I haven’t emphasized enough. If you ever have the chance to visit Guangzhou, perhaps you’d like to try some of the food items that I’ve mentioned above…even the cow offal!