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Where to Eat in Guangzhou, China's New Foodie Destination

Move over, Hong Kong. With a fresh take on cantonese food, guangzhou is reclaiming its spot at the head of the dinner table.

Hostesses at Wisca

The hostesses at Wisca will whisk you to new Cantonese flavours.

There are no shortcuts to the best roast goose in Guangzhou. First, start by subway and bus to the trading village of Huangpu, the only place where the Qing Dynasty allowed foreign trading boats in the 18th century. After wandering through a warren of 800-year-old ancestral halls, veer along a path that cuts through fields of water spinach. When you hit a dock, hire a fisherwoman to take you past the brontosaurus-like cranes and tankers that make up South China’s biggest shipyard until you reach Changzhou Island. There, hire a rusty bicycle.

Fishing and biking

Left to right: Search and you will find a quiet fishing spot in Huangpu; taking in your leafy greens on the way to Changzhou Island.

At the other end of a hill is Yiu Lam Hin. In the noisy, brightly lit banquet hall, order the black-maned goose, a species exclusive to this area. When it arrives at your table, take a portion of breast meat. Its skin, dipped in plum sauce, has a marmalade tint and puts your mind and body in temporary discord: Do you gobble it down in two instantly gratifying bites or do you take your time savouring its fatty tang?

Few places both demand and justify dedication to eating like Guangzhou. It’s a city of 14 million discerning eaters who, according to one famous maxim, nevertheless devour “everything with four legs but the table.” Guangzhou’s signature cuisine, Cantonese cooking, was introduced to North America by Chinatowns in the 19th century and soon became globally synonymous with Chinese food. Yet the style of Cantonese I grew up with in Vancouver came from Hong Kong, two hours south of Guangzhou by train. The former British colony adopted Western standards for service and presentation and slowly supplanted Guangzhou as the epicentre of Cantonese dining. But, as I find out only a few bites into my visit, Guangzhou is taking back its mantle as China’s Cantonese food capital.

deconstructed pork bao and roast-pork pastries and Lung Dou Mei wet market.

Left to right: Chef Jacky Chan’s Summer Palace menu includes a deconstructed pork bao and roast-pork pastries; running errands at the Lung Dou Mei wet market.

My hunt for the vanguard of Cantonese cooking takes me to the kitchen at the Shangri-La Hotel Guangzhou’s Summer Palace restaurant. Between lunch and dinner rushes, the wok and dim sum stations sit unmanned, and Jacky Chan Kwok Hung is supervising workers moving supplies. Like the other master chefs in the city, Chan knows that survival means pleasing the fickle palates of China’s rising middle class, who demand the quality sourcing and international influences seen in Hong Kong’s kitchens but also crave nutritional value and flavours from other regions in China. When the Hong Kong-born sifu (master in Cantonese) arrived in Guangdong’s capital in 2007, local diners had different tastes. “People preferred luxury,” he says. “Now they’re health conscious, and they want to know where the food comes from.”

Yuexiu Park

Left to right: With its seven hills, Yuexiu Park (the city’s largest) lets you burn off extra calories; Guangzhou’s food scene is mushrooming.

Chan’s creations soon rotate before me on a glass Lazy Susan. There are finely sliced turnips, arranged in the shape of a carnation, with an amber hue from a vinegar marinade that matches the golden accents of our private room. Then come green dumplings and red rice rolls laid out around flaky roast-pork pastries nestled in a basket. Each dish layers innovation and the traditional Cantonese touchstones of freshness and lightness. As if to underscore his technique, Chan suggests I take one of the braised pork buns that have just landed on the Lazy Susan. While the bao is a trendy menu item in pan-Asian eateries in North America, Chan’s choice of ingredients is distinctly Chinese. He deconstructs the dish, placing the hollowed-out bun on one side of the plate and the pork on the other. The meat is usually slow-cooked in sugar, but here it’s braised in a sauce derived from luo han guo, a gourd fruit normally used as a sugar substitute, and topped with a wolfberry, another local fruit, high in beta carotene. Its unctuous fattiness and the gooey sauce pair perfectly with the fluffiness of the bread. Stuffed, the bun is at once filling and airy.

eel is cooked and served sizzling in porcelain pots and Zhang in the kitchen

Left to right: At Wisca, eel is cooked and served sizzling in porcelain pots; Zhang uses the pots only once as they crack after heating in a brick oven.

I venture back out into the humid port city and meet up with Janvi Chow. The tour guide and author of the forthcoming Discover Guangzhou, a guide to eating like a local, leads me past shipyards and through the old city centre before we hop into a cab. On Shamian Island, we set out along a pedestrian promenade lined with banyan trees and European-style buildings until we reach Qingping Market, whose vendors sell dried centipedes and fish bladders from their streetside stalls. Another cab drops us off in the long alleyway that makes up Lung Dou Mei wet market, where turtles and fish squirm in plastic tubs. Chow points out that Taoism, not Fear Factor, guides this omnivorousness and explains how traditional Cantonese cooking balances foods that “cool” the body (the yin) with those that “heat” the body (the yang). Duck and snake are foods that cool, while ginger and chicken are foods that heat. What sounds like culinary phrenology separates authentic Chinese food from Panda Express, and even in its most newfangled iterations, Guangzhou’s cuisine observes these precepts.

Chef Zhang Yongfa’s shrimp sashimi and flambéed fungi

Left to right: Chef Zhang Yongfa’s shrimp sashimi on ice will bowl you over at Wisca; flambéed fungi, like these at Lai Heen, are a natural selection for chef Gordon Guo, whose grandfather was a mushroom importer.

Nothing is simpler and more traditional than the clay pot cooking I sample at Wisca. Ingredients for the chain’s signature dishes are placed in a porcelain pot and baked in a brick oven until the vessel cracks. Sifu Zhang Yongfa tells me other restaurants only use the clay pot as a serving dish (to reuse them), not for cooking. “Some customers used to that kind of corner cutting will see a crack in our pots and send back the meal,” he says with a rueful head shake. His popular eel dish comes out sizzling, along with a rice and cured meat combo that’s crispy but not charred. I inhale. The smell of the toasted rice instantly takes me back to my mother’s kitchen.

A sticky rice package

A sticky rice package.

But Wisca also absorbs influences from across the country and beyond. (These influences seem to extend across eras, as seen in the decor at the Bin Jiang Palace location south of the Pearl River: The bejewelled chandeliers and rectangular lotus pond evoke the glamour of the 18th century, when trade with Europe brought new wealth to the region.) Zhang orders shrimp sashimi on a bed of ice and foie gras poached in fermented rice paste. “When I first was served foie gras, I thought it was raw,” says the locally trained chef. “I knew it was special.” Then, watching me dig into a lobster deep-fried in Hunan chili, he tells me that Cantonese cuisine in Guangzhou is seeing a convergence with other Chinese cooking styles that have come with the influx of migrants to this prosperous metropolis. Mandarin, the national dialect, is heard as often as Cantonese, the local one, on its streets. These regional influences, particularly the spicier foods of Szechuan and Hunan, and ingredients like peppercorn and chili more common in other parts of China, further separate Guangzhou cuisine from its counterpart in Hong Kong, which has strict quarantine laws.

Guangdong Museum and Zaha Hadid’s opera house

Left to right: Zaha Hadid’s opera house presents new lines; history comes to life at the Guangdong Museum.

Guangzhou’s chefs don’t recreate regional delicacies so much as they riff on them, creating, in effect, a pan-Chinese cuisine. Gordon Guo, the enthusiastic executive chef at the helm of the Ritz-Carlton, Guangzhou’s Lai Heen restaurant, has worked in kitchens all over China and now brings a rainbow of flavours to his food. One morning, he takes me shopping for mushrooms at his supplier in the old city centre. He leads me down a side street to a storefront where plastic bags bursting with mushrooms cram sidewalk bins and shelves. Guo disappears in the back and returns with a fresh black tiger palm mushroom from Yunnan, in southwestern China, showing me its resemblance to a jungle cat’s paw. Foraging is rooted in Guo’s DNA. His grandfather operated a mushroom import business, and he recently went on an expedition to the forests of Shaoguan, in the northern part of Guangdong province, to harvest wild bamboo and winter mushrooms.

dim sum at Oi Kwan

To eat like a local, head for the dim sum at Oi Kwan, an art deco hotel on the Pearl River.

The result of our outing is a multicourse feast at Lai Heen, a dining room that features a guzheng, a Chinese-style zither, surrounded by a ceiling-to-floor waterfall. I’m seated at a semi-private table; stained-glass partitions balance privacy with opportunities to people-watch. Carrying individually plated dishes (as opposed to family-style, the Chinese norm), Guo comes to my table like a child showing off new toys. He puts down an amuse-bouche of roasted pork belly paired with a wood fungus that has been given the numbing heat of Szechuan peppercorn oil. He follows up with black pig and porcini, flambéed in a pouch of tinfoil on a slab of granite, and concludes with black tiger palm mushrooms and pan-fried chicken thighs. (The frying pan provides a more even sear than a wok.) The chicken gives the dish the aroma, but the mushroom adds another fleshy texture to the meal. As I eat, it occurs to me that in balancing tradition with China’s breathtaking leap into modernity and interconnectedness, Guangzhou’s chefs have created an edible mirror of an increasingly cosmopolitan city.

The fluffy pineapple buns at Bingsheng

The fluffy pineapple buns at Bingsheng are a good reason to smile.

In the New Town District, freshly raised architectural eye ­pleasers like the opera house and the Tetris cloud shape of Guangdong Museum crowd the skyline. Bingsheng, a black-accented five-floor emporium that seats a thousand diners, matches the area in scale and sheen. In a private section with a view of the vaulting, multihued Canton Tower, Sifu He Qingxiang tells me about Bingsheng’s inauspicious start as a roadside snack shop in 1996. Now it’s one of the city’s signature eateries, with nine related, but individually branded, outlets. I’m gleefully tucking into roast goose, tofu with minced pork and a whitefish sashimi inspired by fishermen from nearby Shantou region that Sifu He recommends with peanut oil and lemongrass.

roast pork char siu

Bingsheng’s not-to-be-missed roast pork char siu.

“I’m both traditional and modern,” he says, proving his point with his one-of-a-kind char siu. The roast pork is inspired by a Malaysian cooking style in which it is quickly roasted, then removed from heat, then roasted again several dozen times. The dish is an afterthought on many Cantonese menus. But Sifu He’s fatty, deeply flavoured iteration, along with pillowy pineapple buns whose jelly filling prompts my interpreter to burst into applause, makes me taste it with an amnesiac’s palate. Each bite carries with it a wondrous familiarity, like I’m visiting a house I grew up in, but with a newly discovered room. I find myself getting full before I can finish exploring.


RELATED: 7 Things to Do in Guangzhou, China

Tags

CHINA     FOOD & DRINK     GUANGZHOU     RESTAURANTS    

Comments… or add another

Eating Adventures Food Tours

Friday, April 1st 2016 09:26
Nothing beats the food in Guangzhou, next time join us on a food tour!
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