Cathy Adams

Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia - - CONTRIBUTORS - WRITER “Graz­ing Guangzhou”

“In Guangzhou, Can­tonese food is still very tra­di­tional, with soups and TCM el­e­ments in ev­ery meal,” says Adams, who lived in Hong Kong. Now that Guangzhou has a Miche­lin Guide, the up­scale places are get­ting more global recog­ni­tion: “they have bet­ter ser­vice, English menus, more salu­bri­ous op­tions (i.e. no sus­pi­cious-look­ing meat), plus they usu­ally come with a swag­ger­ing view. Draw­backs com­pared with more lo­cal places, though, are they don’t have as lively an at­mos­phere, and cost 10 times the price.” Three must-eats in the port city? “Dim sum, char siu, and a bun with lo­tus-seed paste.” In­sta­gram: @cathyradams.

The Miche­lin Guide may have only just set its stars on this foodie port of south­ern China, but Cathy Adams finds a city that has long been loved for its hot plates.

ON THE 71ST FLOOR of the Four Sea­sons Guangzhou, I’m be­ing poured Longjing tea at the ho­tel’s modern Can­tonese eatery, Yu Yue Heen

( foursea­sons.com; mains from RMB150; dou­bles from RMB2,000). In this restau­rant, now em­bel­lished with one Miche­lin star, even a sim­ple cup of tea turns into an art­ful gong-fu cer­e­mony. On a ta­ble­side trol­ley, the tea leaves are strained, and the steam­ing liq­uid care­fully de­canted into a minia­ture cup.

This black lac­quer– and red glass–ac­cented fine-din­ing haven over­looks the glassy tow­ers and pas­tel hous­ing blocks of Guangzhou’s ur­ban sprawl. It’s the ul­ti­mate con­trast: the old and the new, the high and the low, the lo­cal and the in­ter­na­tional—a good anal­ogy for Guangzhou’s food scene.

There’s a well-known say­ing in China:

“Be born in Suzhou, live in Hangzhou, eat in Guangzhou, die in Li­uzhou,” which may ex­plain Guangzhou’s other nick­name, “Rice City.” The cap­i­tal of Guang­dong is well-known his­tor­i­cally as a trad­ing port and in re­cent gen­er­a­tions as a fac­tory floor. While its Can­tonese cui­sine is lauded among its coun­try­men, the city is not so much known in­ter­na­tion­ally for its foodie scene. Now that Miche­lin has launched its in­au­gu­ral Guangzhou guide, that’s all about to change. “IN GUANGZHOU, peo­ple only talk about food,” says Bram van Ooi­jen, lo­cal gour­mand and founder of Cy­cle Can­ton (cy­cle­can­ton.com; tours from RMB350), a tour com­pany on two wheels. “The food they had yes­ter­day, the food they’re eat­ing now and the food they want to eat to­mor­row.” (His fa­vorite Can­tonese dishes: whole steamed fish in soy sauce; roast pi­geon; and the city’s fa­mous gin­ger milk pud­ding, among oth­ers.) Guangzhou has long been the cen­ter of grav­ity for Can­tonese cui­sine, char­ac­ter­ized by its sim­plic­ity and light­ness—rather than over­pow­ered by spices or sauces. The city’s his­tory as the epi­cen­ter of south­ern China trade meant a range of in­gre­di­ents and ideas co­a­lesced around the city, and bur­geon­ing wealth meant more em­pha­sis on fresh, premium dishes. Teddy Xiong, a Chi­nese food ex­pert who grew up in Guang­dong prov­ince, also cred­its the city’s “ideal ge­og­ra­phy”: moun­tains to the north, per­fect for crops; and set at the mouth of the South China Sea, on the banks of the Pearl River, which meant an abun­dance of fresh seafood. In late June, Miche­lin awarded eight of the city’s restau­rants one star and countless oth­ers a Bib Gour­mand. Guangzhou, the sec­ond city >>

in main­land China af­ter Shang­hai to wel­come a Miche­lin guide, show­cases “a great lo­cal gas­tro­nomic in­ter­est,” ac­cord­ing to Michael El­lis, in­ter­na­tional di­rec­tor of the Miche­lin Guides. He adds: “Guangzhou has a wealth of as­ton­ish­ing restau­rants with a strong and his­tor­i­cal Can­tonese back­ground.”

Note the “lo­cal” and “Can­tonese back­ground.” All eight of the one-star restau­rants serve pre­dom­i­nantly Can­tonese food—the cui­sine best known for dim sum, bar­be­cued meats and fresh fish—while only a cou­ple of the Bib Gour­mand–awarded restau­rants hint at other cuisines, in­clud­ing Sichuan and north­ern In­dian. Which is some­what sur­pris­ing, given that this megac­ity is home to 14.5 mil­lion peo­ple and is fast gain­ing in­ter­na­tional pro­file. ON MICHE­LIN’S ONE-STAR list are Guangzhou’s most swag­ger­ing restau­rants, in­clud­ing the Four Sea­sons’ Yu Yue Heen, where ex­ec­u­tive chef Mai Zhi Xiong was praised for his “skills and at­ten­tion to de­tail.” I checked in for a lazy lunch: the siu mai dumplings were juicy and burst­ing out of their rice pa­per pock­ets, the baked pork buns were as sweet as a dessert, the steamed grouper with strands of gin­ger was both meaty and light. It would’ve been rude to refuse the sig­na­ture dessert, chilled mango pud­ding, wouldn’t it?

Other awarded restau­rants in­clude in­tri­cately dec­o­rated Jade River (whiteswan­ho­tel.com; mains from RMB300; dou­bles from RMB1,000), in the White Swan ho­tel on Shamian Is­land, in the for­mer French Con­ces­sion; the el­e­gant Jiang by Chef Fei (man­dari­nori­en­tal.com; mains from RMB200; dou­bles from RMB1,300) in the Man­darin Ori­en­tal; and Wisca (86-2/3438-1188; 172 Bin­jiang Xi Lu, Haizhu; mains from RMB150), most loved for its eel clay­pot stew (jue­jue­bao), which had five min­utes of fame in na­tional tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­tary A Bite of China a few years ago.

Lo­cal fa­vorite Bing Sheng—a Guangzhou friend told me she would choose where to live based on the dis­tance to her lo­cal branch—was also rec­og­nized, twice, with Bing Sheng Man­sion (bing­sheng.com; mains from RMB80) and Bing Sheng Pri­vate Kitchen (bing­sheng. com; mains from RMB300) both awarded a star. Why? The crispy bar­be­cue pork is sim­ple but un­for­get­table, as is the silky three-col­ored tofu, my friend says. The soups and pork were dishes the Miche­lin re­view­ers high­lighted at Lei Gar­den (86-2/8363-3268; 4F Yi An Plaza, 33

“In Guangzhou, peo­ple only talk about food. The food they had yes­ter­day... the food they want to­mor­row”

Jian­she Liu Ma Lu, Yuexiu; mains from RMB200), while The Ritz-Carl­ton’s up­scale Lai Heen (ritz­carl­ton.com; mains from RMB200; dou­bles from RMB1,800) was praised for its con­tem­po­rary dishes, in par­tic­u­lar sun­flower seed–fed chicken, fish maw black gar­lic soup, and poached star grouper.

GUANGZHOU’S BOOM­ING STA­TUS in China’s “Greater Bay Area”—of­fi­cial fig­ures showed that the econ­omy ex­panded 4.3 per­cent in the first three months of 2018—has also meant a shift­ing ur­ban ge­og­ra­phy. Zhu­jiang New Town and Tianhe (the glossy, modern neigh­bor­hoods of Guangzhou that are home to up­scale restau­rants and smart pave­ment cafés) jut up against Li­wan, one of Guangzhou’s oldest dis­tricts and a slice of tra­di­tional Can­ton with cob­ble­stone al­ley­ways, low-slung ten­e­ments and Euro­pean-styled shopfronts. Rather than the typ­i­cal (and uniquely Guangzhou) blend of Man­darin and Can­tonese, in Li­wan all I hear is the mu­si­cal notes of Can­tonese.

To taste tra­di­tional Can­tonese cui­sine, Li­wan is a good place to start, and it’s where the Eat­ing Ad­ven­tures (eatin­gad­ven­tures.com; RMB529) four-hour food tour fo­cuses. Here, there’s the Huang­sha Mar­ket (15 Huang­sha Dadao, Li­wan), the largest seafood mar­ket in south­ern China that shifts 5,000 met­ric tons of seafood a day. For break­fast, I buy fresh prawns and scal­lops from a stall, and take them to be grilled in one of the restau­rants housed on the up­per floors of the cen­tral mar­ket build­ing.

Nearby is the Shangx­i­a­jiu Pedes­trian Street, the oldest com­mer­cial street in Guangzhou, a brash boule­vard lined with street ven­dors ped­dling treats in­clud­ing che­ung fan rice rolls (a Guangzhou spe­cialty usu­ally eaten for break­fast), lo­tus seed pas­tries from Lianx­i­ang Lou Bak­ery (67 Shipu Lu, Li­wan; cakes from RMB8), which dates back to the Qing dy­nasty, and fat pork-and-chive dumplings in su­per­local eatery Li­wan Ming­shi­jia (99 Dishifu Lu; dim sum from RMB10), or “Li­wan Fa­mous Eatery” as it’s known anec­do­tally.

Li­wan is also home to the vast Qing­ping Mar­ket, sell­ing all kinds of dis­turb­ing things in jars and pots: tiny scor­pi­ons, cow pe­nis, shark fin (all for medic­i­nal pur­poses, nat­u­rally). It’s tes­ta­ment to Can­tonese cui­sine’s link to Tra­di­tional Chi­nese Medicine, em­pha­sized by the fo­cus on soups and herbal teas. I no­tice this at Li­wan’s most-loved yum cha joint, the all-day Dian Dou De (587 Long Jin Zhong Lu, Li­wan; dim sum from RMB20): sheeny har gaw dumplings ar­rive in a lit­tle bowl of clear soup. Their 100plus types of dim sum tes­tify to the trans­la­tion of their name: ev­ery­thing is pos­si­ble.

But this con­cen­trated Can­tonese fla­vor won’t stay undi­luted for long. Es­ti­mates put the num­ber of do­mes­tic mi­grants liv­ing and work­ing in the city at around five mil­lion, bring­ing with them myr­iad re­gional Chi­nese cuisines: Sichuan; Pekinese; Shang­hainese; and, most mem­o­rably, the de­li­cious lamb skew­ers and flat­breads from a Uyghur restau­rant in Guangzhou’s gritty Xiaobei dis­trict, oth­er­wise known as “Lit­tle Africa.”

Af­ter three days of feast­ing across this dizzy­ingly in­dul­gent city, I have only one an­swer to the com­mon Can­tonese greet­ing of “Have you eaten?”

Ab­so­lutely.

Lai Heen at The Ritz­Carl­ton now has a Miche­lin star.

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT: Chef Mai Zhi Xiong at Yu Yue Heen; sky­line views from the pri­vate din­ing room; the Miche­lin-starred Yu Yue Heen's dim sum se­lec­tion.

FROM LEFT: Lai Heen at The Ritz­Carl­ton; Lai Heen's steamed crab custard with caviar.

FROM LEFT: Wild mush­rooms with scal­lop at Jiang by Chef Fei; Guang­dong-born Fei started cook­ing in Can­tonese kitchens at the age of 16.

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