When we booked our tickets to Guangzhou, #BawaGroom warned me to use Google Translate to its full capacity and translate all the details we would need into Cantonese. He also suggested that I print photos of the dishes I had heard about and wanted to eat so that I could point to them at a restaurant and order it. I laughed him off.
Yes, I had heard that the locals in Guangzhou don’t talk much English but printing photos of food seemed overly extreme and something I refused to do. This of course meant that I was now responsible for choosing wisely at every meal as I didn’t want #BawaGroom gloating at me every time I ended up choosing something that was a bit too adventurous (read inedible).
As we were staying in Liwan – arguably the food capital of the city – the pressure to pick the perfect meal was huge. If every 3rd shop next to you was a food joint with a menu entirely in Cantonese and impatient owners waiting for you to order, you’d know what I mean. Things came to a head on our first day itself when I used the ‘Eenie-Minie-Mo’ method one too many times and ordered a weird tasting Durian (I think) ice-cream surrounded with bland red beans that #BawaGroom ate while glaring at me the entire time (our dessert adventures deserve a separate post!).
I still desperately wanted to try all the local Guangzhou Eats (and make sure #BawaGroom didn’t revert to eating McDonalds) though so I looked for food walks in the city and stumbled across a small company called Eating Adventures. In India too, food walks have really become popular and I personally feel its a great way of experiencing a slice of local culture and discovering not only great food but also fun local stories that make a destination memorable. So here’s a not so brief food photo diary of all that I ate – you can admire the size of my appetite at the end of this post!
My first taste of the Gau Choi Jin Gao, a pan fried dumpling stuffed with minced pork and chives at the Liwan Famous Eatery was simply amazing. This dumpling is steamed and then pan-fried which gives it a lovely crisp texture on the outside that gives way to a juicy filling. I was so happy to note that there was a picture on the wall for this dish because that meant I could bring #BawaGroom here again and order some for him too. My lovely guide Wai shared that this was a dim sum commonly available across all outlets but no one does them as well as the Liwan Famous Eatery which also happened to be a time-honoured Chinese brand, a highly coveted award given to iconic establishments in the city.
We also tried a Beef Brisket Soup, a mixture of slow cooked beef internal organs and radish. I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as the dim-sum as the meat was quite chewy for my taste but I did enjoy learning that in the olden times Guangzhou was considered to be the start of the Maritime Silk Route that started from the port of Liwan and went to the coast of Africa.
Next up, it was time to explore the local Liwan market where I spent a fun half hour spotting giant mushrooms, scorpions and deer feet, all of which I thought about including in my next plate of Dhansak and then wisely decided against.
I discovered the joys of Roast Goose and Char Siew Pork at our next stop, Weng Heng Barbecue. The goose was a bit bland for my taste but it’s cooked this way as the locals take their poultry seriously and like for the taste of the meat to shine through. The cooked birds are hung as part of the window display so that one can judge which looks the most flavourful and pick their favourite. My Indian palate preferred the sweet and spicy Char Siew Pork but the goose is definitely worth trying if only for the fact that its a local delicacy. You need not try to hunt for this particular shop as you’ll find goose barbecue stores every 1 – 2 blocks away and they all rustle up a decent bird.
Things got a bit interesting at the next stop, a soup shop that didn’t have a menu that one is used to. Instead of listing the ingredients, this menu was categorised according to the health benefits. So, there were soups for shinier hair, for detoxing your insides, for curing a flu and so on! I thought this was brilliant and proceeded to have one that promised to make me more beautiful – a slow cooked chicken and coconut milk soup served in a coconut shell.
After soup, it was time for some more dim-sum and we headed to another time-honored Chinese brand, Guangzhou Restaurant. Spread over the three floors, this restaurant is a must visit! Over plates of Hakka Hub To Bao – a steamed vegetarian walnut bun with a creamy condensed milk filling (cover image) – Haa Gao Prawn Dumplings and steamed beef balls with water chestnut, I learnt about ‘Gong Fu Cha’.
Gong Fu Cha is a tea making ceremony and is popular amongst the many tea shops serving fine tea in Guangzhou. First, the cups are washed with the hot tea water to remove any pre-existing flavours that may be there in the cup. Tea is then served around the table in tiny cups as that’s believed to bring out the flavour of the tea and one must remember to tap your fingers twice on the table as a thank you. I learnt that the finger-tapping tradition came from the Ching Dynasty where the King loved visiting his subjects in plain clothes and forbid his guards from bowing to him. At the local tea house when the King served his guards tea they had no way to show their gratitude without revealing the King’s identity and hence chose to tap their fingers on the table to resemble a bow – chinese ingenuity never fails to amaze me!
The final two stops of the walk were for dessert. We tried a bunch of things including the Wife’s Cake made with Red Bean Paste, a black sesame soup, double boiled milk and egg tarts. I’ll be honest and share that Chinese desserts and me don’t quite go together. The only red beans I’ve had is with Rajma Chawal at a Punjabi friends’ house and I couldn’t get over having rajma in my cake no matter how hard I tried. The double boiled milk, invented by Grandma Dong is a hot creamy milk soup that tastes nutritious but was a bit too bland for me. What I did enjoy was the crumbly egg tarts at Guangzhou Restaurant which were creamy – I wish I’d had one more!
We wrapped up our walk with desserts, four hours after we started and I was glad. I couldn’t fit another morsel in even if I wanted to. Thanks to Eating Adventures, I discovered a bunch of great local eats in Guangzhou. Predictably though what I enjoyed even more were the little stories and traditions behind the meals we ate and the visible pride for her city’s food that Wai, our shy guide had. For me, that’s always what makes food special.
What you need to know:
Food Tour: Eating Adventures Guangzhou Food Tour
Cost: From RMB 399 onwards (Approximately ₹4000)
Meeting Point: Holiday Inn Shifu, Liwan
Favourite Eats: Pork & Chives Dumpling at Liwan Famous Eatery, Hakka Walnut Bun and Egg Tarts at Guangzhou Restaurant
Disclaimer: While I tried a bunch of other local eats during my 4-day stay in Guangzhou, all of the discoveries above were made possible thanks to Eating Adventures. They run individual and group tours in Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Shanghai amongst other cities and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org