Travel tips on where to eat in China's Guangzhou: Why this is the capital of Cantonese cuisine

A man is crouching by the side of the street washing creatures of some kind in a plastic bucket. I squat down beside him for a closer look at the squirming mass.

Using large chopsticks, he gingerly picks one of them out to show me. They're scorpions, of various shapes and sizes, but all with those distinctive evil-looking, sting-bearing tails and pincers clawing at the air.

"Taste good!" offers a woman beside me. "Very nice." I look at her, and look at them. No, there's no way I'd fancy them wriggling, jiggling and tickling inside me. "Make soup," she says, obviously feeling I need a little more encouragement. "Very healthy."

China's Guangzhou is very much the belly of the country, the capital of Cantonese cuisine, with representatives of all the other types of food on offer, too. Haizhu's scorpion soup, laced with mushrooms and herbs, simmered in coconut milk and allegedly brimming with beneficial medicinal properties, is just one of the unexpected delights.

But there's a whole world of flavours, textures and rather more palatable options available. Guangzhou, in the nation's south, is well known around the world as Foodie City 101, and as the birthplace of dim sum and, even better, it's all as cheap as chips.

The eating establishments are just as varied as the food. A man with a pan and powered mini-fridge on the back of his bicycle produces melt-in-the-mouth "dragon hair" – streams of what looks like fairy floss – tossed with crushed peanuts, salt and sugar. Another man with a barrow is selling artfully serrated pineapples, seared and doused in salt.

Street stalls offer a huge range of delicacies, from barbecued octopus on skewers to steamed beef rice-noodle rolls, from slippery fish-skin stew to steamed Tingzai porridge, from Har Gao shrimp and pork-fat dumplings to the exploding egg-yolk-filled moon cakes.

Then we move up to the thousands upon thousands of tiny cafes dotted along every backstreet, which usually specialise in one or two dishes.

One of my favourites for breakfast is the tiny corner cafe Yin Zi in Haizhu, which produces huge, paper-thin cheong fun or rice-flour pancakes from a big rattan pan steamer on the doorstep, filled with beef, pork, shrimp or egg, that cost just a dollar or two. Apparently the staff get in at 3am every day to ground the rice for the pancakes and porridge.

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Another, the 100-year-old Liwan Famous Eatery in the historic Liwan district, is acclaimed as the producer of the best fried dumplings in the whole of Guangzhou. A modest little place with just four dishes on the menu, its dumplings are indeed divine; big, fat, juicy and with just the right degree of chewiness. There's also a red bean noodle soup that's sweet but bitter in a puzzling, but not wholly unpleasant way.

It's little wonder the food all tastes so fresh. Trawling around the vast markets that seem to be in every small suburb reveals why. At the wet markets, there are vast tanks of every kind of fish, turtle or crustacean under the sun, waiting gloomily to be bought, cooked and consumed, or desperately trying to make a bid for freedom.

The vegetable and fruit markets are ablaze with the colours of market garden produce from around the province, while the meat sections seem to have nearly every species of animal under the sun being skinned, deboned and sliced.

 Some establishments are both restaurant and market. At the Hong Xing Seafood Restaurant, on the Pearl River in Lingnan, half the vast space is a cavernous restaurant with live entertainment and screens showing … other live entertainment. The other half is taken up by rows and rows of containers of live fish and crustaceans, and banks of ice displaying depressed crabs, lobsters and clams.

The fish and seafood, when selected, cooked and returned to the table, is, of course, uniformly superb, although a huge, gloriously golden orb tenderly placed in the middle wrests everyone's attention. When the time comes to eat it, the waitress attacks it with scissors and cuts pieces for us all.

"And what is this delicacy called?" I ask Maggie Ho, our tour guide from Eating Adventures Guangzhou. "Deep fried empty ball," she tells me.

Many of Guangzhou's restaurants are similarly outsize, with big round tables brightly lit by shiny chandeliers. "Food is important to us and we like to see what we're eating," explains Ho. The food in each is exquisite.

At the Lotus Fragrant House we eat duck and broccoli from an earthenware dish, sweet and sour pork, fried lettuce and mushroom in oyster sauce, and pork and Chinese herb soup. At the Sha Ho Fung Village, there are pork ribs steamed in garlic, fish balls, ginger and vegetable noodles, radish cake and – what a fantastic idea! – salted doughnuts.

The Restaurant Macau Street presents like a field of buttercups with clouds of yellow silk everywhere and has matching yellow prawn curry, tom yum soup, chilli potato noodles, tofu and seafood stew and what tastes like eggplant coated in sticky toffee. The Kung Fu Fish Restaurant had lots of delicately flavoured fried fish, roasted goose and chestnut cakes, all to be mopped up with a kind of sweet scotch pancake.

And, of course, you can't visit Guangzhou without at least a few dim sums. Highlights for these include the Guangzhou Restaurant in TianHeBei, with its stunningly light prawn dumplings and sweet steamed buns with barbecued pork in the middle ... and my personal favourites, those nutty steamed buns with gooey black sesame in the middle, and egg custard tarts.

Is there any other city in the world so dedicated to good food and eating? Guangzhou is hard to beat.

FIVE MUST-TRY DISHES

CHEUNG FUN

Thick, sticky steamed rice-noodle rolls, impossibly chewy and slippery in a spicy beef broth. Perfect for breakfast, lunch or yum cha; the dish is anytime comfort food, really.

STEAMED SCALLOPS WITH MINCED GARLIC

A simple dish in which the garlic, in a base of salted oil, is drizzled over fresh scallops and then lightly steamed. They melt in the mouth and have a beautiful garlicky flavour. 

XIAO LONG BAO

Steamed dumplings filled with gelatinised broth made from chicken, pork and ham, which, when the dumplings cook, gradually melts to form a pocket of soup. Absolutely gorgeous, but make sure you eat them in one mouthful. They can make a mighty mess. 

ROASTED GOOSE

This is a traditional Guangzhou favourite, often cooked over charcoal. The skin is crisp and the meat cooked to tender perfection. It's usually served sliced on a platter, with a simple plum sauce. 

CANTONESE EGG TART

Guangzhou chefs brought the egg custard tart back from Portugal and adapted it. Light and fluffy, they're much more eggy than the European versions and are usually served hot. 

TRIP NOTES

Sue Williams was a guest of Guangzhou Tourism and China Southern Airlines.

MORE

traveller.com.au/guangzhou

Guangzhou Tourism, gzly.gov.cn

FLY

China Southern Airlines flies 24 times a week to Guangzhou from both Sydney and Melbourne, seven times a week from Brisbane and Adelaide, four times a week from Cairns and five times a week from Perth in high season. See csair.com.au

STAY

LN Hotel Five is a 4.5-star boutique art-deco hotel on the Pearl River, with 34 rooms, a restaurant, gym and panoramic views from its rooftop bar. See lingnanhotelfive.com

TOUR

Wendy Wu Tours offers tours of Guangzhou and other itineraries across China. See wendywutours.com.au

Eating Adventures offers great food tours of Guangzhou with local guides. See eatingadventures.com

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