There are a few things I remember vividly from my last trip to Guangzhou, China. Buildings being built and highways being erected everywhere I turned. The stark differences between the cramped, squeaky, and no air condition buses versus its fairly new subway line. Oh, and how could I forget bleaching and perming my hair to resemble a bucket of curly fries. I was young and it was 10 years ago. I always knew I will return to my birth city, but I never expected it to be this year. While this was my third time back to China, my first visit was in 1991, this would be the first time I ever traveled north of the country to Beijing. My trip begins in Guangzhou, and I spent the majority of my time in the city and traveling outside to its nearby districts Shunde and Dinghu. Hong Kong and Macau was also on my itinerary and finally my last stop was in Beijing.
My mom, dad, and I immigrated from Guangzhou over 20 years ago, so my memories of the years I spent there and the house I grew up in are fuzzy. It wasn’t until my second trip to Guangzhou in 1999 that I realize my house was located in the tucked away allies of the streets leading towards Shangxiajiu Road, the first shopping pedestrian street in Guangzhou that first opened in 1995. This area is crowded and flooded with a mix of small boutiques, big named fast food chains, and local eateries. It’s a great place to walk around in the afternoon, and not worry about crossing any streets and getting run over by traffic (more on that in the next post). As night falls Beijing Road is where you want to be. The streets are lined with neon signs, brightly lighted red lanterns hung on trees, and department stores. When it was time to feed my hungry stomach I decided to feast on something a little foreign, sushi. I was a little nervous about consuming raw fish in China at first, but Daiwo Sushi was recommended by my dad and they have several locations around the city.
One of the main reasons my mom and I traveled to China this year was to celebrate my grandfather’s 80th birthday. I have always heard stories of my grandfather’s cooking, but I could never remember how it taste like. This time around I don’t think I will ever be able to forget. In a tiny kitchen at my Aunt’s house in Fangcun, southwest of Guangzhou’s downtown area, my grandfather whipped up one of his specialties, Suen Mui All (Sour Plum Geese). A week later my uncle made the dish again, and a month after we left China, my other uncle made the dish as well. Both attempts were good, but it just could not compare to my grandfather’s version. The balance between the sugar, the sour plums, and the wine were just a tad off in both of my uncles’ versions. If only I could have bottled that sauce and bring it back to America.
Yum cha, is not just another meal in Guangzhou and throughout China. It’s a daily routine for many, especially the elderly. It’s a way to relax and do absolutely nothing but read a newspaper and eat. Most importantly, it’s a way to catch up with families and friends. Sometimes better known as “dim sum” but “yum cha”, which literally translates to drinking tea, is the dining experience of eating dim sum, the small plates of food that are served during yum cha. Many of the dim sum restaurants in Guangzhou are huge. They are usually two stories or higher, and regardless of what time you go for yum cha there is always a crowd. But before you start reaching for those plump siu mai and take your first sip of tea, you need to give your chopsticks and tea cup a quick rinse. From what I know and what I have observed, and I am not 100% positive on this, but this practice of rinsing your utensils before eating is strictly a Cantonese and Hong Kong thing. Usually your table setting includes a tea cup, a plate, a small bowl, and a pair of chopsticks. Most people eat with the bowl and not with the plate. The plate is used as a place to discard bones. When you are seated, the first thing a waiter brings to the table is a pot of hot water or tea and a large bowl. You fill your tea cup with the water or tea, give it a few twirls, pour the water in your small bowl, give it a twirl or two as well, take your chopsticks and your small bowl and pour that water over the chopsticks into the large bowl. Whew! It really is not as complicated as I’m making it seem and there is no right or wrong way to do it.
When you are done swishing and whooshing, it is time to eat. Chicken feet served either braised or cold, juicy har gow, thin sheets of rice noodles rolled up with beef, steamed round meatballs, all the usual suspects were here. These are the dim sum I grew up with in America, but here in Guangzhou, it tasted like nothing I knew back in Philadelphia, it was better.
Around Guangdong: Dinghu Mountain and Seven Star Crags
There was one thing I found myself missing right away when I arrived in Guangzhou, being able to take a deep breath. As lively and bustling the city is, with buildings being constructed and roads being repaved on every block, it’s also a city that’s heavily populated. There is no blue sky. So it was a relief for both my eyes and my lungs when we decided to take a 2 day trip to the city of Siu Hing, just 68 miles northwest of Guangzhou. Our first stop was Dinghu Mountain. This place has it all. From breathtaking scenic views, waterfalls, rare species of plants, and even a Buddhist temple. It was also the first established nature reserve in China back in 1956. The next day was spent at Seven Star Crags. Its tall white limestone crags and lotus flower covered ponds made my visit to Siu Hing an unforgettable one.
Shunde: Alligator Snapping Turtle and Water Snake
Before I left for China, my mom kept telling me how amazing the food in Shunde is. I was skeptical. How could it be better than Guangzhou or even Hong Kong? She proved me wrong. Shunde is about a two hour bus ride from Guangzhou. My mom grew up in this district that’s part of the Guangdong Province, the same province as Guangzhou. Many of her relatives still live around the area, so it was a treat having them guide our taste buds around various restaurants in town. One of the most memorable restaurants they took us was about a thirty minutes drive from the district. That night the only thing that was on the menu was Alligator Snapping Turtle. Taste wise I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would it taste like chicken? Nope, not at all. It tasted like…..turtle. Can’t really describe the flavor but it was good. Not one part of the turtle was wasted. Even its blood was used to make fried rice (2nd row 1st picture below). Another memorable Shunde meal was served at home and prepared by my mom’s aunt. That night Water Snake (last picture below) was on the menu. I am a pretty adventurous eater, but I just couldn’t touch this one. I am terrified of snakes. Either it be alive behind a glass window at the zoo or a picture of a snake in a book, it doesn’t matter. I would scream my lungs out every time I see one. So while everyone was having a good old time peeling the skin off from the pieces of snake they cooked on the table side hot pot, I was happily eating my plate of steam chicken.
Coming up on the second part of my series “Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Beijing. Back to the motherland”, I’ll be talking about my travel to Hong Kong. Stay tune!