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Guangzhou: Feast of The East

Guangzhou’s new-found wealth has revitalised its traditional Cantonese cuisine and fine-dining scene, turning the southern city into one of China’s top foodie destinations.

Words by Brian Johnston

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Guangzhou is fast-paced, optimistic and one of China’s most energetic cities. Spend a few days here and you’ll see exactly what modern China is all about and experience the dizzy excitement of a country powering into the future. As for the locals, they’re the Italians of China: talkative, sociable, volatile and with a love of good food.

Indeed, if there’s one compelling reason to visit Guangzhou (or Canton), it would be for its renowned cuisine. According to legend, five gods descended on this region in ancient times bearing rice stalks, a symbol of plenty. Surrounding Guangdong is a fertile province that yields three rice crops annually and an abundance of fruit, vegetables and sugarcane. The area is especially famous for lychees, favoured since ancient times. Tang dynasty emperor Ming Huang used to have them relayed to his court for his favourite concubine, and the 11th-century poet Su Shi wrote ‘Lament for Lychees’ for the men who lost their lives in the breakneck attempt to transport the fruits northwards before they lost their freshness.

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There are few dramas involved in enjoying the local produce these days. In fact, Guangzhou lays claim to having more restaurants and teahouses than any other city in China, and the Chinese expression ‘eating in Guangzhou’ means someone has made it to the big time. A recent survey found that the Cantonese spend seven times the national average on eating out.

It isn’t hard to see why, since Cantonese cuisine is considered one of the four great cuisines of China. It’s also the Chinese food most familiar overseas, thanks to the legions of southern Chinese who emigrated to the Earth’s four corners. Stir-frying and blanching are the typical cooking styles that tease out the flavours of fresh ingredients. Little oil is used and few spices. A typical Cantonese meal features slow-cooked meats, often simmered in rice wine and soy sauce and accompanied by bitter greens served with oyster sauce.

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Also typically Cantonese is morning dim sum, a meal cobbled together from little snacks wheeled around restaurants on trolleys, from which customers choose whatever catches their eye. Dim sum is usually served from 7am to 10am, sometimes later in more famous establishments, and is particularly popular on leisurely Sunday mornings. Certainly, no visit to the city is complete without at least one dim sum meal. Expect such delights as shrimp dumplings, spring rolls, sticky rice, steamed buns with various fillings, spare ribs, crabs and congee.

The best dim sum house is reckoned to be Panxi (151 Longjin West Road) in Liwan Park in the west of the city, offering such refined delicacies as hibiscus crab slices or crab and scallop soup. Bei Yuan Restaurant (202 Xiao North Road) has been dishing up dim sum since the 1920s, as well as classic main dishes such as chicken cooked in wine and roast goose. The Datong (63 Yanjiang West Road), overlooking the river, packs people into its nine floors, especially for roast suckling pig. If you’re ever going to try chickens’ feet, this is the place to do it: they’re delicious.

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Eating out in Guangzhou doesn’t necessarily come cheap; many patrons are on business budgets designed to impress. Still, it’s worth splurging: meals can be enjoyed beside picturesque lakes, in tree-filled courtyards or under lacquered pagodas. Among the city’s best restaurants are the interlocking courtyards and classical menu of Guangzhou Restaurant (2 Wenchang South Road) and the opulent colonial-style Tang Yuan (106 Liuhua Road), offering such delicacies as crispy fried pigeon and grilled mackerel.

Hotel restaurants are often excellent as well. The Jade River Restaurant at the White Swan Hotel specialises in fine Cantonese cuisine in a setting of carp-filled ponds and Oriental woodwork; an elegant tea hostess presides over a tearoom to one side. And Lai Wan Market at the Garden Hotel is themed on old Canton, with boat-shaped eating booths and a fine menu of dim sum and rice dishes.

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Sweet-and-sour pork is undoubtedly the most famous Cantonese dish, although seafood and chicken also feature prominently. However, Muslim food from the Hui minority is not uncommon in Guangzhou, both in speciality restaurants and at street stalls. Guangzhou has long links with Arab traders; the city’s Huaisheng Mosque was built by Arab missionaries as far back as 627. Typical Hui foods include stewed oxtail, roast mutton, spare ribs and crispy goose, followed by fried cakes and fruit with sweet tea that often contains raisins, dates and sesame seeds.

The Cantonese are also renowned for their adventurous palates. Foreigners may be alarmed by green 1,000-year-old eggs; they’re actually only a few months old and get their colour from green tea. All manner of animal parts and odd creatures are also eaten, from snakes to pigs’ tongues and abalone. A northern Chinese witticism claims the Cantonese will eat anything with legs, except the table.

If you really want to investigate these types of dishes, Taotao Ju Restaurant (20 Dishifu Road) has a whole menu of them and is one of the top traditional restaurants in the city. You can also tuck in to such delightful Cantonese dishes as fried duck in oyster sauce, crab with ginger, steamed fish with pine nuts, or perhaps pigeon in plum sauce. The good news is that you don’t have to be an imperial concubine these days to enjoy the best on offer: in Guangzhou, fine food is everywhere.

Denpasar to Guangzhou


Flight Time 5 hour 15 minutes

Frequency 3 flights per week

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From Colours January 2016

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5 Senses – Scent
QINGPING MARKET

Those with a nose for redolent spices should wander through Qingping Market along the Pearl River, part of which is devoted to sack-loads of chillies, dried roots and ginger. There’s a notable section devoted to odd-smelling traditional herbal medicines: have a sniff at gingko seeds, fried chrysanthemums, ginseng and various kinds of tea. A flower section provides plenty more perfume. The market also sells meat, fresh vegetables and colourful aquarium fish.

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