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January 16, 2012

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Guangzhou paradise of Canton fare

THERE'S no shortage of things to do in Guangzhou, but one time-honored pastimes is eating the marvelous variety of Cantonese food morning, noon and night. Liu Qi readies her chopsticks.

Grandpa Wu raises his head from the newspaper and carefully checks his number card every time the receptionist shouts out the next seating number.

"Only 10 ahead of me," the 70-year-old murmurs. "I came 30 minutes early today to beat the queue but it didn't help much."

Still several dozen people wait behind him.

"It's a very common scene - every day is busy, weekday or weekend," says the receptionist at Nanyuan Restaurant, a popular destination for zao cha or morning tea in Guangzhou, capital city of southern China's Guangdong Province. "For locals, there's never trouble finding a place to eat."

Very true. Just as Chengdu residents are known as "professional" tea drinkers and card players, people in Guangzhou are portrayed as "sophisticated eaters," because they're always either eating or on the way to a meal.

"I come (to the Nanyuan Restaurant) almost every morning; it's part of my life," says Grandpa Wu. "Sometimes I even stay here for wu cha (noon tea)."

Wu is typical of millions of locals who indulge themselves in the colorful ages-old culinary culture, part of making the city "a paradise for gourmets."

More than 2,000 years of development has created a Cantonese cuisine celebrated for light natural flavor, delicate texture and 21 precise cooking techniques. The best-known are zao cha, soup, porridges, double-skin milk (dessert) and chang fen or steamed vermicelli rolls.

Although Cantonese zao cha has a shorter history (it originated from Emperor Xianfeng's reign, 1831-1861, of the Qing Dynasty, 1644-1911) than its Yangzhou counterpart in Jiangsu Province, it's more famous globally for its rich variety, says Anthony Dong, a Yangzhou-native chef working in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province.

Shrimp dumplings, shao mai or shumai (steamed dumplings with rice and minced pork), feng zhua or phoenix's claws (steamed chicken feet) and steamed spareribs are the four must-orders, while Yangzhou breakfast features mainly steamed buns with different fillings, according to Dong.

"For Cantonese people, zao cha is a way of life. Family and friends enjoy chatting and gossiping over dim sum and a glass of Pu'er or Iron Guanyin tea," says Deng Guoxiong, a local gourmet, food critic and a member of the Guangdong Restaurant Association. "If they finish late, they may stay on for wu cha, and then afternoon tea."

Ordering Cantonese zao cha is art in itself, with many unwritten rules and customs, such as rinsing the bowl, plate and chopsticks with hot tea before beginning.

And there are interesting stories. One tale goes that dressed in ordinary clothes, Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong arrived in Guangzhou on a southern inspection tour. When he went to a restaurant for breakfast, he wanted to remain unobtrusive and hide his royal identity, so he quietly knocked twice on the table to signal a servant from his entourage to serve the tea. That way no one called him "Your Majesty," and disrupted the restaurant. Today it's still common to knock on the table to ask the waiter to serve tea.

Folk tale

Another story from the Republic of China Period (1912-1949) has it that the Dongshan (East Hill) young lords tried to play a prank by putting a live bird in the teapot and then saying the tea was finished and calling for water.

Without awareness, the waiter scalded the bird to death. The dudes repeated the cruelty until one smart waiter caught on. He then came up with an idea that to ask for boiling water, customers were supposed to open the teapot and place the lid upside down on the holder so waiters could ensure there's no bird inside before adding hot water.

Today the custom remains and diners are still used to reversing the lid to call for hot water.

Dining out in Guangzhou is an adventure and options include myriad Chinese, Asian, Western and other cuisines.

"But unlike people from other regions, the Cantonese emphasize the food's natural flavor," says Jacky Chan, executive Chinese chef of Shangri-La Hotel, Guangzhou. "Take fish for example. Sichuan and Hunan people prepare sliced fish in hot chili oil; people in the north braise it in soy sauce, but in Guangzhou fish is mostly steamed, with no seasoning."

Chicken, fish, seasonal vegetables and soup are local favorites, according to the Hong Kong-native chef who's been cooking in Guangzhou for five years.

Seasonal vegetable are essential and chicken or fish is a fixture in "meaty" dishes. But most important is a bowl of soup before the meal, Chan says.

In traditional Chinese medicine, specially prepared nutritious Cantonese soups are said to have health benefits.

One specialty is lao huo tang (lo foh tong) or slow-cooked soup in the clay pot. The clear broth is prepared by simmering meat and other ingredients for hours. A whole chicken may simmer for at least six hours. Chinese herbs may be added.

The main attraction is the liquid; solids are discarded unless they are valuable, such as abalone or snake.

Traditionally, Cantonese families eat this type of soup at least once a week, says food critic Deng. But today many working families cannot afford the time. "Still, wealthy families with servants and cook enjoy the luxury every day," he says.

The most internationally famous - and probably the most costly - slow-cooked soup is Fo Tiao Qiang or Buddha Jumps Over the Wall. It's so named because Buddha, a vegetarian, even sneaked out of a monastery and jumped wall to enjoy it. Since the Qing Dynasty, the rich soup has been a delicacy made from expensive ingredients such as abalone, quail eggs and shark's fin. It takes a day or two to prepare.

Deng says Cantonese soup is cooked differently in different seasons, catering to varying tastes and needs and using seasonal vegetables. For example, locals enjoy duck and wax gourd soup to reduce internal heat in summer, while in winter they have warming soup with seeds of Job's tears (pearl barley) and pig's stomach.

"The Cantonese are increasingly taking health benefits into account when it comes to dining," says chef Chan.

"One of the big changes is in drinking habits. Locals used to favor baijiu (distilled liquor), but they now increasingly drink tea or fresh juice and prefer hot drinks to chilled ones," Chan says.

Many local diners also reject endangered species. "Locals used to be fond of shark's fin and fa cai (fat choy) or black moss, a Chinese New Year's favorite for its auspicious pronunciation, but now we hardly use these ingredients. Instead we are more likely to see Chinese caterpillar fungus, sea cucumber and matsutake mushrooms," he says.

Dining in Guangzhou is delighted - both for the palate and the wallet. Despite all the acclaim and rising prices around the country, Cantonese food is still reasonably priced.

A decent zao cha usually costs an average of around 40 yuan (US$6.27) per person.

"Cantonese people don't buy the costliest food, they don't believe the more expensive the better," says critic Deng. "What they trust is the palate. As long as the food is tasty, whether it's in a fancy, high-end restaurant or a streetside eatery doesn't matter at all."

Zao cha options

? Da Tong Restaurant

Named an "Old and Famous Brand of China," it specializes in dim sum, roast suckling pig and crisp-skinned chicken. It's known for luxurious Lingnan-style (south of the Yangtze River) decoration and superb cooking. It's been operating since before 1949.

Address: 63 Yanjiang Rd W.

Tel: (020) 8188-8988

? Lian Xiang Lou (Lotus Fragrance Pavilion)

Established in 1889, it's nationally famous, with simple decor and a strong nostalgic feel. Specialities include nuomi ji (nuo mai gai) or chicken with glutinous rice, spring rolls, boiled dumplings and niangao (rice cake) in coconut juice.

Address: 67 Dishifu Rd

Tel: (020) 8181-3388

? Nanyuan Restaurant

Founded in 1958, it is one of three major garden restaurants in Guangzhou. Techniques are highly sophisticated and the traditional food is superb. Specialities are dim sum, Cantonese and Chaozhou dishes.

Address: 142 Qianjin Rd

Tel: (020) 8444-838

Where to stay

Strategically located in the city's new business and commercial district, The Shangri-La Hotel, Guangzhou oversees the beautiful Zhu River and is adjacent to the Guangzhou International Convention and Exhibition Center. It offers a wide variety of options in five restaurants, including Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Italian and Southeast Asian. The hotel's new "Gourmet Indulgence" package has been crafted to please the gourmand with a "five-in-one" customized service which features restaurant-hopping with a private "culinary butler" and private Cantonese cooking classes.

Address: 1 Huizhan Rd E.

Tel: (020) 8917-8888


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