04 June 2013

The Street Food Guangzhou Royal Visit ~ Mamma's Making Canton

Last time we were in Guangzhou, the home of Cantonese cuisine, we felt we didn't get a good enough feed. So we went back a year or so later to see what we missed.

Travelling through China at different times of the year can really make a difference. Last time we passed through Guandong province it was deep winter, this time we travelled in Spring and the weather was kinder. We also avoided hell overnight bus trips that made us fatigued and run down and worst of all, limited what we could eat.

Travelling by bus into Guangzhuo is quite an eye opener. Travelling along the elevated freeway gives you a birds eye glimpse into peoples lives that you wouldn't get by train. For miles into the city there are high rise buildings everywhere and dozens upon dozens of small suburbs linked together by major roads.

We wonder where the bus will drop us off in this megacity of 12.7 million souls, the third biggest city in China. We are plonked somewhere in the old town centre which is a little bit of wonderful, with old-ish shop houses on tree-lined streets. We find a map outside the bus station which implied we were standing right on top of a subway station, but we couldn't find it for the life of us. We find this eat street instead.

We pick the joint with the most buzz for lunch. A queue can be a sign the food is good, or cheap or both. Or maybe it's just there at the right place.

We have no idea how to order but there is a guy taking money and dispensing tickets, so Alison is sent into bat. She manages to buy two tickets and lines up to choose from the pre made food inside.

Once in the line up you can choose from a meat and a couple of veggie options. Choice no 1 is pork, tofu and broccoli lunch box.

Choice no 2 is crisp pork belly with stuffed chili and eggplant. The eggplants here have a surreal blue tinge to them, similar to the pickled ones in Japan. The porky bits were crisp on top and lardy on the flipside.

There are shop pussycats everywhere in this part of town. This one appears in no mood to haggle.

Off the main drag near our hostel in Fangcun we venture down an alley which looks like a vortex into somewhere very local and mysterious. Hoardes of locals are coming in and out so it looks safe, we head in.

The alley leads into a pedestrian street perhaps a kilometre long, lined with shops, markets and the odd little restaurant, with narrow residential alleys shooting off to the sides.

This pedestrian strip felt centuries apart from the world of tollways, overpasses and highways we left a minute ago.

Indeed people have probably been walking this strip for centuries. We felt like dashing adventurers, like the first foreign souls to enter a kasbah, but we're probably the billionth gweilos to walk down here. We'd love to move in here for a while and just hang out in the front yard and watch the parade go by.

The path leads to government built wet market area with shops along the side. We walked all the way through the small backstreets and miraculously came back out again near the main road. It felt like a maze we would never find our way out of, but at least there was great food to sustain us if we got lost.

This street near our hostel was our pub.  A few shops put out tables and stools. Sitting down with a beer amongst the locals and watching the world go by is heavenly. At the end of the street is an afternoon fleamarket. There's residential apartments opposite and a hospital down the road, lots of folks getting around in their hospital pjs, ducking out for a decent feed and a smoke.

We love Chinese beer. Somebody has to. It usually mid-strength so we don't get too silly. And it's 60 cents a long neck. Sixy freaking cents a longy. Hail China.

We order pineapple beer out of curiosity, which caused howls of laughter from a bunch of locals at the next table. It's only got a smidgin of alcohol in it but it's tastes great, like a slightly beer-y pineapple soft drink.

Vicious, lickety pub guard dog.

We pick a restaurant at random for dinner a block away from our hostel. We like it so much we came back a second night.

We've struck gold. This is the kind of raucous Cantonese restaurant we couldn't find on our first trip to Guangzhou (we stayed in an upmarket part of town - who would believe we couldn't find Cantonese food in Canton?).

Harbin beer, an old favourite.

We get an English menu but most of the ordering is done by pointing at other folk's dishes.

One of our very favourite dishes of the trip was simply cauliflower stir fried with a bit of garlic. It was perfectly cooked to bring out the natural sweetness of the cauliflower, evenly cooked all the way through. The more we learn about food the more we like vegetable dishes. Any idiot can make meat taste good but vegetable cookery is a delicate art.

Eggplant with stuffed chilis.

Another dish we order by pointing at another table - fish in ginger and shallot with peanuts.

Chinese greens, so simple yet so incredible.

Tofu in brown sauce.

Another order by pointing treasure.

It turns out to be prawns in hot rock salt. It tasted like the most delicious, most delicately flavoured salt'n'pepper prawns we have ever encountered. The shells were super soft so you could eat the whole prawnie. Amazing.

We find this spot for breakfast al fresco.

Chef whips us up some congee.

Three pots of congee on the go.

Select your congee fillings, a mix of fresh chopped greens and shreds of ginger and bits of chicken, fish and mystery innards.

Congee refill station.

Congee is the perfect breakfast, rehydrating and carby.

We also grab some rice rolls for an extra carby hit. These ones had tiny pieces of meat and a light brothy soy sauce topped with a sprinkle of sesame seeds.

After breakfast we take a ferry to Shamian Island on the other side of the river. The ferry cost about 50c.

Breakfast v2.0 under construction near Shamian Island.

Chinese spicy egg McMuffin. Egg with pickled radish and extra chilli sauce on a hot steamed bun.

This taro cake was amazing, the outside was all golden crispy crunchy and tasted like french fries, while it was soft and warm on the inside. Awesome.

Shamian Island is all historic and purdy and old. As well as tourist stuff there's real life there: residents, a school, army blokes doing exercises.  There's some hotels and a hostel there but it would be kinda dull at night. We went to Starbucks but we won't admit it. They had lamingtons.

Fine dining pussycat.

We always seek out public parks in China because they're teeming with tops old aunties and uncles, the most awesome people in the world. These folks aren't sitting in their apartments gathering dust, they're out and getting into life, they're dancing, playing games, they're laughing. After we snap this pic the couple in the middle stop dancing and the lady loudly berates her husband, we assume for some two-left-footed tangoing, she screams blue murder in high pitched Cantonese, then they both burst out laughing and start dancing again. Love it.

We get on a random bus to see where it takes us. Public transport is excellent in Guangzhou, great trains and buses and a smartcard system that covers both. We bought an Octopus transport card in Hong Kong called a Lingnan Pass that we could also use in Guangzhou, it takes two currencies and stores both balances together in the one card. Take that, Sydney public transport!

We get off the bus in Zhongshan, a part of town devoted to the wholesale hardware trade. Folks are just knocking off work for lunch.

We stumble upon another mysterious magical walkway that snakes through residential areas.

The alley opens out into this lovely shady square.

This looks like a perfect lunch spot.

Once again we have no idea how to order and the place is super busy. Mr Shawn stands in the way and points at a couple of those steamer basket thingies. It works.

The shop guard dog is not sharing his lunch.

Lunch is served - veggies and steamed rice.

The dishes are steamed in individual baskets and served in the same basket they are cooked in. We also get a simple seasoned fish dish to share.

Friendly locals. It's not too busy around these parts.

Tops cake shop, barber, steamed bun and cold drink shop in all one.

Tops sidewalk fruitshop. The fruit gets individually packed and wrapped, kind of Japanese in the packaging overkill.

Mr Shawn is obsessed with trying this stuff after seeing it advertised at our regular beer drinking spot. It tasted like Red Bull.

We take another random bus ride and get off at the entrance to Guangzhou station, a massive train and bus station. There are masses of people and it's quite overwhelming. We get the sense of thousands of lives at the cross roads, folks coming to the big smoke to make some money, other folks going home, or trying their luck elsewhere,  their lives in a suitcase.

Heading past the station we try and get away from the crowds and end up in a watch selling street. We go for another steam basket dish for lunch with salted egg, chicken, fish, potato and greens, it is sensational. Look how squeaky clean it is...

...and like how filthy the market is where we are eating it.

Goodies ready to go.

This guy insisted on getting his photo taken.

Locksmith pussycat.

This guy was making Taiwanese style stuffed pancakes. Mmm custard filled pancakes...

Back in the city centre...

Pussycat drinking in the petshop street of the markets.

Is that a dog or a fluffy white bear?

Food court right near the mall. This was very close to the Holiday Inn where we nearly stayed on our first trip. It would have made a world of eating difference to us if we had landed next to here.

There's a big pedestrian mall in the centre of town called the Beijing Road Pedestrian Street.

Right around the corner from the mall and the Holiday Inn we find the Guangzhou Restaurant. We try not to have too many places on a must do list but after seeing this on the Ken Hom series Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure, we wanted to get there if possible.

Guangzhou Restaurant amazing interior. There is a large atrium in the middle of the building and everyone eats around the edges.

Guangzhou Restaurant is fancy pants but not exclusive, there's tops old aunties and uncles everywhere. We share our table with some wealthy local guy in a suit with a purple perm. We wonder if the perm is some kind of gangster thing. He looks like a Chinese Frank Costanza.

Tea is served. We chose Pu'er tea as its not usually something we get at the local yum cha joint in Sydney.

Tea is served in a ceremony performed with precision boredom.

Custard tarts! We start off with dessert. Ordering the dishes was easy thanks to super friendly staff. They knew exactly how to help us order off the Chinese language menu - take us to the service counter and order by what we saw going out!

Squished little soup dumplings with a porky filling sitting on delicate slivers of carrot.

Chicken feet with cooked peanuts. Soft instead of crunchy peanuts are a real treat.

Fried radish cake. Not a very vegetarian option with small bits of ham tucked away inside.

Dimmies! Sui ma to everyone else.

Pork ribs in black bean, soft to the bite and salty in flavour.

The centre of Guangzho is leafy and oozes ye olde charm.

This very friendly fellow made best friends with Mr Shawn, then gave him a big friendly hug and a bite on the leg.

Shop cat. We saw a lot of cats around the dried goods areas of Guanzhou. Needless to say we didn't see any mice.

There's a little eatstreet running alongside the main pedestrian mall. It looks fun but the food looks better away from the centre of town.

We find another mysterious alley that snakes it's way through town. These back alleys give you wonderful glimpses of real life in the this city.

A sixpack of beer for about $1.50 Aussie. We're packing up the esky and moving to China.

Supermarket ready to go meals.

We stop for soup snackages near home.

Good simple noodle soup, you can't beat it. Small bits of sliced deep fried tofu add a protein hit and a satisfying fried flavour.

The dining room...

Adorable hound on the back of a bike.

Our local pineapple guy.

The lovely Pearl River at night. This is the view we saw from the front of our hostel. Worth staying there for the river walk along the front alone.

Guangzhou burbs at night. Everynight we walked as far as the river walk would take us then back down the main street past shops, food joints and people hurrying home for dinner. We passed crumbled down houses and brand new apartment blocks, people out fishing and walking the dog or the baby, old folks flying kites or stopping for a gossip. Bliss.

Din dins time! Welcome to the Yu Hui Huang Restaurant, choose your dinner from the bucket of fish on the pavement sir. Mmmm, good choice.

Another tops Cantonese joint. It's a little fancier than the photo suggests, just a little. The waitresses at least had half a uniform.

Pork in a barrel with sweet and shiny bits of pineapple. Better than a sweet and sour should be. On this trip we had the much maligned combo, it worked a charm here and we would love to see some variations on the sweet fried goop you often get.

A real cracker of a dish, little cut off stumps of cucumber covered with small pippies and drowned in garlic. For one second our hearts stopped when we thought it might have been bitter melon, a taste we haven't quite conquered yet. The garlic coated each little shell so you could slurp up the garlic laden sauce regardless of there being meat in it or not.

Green beans and bits of squid body and tentacles. This dish came out sizzling, further charring the beans and squid. A salty and satisfying dish. Salty dishes = more beer.

Our final breakfast in China proper...

Our usual 'point and smile' ordering method didn't quite work here at first. We tried to order some congee and steamed rice rolls but the boss lady got a little stressed and wasn't delivering the goods, perhaps she just didn't understand what we wanted so she just ignored us. Some other diners gave us a hand by trying to help us translate what we wanted, with us pointing at half eaten bowls of rice and rolls. We had a five way breakfast dish translation service going for a while. The boss lady got a bit worked up but her tops dear old mother thought it was all hilarious, laughing at her and us. We love China.

One more breakfast congee for the road. We finally get our breakfast, worth every drop.

And one more rice roll for the road. Man these things are good.

This McDonalds add has been haunting us the whole time in Guangzhou. That burger looks so wrong yet so right, yet so wrong again.

The Thüringer Sausage Double Beef Burger is everything it appears to be. We googled this and discovered McDoanalds China has produced a Bacon Mashed Potato Double Beef Burger. It's a beautiful world.

Maccas China is also doing lamingtons, that's more Aussie than Aussie Maccas. You can even get them gift boxed. Class.

We love China.


  1. Fantastic, great post! I love Asia and have been to many countries but was never really interested in China until I started reading your posts about it. The Chinese tourism board should really finance your trips! or does it already?? :)

    1. Get to China, it's an endlessly fascinating place. We've only been to a tiny part of it and we love it. We weren't sponsored in any way for the trip, we did it on our own.

  2. Another great post guys- thanks!
    Although slightly concerned about the ginger pussy cat in the cage- not dinner I hope :(

  3. Great post!! Making me hungry...looks like I want some congee tonight...heheheh

  4. How did the lady get worked up, in your last section of the trip? I'm really curious to know!!! hahaha

    1. The reason why is you guys went into a Hunan restaurant asking for Cantonese food! It's amazing she even whipped up some congee and rice roll for you. Guess living there long enough you will pick up some eventually.

    2. Hehe - everybody else was eating rice rolls and congee, we just pointed and smiled like idiots as always :-)

  5. There was a bit of a lengthy and noisy conversation between our helpful translators and the boss lady about our order of congee and rice rolls. We sat there looking sheepish and hopeful, and she eventually delivered the goods. She didn't look too impressed about us being there, but I think business was business in the end. She was really busy, and two annoying non Chinese speaking gweilos was all she needed.

  6. I am really ready for another trip to China! This made me realize how much I miss it! And want to eat everything in sight!

  7. oops! the worked up boss lady sounded scary, but well done on getting your order in the end!

    how about i write pork congee & rice rolls (& any other dishes you like) in chinese for you so you can print off and carry with you next time you are in china? :)

    1. We made a pact to learn some food characters but have only remembered pork, noodles and black pepper so far, which is great if we want black pepper pork noodles.

      We are working on making a Chinese foodie character cheat sheet. When we finish we might ask you to mark our homework :-)

    2. haha, good on you guys for learning! would be more than happy to check it out for you guys =)

  8. You know what, for food lovers, these are heaven.


Thanks for your comment joy - please keep your musings happy - if you want to complain about a restaurant please do it on a restaurant review site (or your own blog) - we're all about celebrating cultural diversity and the great eats that come along with it :-)

Our ethics: We pay for all our own meals and travel (though sometimes Mum shouts us).