By Cathy Adams
Nov 11, 2018
ON THE 71ST FLOOR OF the Four Seasons Guangzhou, I’m being poured Longjing tea at the hotel’s modern Cantonese eatery, Yu Yue Heen (mains from RMB150; doubles from RMB2,000). In this restaurant, now embellished with one Michelin star, even a simple cup of tea turns into an artful gong-fu ceremony. On a tableside trolley, the tea leaves are strained, and the steaming liquid carefully decanted into a miniature cup.
This black lacquer– and red glass–accented fine-dining haven overlooks the glassy towers and pastel housing blocks of Guangzhou’s urban sprawl. It’s the ultimate contrast: the old and the new, the high and the low, the local and the international—a good analogy for Guangzhou’s food scene. There’s a well-known saying in China: “Be born in Suzhou, live in Hangzhou, eat in Guangzhou, die in Liuzhou,” which may explain Guangzhou’s other nickname, “Rice City.” The capital of Guangdong is well-known historically as a trading port and in recent generations as a factory floor. While its Cantonese cuisine is lauded among its countrymen, the city is not so much known internationally for its foodie scene. Now that Michelin has launched its inaugural Guangzhou guide, that’s all about to change.
“In Guangzhou, people only talk about food,” says Bram van Ooijen, local gourmand and founder of Cycle Canton (tours from RMB350), a tour company on two wheels. “The food they had yesterday, the food they’re eating now and the food they want to eat tomorrow.” (His favorite Cantonese dishes: whole steamed fish in soy sauce; roast pigeon; and the city’s famous ginger milk pudding, among others.)
Guangzhou has long been the center of gravity for Cantonese cuisine, characterized by its simplicity and lightness—rather than overpowered by spices or sauces. The city’s history as the epicenter of southern China trade meant a range of ingredients and ideas coalesced around the city, and burgeoning wealth meant more emphasis on fresh, premium dishes. Teddy Xiong, a Chinese food expert who grew up in Guangdong province, also credits the city’s “ideal geography”: mountains to the north, perfect for crops; and set at the mouth of the South China Sea, on the banks of the Pearl River, which meant an abundance of fresh seafood.
In late June, Michelin awarded eight of the city’s restaurants one star and countless others a Bib Gourmand. Guangzhou, the second city in mainland China after Shanghai to welcome a Michelin guide, showcases “a great local gastronomic interest,” according to Michael Ellis, international director of the Michelin Guides. He adds: “Guangzhou has a wealth of astonishing restaurants with a strong and historical Cantonese background.”
Note the “local” and “Cantonese background.” All eight of the one-star restaurants serve predominantly Cantonese food—the cuisine best known for dim sum, barbecued meats and fresh fish—while only a couple of the Bib Gourmand–awarded restaurants hint at other cuisines, including Sichuan and northern Indian. Which is somewhat surprising, given that this megacity is home to 14.5 million people and is fast gaining international profile.
On Michelin’s one-star list are Guangzhou’s most swaggering restaurants, including the Four Seasons’ Yu Yue Heen, where executive chef Mai Zhi Xiong was praised for his “skills and attention to detail.” I checked in for a lazy lunch: the siu mai dumplings were juicy and bursting out of their rice paper pockets, the baked pork buns were as sweet as a dessert, the steamed grouper with strands of ginger was both meaty and light. It would’ve been rude to refuse the signature dessert, chilled mango pudding, wouldn’t it?
Other awarded restaurants include intricately decorated Jade River (mains from RMB300; doubles from RMB1,000), in the White Swan Hotel on Shamian Island, in the former French Concession; the elegant Jiang by Chef Fei (mains from RMB200; doubles from RMB1,300) in the Mandarin Oriental; and Wisca (+86 2 3438 1188; 172 Binjiang Xi Lu, Haizhu; mains from RMB150), most loved for its eel claypot stew (juejuebao), which had five minutes of fame in national television documentary A Bite of China a few years ago.
Local favorite Bing Sheng—a Guangzhou friend told me she would choose where to live based on the distance to her local branch—was also recognized, twice, with Bing Sheng Mansion (mains from RMB80) and Bing Sheng Private Kitchen (mains from RMB300) both awarded a star. Why? The crispy barbecue pork is simple but unforgettable, as is the silky three-colored tofu, my friend says. The soups and pork were dishes the Michelin reviewers highlighted at Lei Garden (+86 2 8363 3268; 4F Yi An Plaza, Jianshe Liu Ma Lu, Yuexiu; mains from RMB200), while The Ritz-Carlton’s upscale Lai Heen (mains from RMB200; doubles from RMB1,800) was praised for its contemporary dishes, in particular sunflower seed–fed chicken, fish maw black garlic soup, and poached star grouper.
Guangzhou’s booming status in China’s “Greater Bay Area”—official figures showed that the economy expanded 4.3 percent in the first three months of 2018—has also meant a shifting urban geography. Zhujiang New Town and Tianhe (the glossy, modern neighborhoods of Guangzhou that are home to upscale restaurants and smart pavement cafés) jut up against Liwan, one of Guangzhou’s oldest districts and a slice of traditional Canton with cobblestone alleyways, low-slung tenements and European-styled shopfronts. Rather than the typical (and uniquely Guangzhou) blend of Mandarin and Cantonese, in Liwan all I hear is the musical notes of Cantonese.
To taste traditional Cantonese cuisine, Liwan is a good place to start, and it’s where the Eating Adventures (RMB529) four-hour food tour focuses. Here, there’s the Huangsha Market (15 Huangsha Dadao, Liwan), the largest seafood market in southern China that shifts 5,000 metric tons of seafood a day. For breakfast, I buy fresh prawns and scallops from a stall, and take them to be grilled in one of the restaurants housed on the upper floors of the central market building.
Nearby is the Shangxiajiu Pedestrian Street, the oldest commercial street in Guangzhou, a brash boulevard lined with street vendors peddling treats including cheung fan rice rolls (a Guangzhou specialty usually eaten for breakfast), lotus seed pastries from Lianxiang Lou Bakery (67 Shipu Lu, Liwan; cakes from RMB8), which dates back to the Qing dynasty, and fat pork-and-chive dumplings in superlocal eatery Liwan Mingshijia (99 Dishifu Lu; dim sum from RMB10), or “Liwan Famous Eatery” as it’s known anecdotally.
Liwan is also home to the vast Qingping Market, selling all kinds of disturbing things in jars and pots: tiny scorpions, cow penis, shark fin (all for medicinal purposes, naturally). It’s testament to Cantonese cuisine’s link to Traditional Chinese Medicine, emphasized by the focus on soups and herbal teas. I notice this at Liwan’s most-loved yum cha joint, the all-day Dian Dou De (587 Long Jin Zhong Lu, Liwan; dim sum from RMB20): sheeny har gaw dumplings arrive in a little bowl of clear soup. Their 100-plus types of dim sum testify to the translation of their name: everything is possible.
But this concentrated Cantonese flavor won’t stay undiluted for long. Estimates put the number of domestic migrants living and working in the city at around five million, bringing with them myriad regional Chinese cuisines: Sichuan; Pekinese; Shanghainese; and, most memorably, the delicious lamb skewers and flatbreads from a Uyghur restaurant in Guangzhou’s gritty Xiaobei district, otherwise known as “Little Africa.”
After three days of feasting across this dizzyingly indulgent city, I have only one answer to the common Cantonese greeting of “Have you eaten?”