Friday, November 27, 2009

The Guangzhou Series: Meals

Compared to the standard 3 meals for Americans, Chinese have 5 meals per day, including breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and late night snacks. My grandma likes to say that they like to enjoy by eating small frequent meals. It definitely takes awhile to get used to though, because I felt like we were eating all the time…not like that is a bad thing. My justification is that I walk off most of the calories I eat, or at least I hope I did!

Guangzhou's trading port draws in a diverse array of imported foods and other fresh ingredients. Cantonese cuisine focuses on enhancing the natural sweetness of the main ingredient, be it a starch, meat or vegetable, not overpowering it. Thus, spices used are limited and herbs are often used as garnishes for fresh foods (and the reason for overpowering seafood with spices could be to recycle stale inventory...but that's a different story). Steaming and stir frying are the most common cooking methods, but braising and frying are also used.

The economy in Guangzhou thrives on small individual businesses, and restaurants are closing down and opening up everywhere. My grandparents travel to Guangzhou yearly, and they notice big changes every year. Their favorite restaurants may or may not be there anymore, and they get to experience new ones. My mother requested my grandparents to take me to a noodle shop that sells multicolored noodles that I enjoyed very much during my first trip, but the shop closed down years ago.

I posted up a cooking video in my previous post. CY got it correct, it's a noodle making video! A Northern Chinese style restaurant called Noodle King features a partial open kitchen for making dumplings and pulled noodles from scratch. Seeing the soft wheat noodles dance up and down into the huge boiling pot was simply magical flexibility. End result: fresh, bouncy, chewy, twist your fork-able (if you could, we were only provided chopsticks) noodles!
Noodle King ("lo mein deem" in Cantonese)
炸酱面 ("za jerng mein" in Cantonese): "fried sauce noodles" with stir fried ground pork, fermented soybean paste and spices
Steamed pork dumplings with black rice vinegar
My grandparents' apartment is along a busy road of small shops, supermarkets and restaurants. We went to this restaurant after I finished getting my hair straightened at a nearby barber shop (which I experienced the most relaxing scalp massage ever, and my cousin likes to call it "taan gan sai gai" (lit. meaning relaxing on earth)) for choy, steamed fish and rice.
Chinese mustard greens ("gai choy" in Cantonese), garlic braised and tender
Freshly steamed grass carp ("wan yu" in Cantonese) with filleted delicate fish slices and diced green onion
After paying respects to my great grandparents, we arrived to a hot pot (火鍋: "foh woh") restaurant for lunch. A large communal metal pot was placed in the middle of our table over firewood for simmering goose stew with purple taro root and garlic chives. Everyone stuck their chopsticks and spoons into the pot to pick up the sweet and savory hearty stew. While I was slowly savoring the stew, my grandma's younger sister sitting right next to me commented that I shouldn't eat "tai see man" (mannerly) and I need to eat faster. She has such a lively personality.
Hot pot style braised goose (鵝: "ngo") stew with purple taro root and sprinkling of garlic chives
Since goose isn't served in Chinese restaurants in my area, my grandma especially likes eating goose, roasted or stewed. It's similar to the taste of duck, but it has a greater gaming taste and tougher texture (which imo, may be due to less fat, less tenderizer). Even braised in stew, I still felt that it could be more tender (stews tend to taste better after several days anyway). My grandma argued that goose is a Chinese delicacy and duck is beggar's food, and thought I was crazy for my duck preference. I rather listen to my taste buds.
White cut chicken with diced garlic and onion on top of soy sauce
A food I frequently ate with my grandparents was white cut yellow feathered chicken (白切黃毛: "bak cherk wong mou gei"). "White cut" means that it is salt marinated and soaked in ginger chicken broth during cooking. Crispy skin chicken (炸子雞: "za zee gei") is also popular, due to the tender and juicy meat with its crisp, garlic skin. It's traditionally served with prawn crackers, but on the many occasions I've tried it, prawn crackers weren't given. Salt and pepper weren't given either. The replacement was sweet chili sauce, which pairs excellently!
Overall, my most memorable meal was homemade at my grandma's sister's house. Her husband is a great cook! He bought yellow feathered chicken and roasted goose from the market, and he prepared goose stew, fish balls and freshly steamed garlic infused prawns! He split the prawns halfway lengthwise and stuffed minced garlic to enhance their delicate and fragrant taste.
Freshly steamed garlic infused prawns
Rainbow colorful light up bridge on Pearl River
Their apartment was right next to Pearl River, so we got to see the colorful lights and tourist popular night cruises. The blue dotted line lights below the bridge actually move in one direction to depict water movement. It's peaceful to walk beside it with family, friends or a significant other, considering that the majority of rest of the city is very crowded and noisy.

Some interesting things to note:

- Be prepared to squat! Squat toilets are most commonly used everywhere, including restaurants. Bring your own tissue and hand sanitizer.
- Of course if you're expected to bring your own tissue, it's no surprise that you should bring your own napkins to the table when you eat. Some restaurants offer complimentary toilet paper in tissue holders.
- There is no complimentary water when you eat at restaurants. There is tea, which is complimentary or charged per person at your table.
Your rice bowl is your "plate." It is held close to your face while you eat with chopsticks. My relatives thought I was weird for using a plate as my dining dish.
- If you have a small party, be prepared to possibly share a large table with another group if a small table is unavailable.
- For large parties, restaurants have private rooms available for reservation. Typically, there is one host treating the entire party. The host is in charge of choosing the menu, and makes a toast before everyone starts eating.
- When there is not a designated host, be prepared to witness a fight for who gets to pay for the bill. Many sayings of "you'll pay next time" or "you are being unfair" are exchanged back and forth while they both snatch for the bill from the waiter and quickly pay before the other party can say another word.
- Restaurants are not "no smoking" areas. I've experienced many times where I start to enjoy the whiff of my food, then the cigarette smoke tainted its smell.
- Cooked rice at restaurants were sub-par to home cooked rice, which was disappointing.
- Waiters in Guangzhou are predominantly Mandarin-speaking. As Guangzhou is a Cantonese city, my grandpa was frustrated that he couldn't communicate clearly with the waitstaff.
- Other specialty foods not mentioned: fresh lotus root, quail, pomelo and other fruits

Stay in touch for the third and last post: dim sum and snacks! I save the best for last. :)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Guangzhou Series: Intro

For my long-awaited post-grad trip, I spent about a month in Guangzhou, China with my grandparents to visit long time no see relatives, go shopping for my family and most importantly, eat yummy authentic foods! Previously, I traveled to Guangzhou once with my family when I was eight turning nine. My memories included piggybacking on my grandpa while touring sights, steering a motorcycle with my uncle, taking studio pictures, and singing karaoke while eating a private room dinner for my birthday.

上下九路 ("serng ha gau lo" in Cantonese): Popular shopping district along a pedestrian-only street
Colorful display of lights outside McDonald's
Highlights of the trip were seeing beautiful sights, bargain shopping for good deals (which my grandma is a master of), and eating fresh and authentic Cantonese cuisine.

Since fast food is heavily commercialized as American food, my relatives automatically assumed that I only knew how to eat fast food. They would jokingly ask, "So all you eat is hamburgers and hot dogs?" and comment that my curvy figure is too big for their standards. When we eat out at a Chinese restaurant, I am amused when they ask to see if I am accustomed to eating their food. I smile knowing that I am fortunate to live in such a diverse community where food choices are unlimited in flavor and variety. Not that I'm ashamed of my own culture, but it's sad to learn that those relatives only eat their own food and choose not to try others. It's easy for them to judge Americans by what they see through media, but I hope they choose to visit the US someday and experience it for themselves.

I had to admit though, I was tempted to try the fast food menu items that catered to Chinese, like KFC chicken porridge and McDonald's taro pies. My grandparents aren't fans of fast food though - so maybe on a trip next time.

Advertisements are everywhere. I rode on buses with my grandparents a lot, and the buses were literally moving advertisements! There were small tvs inside the bus that play short movie clips, shows and ads as well. Here's an Ariel Lin ad posing with a tea drink (any Ariel Lin fans?). Bottled tea drinks are popular in Guangzhou, especially when the dry weather makes your throat itch. My solution? Refresh yourself with a cold honey tea.

Last but not least, here's a video teaser. Guess what food this is?

Find out the answer in the next post ;) so stay tuned!