Eating out in Guangzhou, Guangzhou, China.

My first restaurant meal in China. Where do I begin? The key expectation you need to have when eating out in China (really: eating, period) is that you will eat. Like, marathon-style. You don’t stop just because you are full. God help you if you ‘simply can’t fit anymore’—this isn’t the way it works out here. Someone will put more food in your bowl and look at you with that most Chinese of facial expressions: “Well, you do like it, right? Good, eat more then!”

Looking at the timestamps on my photos, we had new dishes coming out for a solid hour (they never come all at once). The whole meal lasted nearly two hours, which is not at all untypical, and doesn’t get broken up into appetizers or dessert, so you really just keep eating. And eating, and eating. In order of appearance above:

  • Appetizer plate with stuffed lotus root, “Five Treasures” (shrimp, peanut, scallop and two other things), fried oysters, fried pork, and squid and vegetables
  • Red wine, in this case not of the typical disgustingly sweet Chinese variety
  • Crispy pork belly with lotus roots in casserole
  • Mixed mushrooms and seafood stuffed in beancurd pouches
  • Fresh fish of the day (as yet unidentified) in a ginger soy sauce
  • Braised big head fish with pork belly, black mushroom and turnip in garlic
  • Sweet dim sum dumpling with something in it, unidentified
  • Fried chrysanthemum with orange tangy sauce
  • Mushrooms and winter squash in a cream broth (not pictured)

For seven of us.

Flavor: 4 / 5

The appetizers left something to be desired—the lotus root was mushy and the rest of them nothing memorable. But the chicken (especially around that beloved bone) was tasty, moist and well-flavored. The smaller catch-of-the-day fishes had a distinct kick of flavor which was nicely matched (not overpowered) by the soy ginger sauce, and the beancurd pouches were yummy and fun to eat—just like the tofu-wrapped rice you get at Japanese restaurants, with better filling.

My favorite was the fish head, which was smooth, moist, exceptionally flavored by the rich pork belly and garlic sauce, and far too much fun to eat—this one in particular had a bit of a crispness on the outside to contrast the softness inside. For all you still walking on the vanilla side of culinary life, please go out and get yourself some fish head.

Fun: 3.5 / 5

Few food experiences compare with a first outing at a true Cantonese restaurant, family-style—especially not when you have a real Cantonese family to do it with. From the giant ornate glass lazy-susans to the flashy gold gilt interiors to, of course, the absolute butt ton of food, it’s a no-joke feast. The wine helped it all go down, but my stomach still had some expanding to do at the time of this dinner.

Funkiness: 3 / 5 

If Mr. Chicken in picture #3 puts you off, this may not be the meal for you. But there wasn’t much else that was so terribly strange (and I don’t think anyone tackled that shriveled Mr. Chicken head). Pork belly: boooring.

I personally found the vegetable dishes more intriguing than the meat and fish dishes. Lotus root, while not terribly uncommon in Asian restaurants here, is indisputably unique, with its light crunch and hole-y shape. The spiky chrysanthemum, in the last picture, was a fascinating little treat (especially because I have no idea what it actually looks like in real life). The flower itself was very light tasting, with more of a starch than a vegetable texture. Deep-fried, with the orange sauce, it made for a great post-dinner snack.

And OK, OK, I’ll admit fish head is weird. I’ll give you a little Weird Dish secret tip, though. You don’t really need to dig through the whole fish head to get the biggest payoff. Fish cheeks have all the soft moistness of the rest of the fish with much less of the work—and there’s a lot of it. Next time you get a baked or fried whole fish, try probing the sides of the fish head for a bit to find those cheeks—its well worth it.

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Black egg, Guangzhou, China.

China blocked access to Tumblr shortly after I started this blog—no doubt in order to stifle my exposé of their quirky food. But I’m back in business, with more strange eats coming your way.

Here pictured inside a dumpling with sweet red bean paste, this treat is just egg white, turned black. Slightly eggy flavor, consistency of jello, only slightly denser. Somehow this simple white to black inversion causes it to be regularly featured on top 10 lists of the most disgusting foods, as judged by Westerners. Get over it guys.

(though I’m still there with you on stinky tofu)

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Sweet and sour duck, China day 2 lunch, April’s mother’s house, Wuyangcun district, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China.

We only ate half of the duck in our dinner my first night here. A literal, symmetrical half, right down to the organs. The other half was prepared in a delicious sweet and sour sauce this morning, and so began my first introduction to the Cantonese culinary mantra: eat everything.

Flavor: 3.5 / 5

Prepared here (top photo) with sweet and sour sauce, water chestnuts and a crunchy fishy tasting vegetable (which I’m just calling a sea cucumber for now), this tasty and moist duck was practically flaking off the bone.

Fun: 4.5 / 5

And I mean every bone. Oh, like the thigh bone and the shoulder bone, right? Sure, those, but also, pictured below, the skull bone and the foot bone, which is apparently ubiquitous in Cantonese culture. Each has their own unique texture, and part of the idea behind all the bones is that the flavor and tenderness of the meat is at its best the closer you get to the bone. Guangzhou folk squabble over who gets which bones in almost every meal. This was my first real bone-chewing experience, and it took every bit of my chopstick dexterity to simultaneously keep a hold on the slippery duck skin and probe the crevices of bone, joint and cartilage to find the last little bits of tender meat.

Funkiness: 4 / 5

The experience of chewing around the bones of a freshly slaughtered duck would be weird enough if I weren’t also given the choicest bits of the duck (bottom photo), the duck feet (middle) and duck skull (bottom), pictured here next to the putative “water cucumber”, dried (left). Duck feet is nothing but bone chewing, and to properly suck off all the meat, fat and skin, you need to tear through the joint tissue connecting each segment of toe bone. So yea, doesn’t get much weirder than breaking and sucking on duck toe bones—at least, not until weirder things than duck come along.

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Breakfast in Guangzhou, day 2. 

Breakfast is a simple meal out here, unless you manage to wake up for an all-out dim sum feast, likely lasting well into lunchtime. In this case, we had the straight-to-the-point ‘Powder tea’, featuring a ground up melange of different fruits and nuts mixed into hot water. The second picture shows the ingredients: goji berry (called wolf berry out here), black sesame, red bean, oats, apple, date, some unidentifiable vegetable known in Chinese as huaishan, and walnut.

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China day one dinner, April’s mother’s house, Wuyangcun district, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China

My first night and first meal in Guangzhou, which managed to make up for my 18 hour plane transit and my luggage lost in Shanghai (since returned).

I already had my suspicions, but I immediately learned that there is no such thing as a single dish in Cantonese dining—not by a long shot. Giant cod, cross-sectioned, topped with soy-and-ginger-infused winter vegetables (center, top photo). Songyong Tibetan dried mushrooms and local donggua winter squash (middle photo). Duck on the bone with a soy-scallion dipping sauce (top left) and cilantro tofu with pork (top right).

Flavor: 4 / 5

The cod stole the show, with a great sweet soy flavor and silky smooth texture, especially around the skin and bonier areas (more on the Guangdong obsession with bones later).

Fun: 2.5 / 5

And just look at the size of that chopped cod’s circumference. Aside from the fun of simply being in a new culture eating homemade food off of a newspaper tablecloth, there was plenty of “What in the world…” value at first glance, on the count of the giant cod circles, the squishy-soft local squash with the texture of boiled pear (admittedly another dish you’d likely only find in China) and the reconstituted dried Tibetan mushrooms (bottom photo)—dried foods being another local motif that will come up again in future meals here.

Funkiness: 2.5 / 5

While still a relatively new cultural experience, the shock value of this meal was very quickly dwarfed by subsequent Cantonese meals. The “what in the world…”, in this case, was quickly explained by my hosts, and the meal could be roughly recreated from ingredients at Whole Foods—although, of course, the unique way they threw it together was still plenty to sate my appetite as both a blogger and an eater of weird foods.

Five more days jam-packed with crazy Cantonese cuisine to come.

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Ahmohk, Angkor Borei, Bernal Heights, San Francisco. $9.95

Flavor: 4.5 / 5

Maybe it’s the quirky Cambodian name more than the dish itself that attracted the attention of this blogger, but nonetheless this self-described fish curry mousse was nothing short of delicious. Pictured here in its very classy banana leaf take-out bowl, the dish was fish at its curry-creamiest, perfectly intermixed with earthy Khmer curry spices. A side topping of vinegar with chopped pepper and garlic made a great, tart balance to the flavorful fish.

Fun: 2.5 / 5

A banana leaf bowl is an instant party in my book—and the picture above is just takeout. One can only imagine what manner of banana tree foliage further graces the presentation of this dish during dine-in.

Funkiness: 1.5 / 5

Honestly, though, it is only a great fish dish, banana leaf or no—not much freak factor beyond that. The mousse preparation is a little unique and offbeat, but I admit I’m really just a sucker for a good sounding foreign dish name. Thinking of fish in a banana leaf bowl as running ‘amok’ is just weird enough, even if it reflects more on my absurd sense of humor than on the dish itself.

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