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January 24, 2012

Lunch in Guangdong - Part I

Five Days' Lunches Dominic Armato

Sometimes, when I tell people that our business lunches in China involve an obscene amount of food, I'm not sure the enormity of the experience is properly conveyed.

Beef SoupDominic Armato

Part of it is simply the nature of dining in China. When eating with a group in this kind of setting, you never have more than a few bites of anything. And when you have six people or more at the table, that's a lot of ordering power. Still, this is one business week -- five days -- worth of lunches, and when you look at them all together, it's... impressive. Though we stay in Hong Kong, work is a short train ride away in Shenzhen, Dongguan and Guangzhou, three cities in Guangdong province just north of the border. A metropolitan area that was dirt roads and bicycles when the border first opened is now a booming multi-metropolis that gets more prosperous and cosmopolitan every year. The transformation just in Shenzhen since I first visited has been something to behold, and though the always expanding economic zone is a magnet for people who live throughout the southern portion of the country, the local traditions dominate most restaurants, particularly outside of the city centers. So while we might sometimes visit a restaurant that specializes in one of China's other regional cuisines, and individual dishes sneak in here and there, what we eat is largely Cantonese.

Corn, Carrot and Pine NutsDominic Armato

I always feel lucky to catch the names of the restaurants where we eat, much less the locations. Roman characters are elusive, and the industrial sprawl that dominates the region makes it difficult if not impossible to tell which way you're going when watching the scenery whiz by from the backseat of a car. Still, a couple of very good meals on this last trip were in larger restaurants that I managed to identify. Xin Yi Jing Restaurant has proven to be elusive in an internet search, but at the nicer places there's almost always a pack of tissues emblazoned with the restaurant's name on the table. The trick is to remember to take it with when you leave. I forgot. But a photo is the next best thing, right?

Stir Fried CabbageDominic Armato

This particular lunch started with a simple, delicious broth, almost ubiquitous at the meals I've had in China over the years. And it's a good thing. When's the last time you had a simple, light broth? When's the last time you had one that was notable? These broths are so simple, but the gentle clarity of flavor these chefs bring out in their soups is something I appreciate more and more with every visit. As with this one, they're usually very light on the salt, barely seasoned at all, a clean and subtle extraction of the beast from which they're made. In this case it was beef, and a few tender pieces of the meat from which the broth had been drawn was included as well. This is a start I always welcome.

Scrambled Eggs with ShrimpDominic Armato

Though I've encountered corn before, I wouldn't call it common, so I was a little taken aback by this particular stir fry, composed of corn kernels, diced carrots and toasted pine nuts. If the broths in China are impressive, the vegetables are mindblowing. They're usually treated very minimally, but they're so fresh and exploding with flavor that it makes you feel like you're tasting them for the first time. Is it the lack of mechanized farming? Are they brought fresher to market? Is it the unique properties of the wok as a cooking vessel, or millennia of collective culinary knowledge? I don't know the answer, but I know that when it comes to meals in China, I approach the simple vegetables with the zeal I usually reserve for more featured dishes.

Fried ChickenDominic Armato

The cabbage, lightly touched with vinegar, chiles and garlic was similarly fabulous. After each taking a bite, my father and I traded looks as if to say, "Seriously? They can do this with cabbage?!" Never have I had less sexy a vegetable prepared so well. This focus on killer ingredients extends beyond vegetables, of course. Eggs also seem more vibrant to me when served in China (a lack of factory farming would seem the most logical explanation in this case), and this preparation, scrambled with shrimp, was another that was new to me. They were lightly sweetened, notably but not overly salty, and possessed of a fabulous texture that was firm yet light, and maintained a touch of that barely cooked egg flavor that one gets when they've just barely passed the point where they coagulate. The shrimp, I suspect, had been poached separately, and were a simple and effective pair. But there was no doubt which protein was the star.

Chiles with Black BeanDominic Armato

Chickens tend to be rather lean, which has its upsides and downsides. I'm on record as being less than enthused when it comes to chicken breast, but a good meaty, juicy thigh is a wonder to behold. These, by any American definition, are downright scrawny. But the upside? Higher skin to meat ratio. Which is perfect when crisp skin is the objective. Really, this dish could've been done without the meat and would have been no lesser for it. There was no coating, just lightly seasoned skin that was salty, paper thin and made delightfully crisp through whatever frying method they employed. I've seen poultry hung for a while so that the skin dries a little, after which it's fried over a wok while being constantly basted by ladlefuls of hot oil. This is speculation. I don't actually know how these particular fellows were prepared. But their skin was crisp and juicy and the meat itself was almost an afterthought.

Stir Fried Pork and SquashDominic Armato

As mentioned, some of the foods of surrounding regions have found their way into southern China, and with Hunan province bordering Guangdong to the north, I wasn't terribly surprised to see a dish very similar to one that I'd tasted at Lao Hunan just a couple of months ago, and our hosts confirmed that it was a Hunanese dish. Large whole chiles were stir fried with garlic, fermented black beans and a healthy shot of vinegar. They were tender, not terribly hot, and what surprised me wasn't their preparation so much as their natural flavor, which reminded me of Anaheim chiles. I don't remember encountering these chiles in Guangdong before, nor was their flavor something that struck me as native to the region. Was this a straight-up Hunanese dish or a Cantonese spin thereon? Were the peppers native to the area? These are the kinds of questions I wish I could ask. If anybody knows the answers, by all means, please jump in.

Fried Garlic ShrimpDominic Armato

Yet another excellent dish that, if made back in the States, would no doubt reverse the balance of meat and vegetables to its detriment. It was pork, I believe, buried beneath a pile of some manner of sliced squash, firm but tender, similar to zucchini but lighter in color, with a flavor like the summer squash we get at home, lightly sweet with a hint of spice. A wok, when properly handled, has a remarkable ability to capture vegetables in a kind of semi-raw state, as though the flavor has halfway but not completely converted to its cooked form, while the texture remains crisp and vibrant. I keep trying to do this at home, but something tells me that having 100,000 BTUs of wok burner heat at your disposal has something to do with it.

Steamed FishDominic Armato

I remember the first time I had head-on, shell-on shrimp, while visiting Lei Yue Mun in Hong Kong. At 12 or 13 years old in the late '80s, that was something of a mindbending experience. But I quickly saw the genius of it, shells fried in a blistering hot wok to make them crisp so that you could consume the entire beast -- body, tail, head, legs and all -- a sort of sweet/crunchy experience that preserved the shrimp's more interesting characteristics beyond the simple sweetness of the tail meat. This is a very common preparation that I never tire of, cooked with a dash of soy and shaoxing, a healthy amount of garlic and just a touch of chile. That first time in Lei Yue Mun, three of us consumed what must have been close to a hundred of these. Here, a dozen or so would have to do for the six of us. It made me strongly consider working Lei Yue Mun into the trip's itinerary.

Tofu in SyrupDominic Armato

Steamed fish, as with the one we had in Shanghai, is always a joy, fresh and simple and delicious. And we even got a bit of dessert, though desserts in China are perhaps the least familiar of what we're served. They don't really do dairy or cakes, at least not in my experience. So you often get sweet dishes for which a western palate has no frame of reference, like this one -- warm, silken tofu mixed with a light sugar syrup. It seems like such a strange thing, but even though it's served warm and is powerfully sweet, it still manages to come off as rather refreshing. The tofu is extremely soft, only barely holding together, and it goes down with an easy slurp, warming you all the way.

I've certainly had more elegant, more adventurous, and more impressive meals in China, but particularly after such a long time away, Xin Yi Jing really scratched the itch. Familiar flavors, familiar dishes, well-prepared... a very good reintroduction to the cuisine I've been missing for five years.

Fresh Seafood Tanks Dominic Armato

Even better, however, was the meal we had at the Zhongming Hotel. What you see here is always a good sign. Really, really fresh seafood is highly valued, and it's almost a given that more upscale hotel restaurants will have a front hall full of aquaria where, if you're so inclined, you can go to select the critters you'll eat. This isn't the wormy tank at Red Lobster. This is a fabulous assortment of fresh seafood, and what you see here is less than half of what was on display.

Stuffed Braised TofuDominic Armato

Our lunch here included some of the standards like a broth, steamed fish and pea shoots that always seem to make an appearance. But there were a few that I feel compelled to chronicle because they were new to me, or because I love them so damn much. One of the best dishes of the afternoon was a tofu dish, the likes of which I've had back in the States, but I think this may have actually been the first time I encountered it in Guangdong. Blocks of tofu that were stuffed with some kind of meat -- a sausage, perhaps? -- had been lightly fried and then braised in a viscous brown gravy. This is a dish that usually tends to be heavy and indistinct back home, but I was struck by how beautifully this particular plate was executed. The tofu maintained a perfect texture, firm but yielding, never disintegrating despite having clearly been tossed around in their preparation. The sauce, though viscous, was beautifully balanced, just slightly sweet with a bit of soy and oyster sauce, hints of ginger and green onions, and restrained enough so as to not get in the way of the tofu. I'm not a tofu fiend. It has to be a killer tofu dish to grab my attention. This one was.

Scallops with Garlic and Glass NoodlesDominic Armato

My heart leaps a little every time this dish hits the table. Setting aside that scallops, freshly shucked, cooked and served in their shells is a treat in and of itself. This preparation, which inevitably make an appearance at least once every trip, bathes the scallops in a sort of chunky garlic sauce with enough sweetness to pull out the natural sweetness of the mollusk. Underneath, glass noodles, also abundantly garlicky, a delight to slurp down along with the seafood. If you're extra lucky, though they weren't present on this pass, you'll get the coral and perhaps some of the other bits as well, delicious pieces of varying textures that are almost always removed before serving back home. I love, love, love this dish.

Glazed ChickenDominic Armato

Given the display that could rival some public aquariums up front, I was a little disappointed that there wasn't more seafood, but I'm having a hard time complaining about the meat that wandered in our direction. Another chicken arrived, this one considerably meatier than the ones we were served at Xin Yi Jing, but still scrawny by American standards. This one had an almost sticky glaze that was lightly sweet and drove me absolutely insane, not because I didn't like it -- I found it delicious -- but because it had a very intense and very familiar flavor that I couldn't quite place. It was out of context; a flavor I've never had on chicken like this. And I knew that if I walked out the door without figuring it out, it would be gone forever. And so it is. And it's still driving me insane.

Vegetable JaioziDominic Armato

Gaoza, we were asked? Absolutely! Of course, I made the mistake of sounding a little too enthusiastic about it and they tried to order two plates. We managed to beg off. (Incidentally, this is how, in the past, we've ended up consuming over a dozen char siu bao apiece in one sitting. Be careful what you get excited about, or you may get three plates of them.) Still, I'm very glad we said yes, because these were some killer dumplings. The flavor was excellent, delicate and well balanced, with minced greens, and water chestnuts. The brilliance, though, was in the texture. The wrappers were succulent and pliable. Those browned edges were light and almost crunchy. Diced water chestnut gave the filling that familiar wet crispness, and the entire thing would have been a delight to eat on the texture alone even if it tasted like nothing at all.

Canton OrangesDominic Armato

Another common dessert is fruit, and while I've plowed through many a Chinese watermelon over the years, I think this was actually the first time I've been given these little fellows. The Chinese New Year decorations, set out in anticipation, were completely bedecked with the things, so I suspect this is a seasonal offering. Though a Google search didn't turn up much, our hosts referred to these as "Canton Oranges," and the closest analogue I can come up with is a clementine, except that I enjoyed these far more. They were a little less tart and a little more sweet, but not overly so. The skin had a very crisp texture and tore off easily in large chunks, releasing a huge burst of fragrant oils. The fruit was also crisp, as oranges go, each segment bursting as I bit into it. It had been a huge meal. We didn't quite finish them. The rest were packed up and I ate them on the train ride back. I could take down a dozen of these in one sitting without even thinking about it. Again, a perfect finish to a great meal. There was little at Zhongming that I hadn't tasted before, but the meal was unusually well prepared.

And that was only two of five. And those are just the lunches. On the work days. This is going to take a while.


Wow- love the superpic on top.


Do you ever get hungry while uploading photos?

Hey, I liked reading some of your posts! I’m bookmarking your blog – always on the hunt for cool articles and opinions about the food industry. Keep writing


Thanks for an amazing post!

Loving these posts! China is the homeland for me - although I've never been - and these dishes remind me a lot of what I grew up eating. My grandmother was the most amazing cook. Hong Shao Rou was a staple of my childhood, and I've never had a dumpling or scallion pancake as good as grandma's. Thank you for a trip down memory lane.

Your pictures and elegant descriptions never fail to evoke a strong response from me. So many, many thanks for your efforts to chronicle all of the varied delights you tasted -- there isn't a single item here that doesn't have me drooling and craving some great Chinese food (not likely to find it in southern Virginia, but that's the breaks . . . )! I hope you'll wrap up with a summary, after you've covered all of the meals and snacks, of the best of the best.

The little oranges are a kind of fresh mandarin orange, closer in type to a satsuma than a clementine, and are absolutely delicious.

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