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January 27, 2012

Lunch in Guangdong - Part II

BBQ Duck Dominic Armato

Oh, we're not done with business lunches yet.

Sometimes, lunchtime hits near a train station in one of the urban centers, or while visiting a city office, and we end up in a restaurant like the two I wrote about in Part I. But while some older factories are close to the city centers, for the most part they're a ways out in the suburbs. Except that in the areas surrounding Shenzhen, Dongguan and Guangzhou -- at least the parts that I've seen -- the suburbs don't appear to be residential so much as industrial, lowrise urban sprawl packed with factories and support businesses, the streets jammed with light trucks, mopeds and the occasional luxury car. Even today, there's a kind of wild west feel out there. I keep looking around, half expecting Swedgin to come strolling out onto a second floor balcony to survey the chaos below. Except instead of panning for gold, everybody's manufacturing consumer products.

Soup with Black BeansDominic Armato

When we're out in these industrial parks that seem to go on forever in every direction, lunch often takes place in humbler surroundings, a rented concrete bunker of a shop with a rolldown shutter front, makeshift kitchen in back and a few tables and chairs cobbled together, or in this case, a small private room comprising the entirety of the second floor. This is still a significant step up from the joints where most of the folks who live in the area will drop in for something simple to eat. They're still rolling out the red carpet as much as can be done in this part of town. But these lunches are predictably a somewhat more rustic affair, comprised of dishes that are similar to those in the nicer restaurants nearer the city core, but rougher around the edges, made with more of what we'd consider secondary and tertiary cuts, simpler presentations, lots of stews, and overall a more humble feel despite a similar formal dining format. We had one such lunch on this trip, a nameless, dusty concrete storefront, and while I can't call it one of my favorites of the trip there was some tasty food and it's interesting to see similar dishes in a less refined state.

Pork RibsDominic Armato

As I've mentioned elsewhere countless times, soups and broths even in casual restaurants are always so clear and clean, or if cloudy they're intentionally and uniformly so. Which is why it was an obvious and notable difference in the level of refinement when the beef broth here was stained with black bean paste, cloudy and unfiltered, containing chunks of bone and cartilage that provided flavor to the liquid but were certainly not there to be consumed. But though the refinement was lacking, the flavor most certainly wasn't, its full beef flavor pushing right on through its somewhat murky appearance, with earthy beans and sediment sitting at the bottom. Different, to be sure. More humble, certainly. But still quite delicious in a less technically accomplished manner.

Beef with MushroomsDominic Armato

A plate of lean pork ribs was chopped into tiny bits, deep fried and then stir fried with garlic, chile sauce, a bit of something sweet and something else with a lightly fermented character. The sauce was simple and effective, downright chunky, and the dish was a great example of how so many meat and fish dishes, in stark contrast to even largely traditional Chinese cuisine back home, are comprised of much more bone, sinew and cartilage than meat. It's another style of cooking that I wish we were more willing to embrace. There's so much flavor in those bits, and even if they aren't digestible, the act of cooking them along with the rest imparts flavor and texture that's unachievable otherwise. It's a little more effort. Sometimes a lot more. Particularly when, despite your proficiency, you weren't raised on chopsticks. But the rewards are there for those willing to put in the work.

Celery with EggsDominic Armato

Of course, the kind of tender, juicy slices of meat to which Americans are more accustomed aren't lacking either. A simple beef and mushroom stir fry was lovely, lightly scented with ginger, barely touched with sauce rather than swimming in it, the meat lightly sweet in flavor and velvety in texture. Simple vegetables are always in play, perhaps of less consistent quality in the industrial areas, but when the flavor of a plate of limp celery can put most other vegetable sides to shame, that says something I think. Stir fried with eggs and some slivers of carrot, bathed in a light sauce that I presume was a light chicken broth base, lightly seasoned and tasting almost entirely of the vegetable itself. I'm always amazed that while I'm away, these simple vegetables are among the dishes I miss the most.

Sichuan Fish HeadsDominic Armato

A bit of a surprise came in the form of two fish heads, prepared in Sichuan style! Steamed and/or stewed, I was less interested in the fish than I was in what was sitting on top of them. The facing heaven chiles! I'm sure of it! The one thing I most wanted to have in my possession when I left China! Sadly, this was before my Wan Chai Market adventure, and only reinforced the notion that I'd have no trouble finding them. I enjoyed the dish, tender fish with chiles and whole Sichuan pepper, though it was so light I wonder if this was more of a Cantonese riff on Sichuan flavors. If set next on the table for most good Sichuan meals I've had, this dish's flavor would have been completely lost in the lingering glow of the more fiery and explosive dishes around it. Rather, this seemed more like the product of a Cantonese palate living on the edge. But having never visited Sichuan province, there's a good bit of speculation here on my part. But I'd love to know. I'd love even more to have walked out with their supply of facing heaven chiles. *sigh*

Stewed Pork BloodDominic Armato

Our last dish was, perhaps, pushing the boundaries of Western tastes a little too far for my comfort. I will never forget my first experience with congealed pork blood many years ago, less because of the pork blood itself and more because of the cultural revolution theme restaurant surrounding it (long story). I believe I even cracked a couple of "Jell-o Positive" jokes in the aftermath. But I've long since made my peace with it, and have come to miss it when, for example, a Vietnamese restaurant proprietor sees fit to leave it out of my bun bo hue. Still, I'm not to the point where I'm prepared to have more than a couple of chunks in a sitting, and when large, thick slabs of it, lighter in texture and almost gelatinous, seared off like slices of foie gras sit in a thick stew that's seasoned with the same... well, let's just say I'm not quite there yet.

Water Boiled BeefDominic Armato

Still, it was a very nice meal, and the hits greatly outweighed the misses, and I always enjoy this style of food, and not just as an educational experience. Another lunch more on the casual end of the spectrum was a total crapshoot that paid off. Driving from Guangzhou to Dongguan is a hairy enough experience as it is in a densely populated area where the vast majority of drivers have only been behind the wheel for a few years and street signs, lights and lines are regarded as vague suggestions, if at all. But that difficulty is compounded by random unannounced highway closures. The Guangdong infrastructure is in a constant state of revision and expansion, the kind of chaotic mess that results when you can't build the roads fast enough to keep up with the explosion of cars. So while driving miles of back roads searching for a detour, our hosts selected a restaurant, seemingly at random judging by how quickly they veered off the road when they spied it, and we ended up with a rather nice collection of dishes.

Celery and Chinese BaconDominic Armato

It started off ordinarily if deliciously enough, a bony cut of roast duck that was provided almost exclusively for the skin, and with good reason... what more does a duck dish need than crisp, sweet, lacquered skin? But the duck gave way to another surprise... another Sichuan dish! Water boiled beef -- a misnomer if ever there were one -- swimming in a vibrant and fiery broth with chiles, Sichuan pepper, onions, scallions, garlic... gosh, a whole lot of stuff I couldn't identify. But the beef was sweet and yet stood up to a killer broth. We were provided with a slotted spoon, but frankly, I would have enjoyed ditching the beef and vegetables altogether and simply sipping the oily broth. This may have put me in the minority, even among our local dining companions. But consensus was that it was an excellent dish and this random roadside stop made some pretty darn good food.

Spicy Fish HeadsDominic Armato

Celery again! Well, it WAS the same folks doing the ordering. My father took a few bites and expressed the same amazement that I always do. "How do they make these vegetables so fabulous?" he asked. "It doesn't hurt that they're slathered in pork fat," I responded. And though a crisper, fresher, more flavorful bunch of celery than at the other establishment was half the difference, the other half was that it had been stir fried with slices of Chinese bacon, some of it tough enough to be inedible, but all of it fatty enough to lend its slippery lipid to the dish, coating the celery with a luscious sheen of deep, cured pork flavor and a hint of salinity. So simple and so good. Sichuan fish heads also made another appearance (did I mention the same folks were ordering?), though this time around I couldn't even identify them as fish heads at first. That it was fish, I knew. What part of the fish it came from was the mystery. There is no delicate way to eat a dish like this, and the flavor was such that I didn't much care. It's basically a jumbled pile of bone, cartilage, skin, fins, gelatin and perhaps a little meat here and there, and the only way to eat it is to seize a piece and slurp and suck away all of the slippery, gelatinous goodness until only the inedible bits remain. After mowing down a few chunks, I determined that it was, in fact, a head. Or at least part of one. This fish must've been a monster. But the flavor was fabulous and I made sure that no bit of edible flesh remained on the plate. I may still have reservations when it comes to large volumes of pork blood, but slurpy fish heads quiver and tremble in my presence. Partly because… well, you know… gelatinous and all. But suffice it to say that they’re just one of the many reasons I'm always happy when we're treated to lunch in less upscale environs.

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