What you need to know
Diving into the back streets of Guangzhou yields some delightfully delicious surprises.
In the sprawling mega-city of Guangzhou, situated in one of the most prosperous economic zones in the world, competition between businesses is fierce. But while the city is a modern metropolis, Guangzhou has retained a traditional marketplace atmosphere. As you wind through the streets, you’ll find blocks made up of row upon row of similar shops selling the same products, whether that be tea, medicinal herbs, or shoes. You’d need a local’s know-how to decide where to shop.
And the same goes for food.
Search out the crossroads of Wenming Street and Dezheng Middle Street and you’ll come across an area of Guangzhou well known for its authentic Cantonese delicacies. Walking in this area at any time of the day is a joy for the senses, with tiny stalls selling steaming dumplings, Cantonese bakeries with that tempting fresh-out-the-oven smell, and clay-pot restaurants with the kitchen right on the street front, where you can see the hot flames dancing under the sizzling fatty pork and rice filled pots. This abundance makes it a challenge to choose where to eat, especially when, at peak times, there are long queues of hungry customers outside every other restaurant. Here, each restaurant, diner and snack stall are arch-competitors, fighting for footfall.
Noodle face off
As I wandered down the street, sussing out my options, two noodle shops snatched my interest. Grandma’s Noodles (婆婆面) and Fortune Noodle House (才福面家) are separated only by a narrow Beijing Roast Duck stall, of all shops.
I followed a tiny old lady who hobbled into Fortune Noodle House, trusting the tested taste buds of the experienced older generations to inform my choice. I asked to sit beside her and straight away she delved into the menu with me, explaining that this place, and Grandma’s Noodles next door, are well known among locals as the places to go for one of the city’s best hearty bowls of wonton and noodle soup.
Fortune Noodle House’s specialty is a soft and wrinkly egg noodle, e-fu or yimian (伊面), hand-made from wheat flour. They can be served in a soup with your wonton instead of regular flat egg noodles, or dry with a sauce topping, like thick brisket stew (牛腩伊面). The latter was my choice – the noodles were not drenched in the sauce as the stew was so rich and the beef so tender that it must have been bubbling away on the stove all day, and a little went a long way. As expected in China, none of the fat had been cut off the beef, giving the whole dish a homely and satisfying feel.
The little lady that I had sat beside had been chatting away to me – until her bowl of wonton noodle soup arrived. When she took the first bite of a wonton, she screwed up her face and told me that she thought they had been frozen and not entirely cooked through. She leaned closer to me, motioned behind her and whispered, “You know, the wonton next door are much better!”.
Though I was more than stuffed after my scrumptious stew, after hearing that I couldn’t resist the temptation, so I went straight through to Grandma’s Noodles.
While both restaurants have been recently renovated, they are both fairly long-standing establishments, Grandma’s Noodles being the older of the two. The beginnings of this noodle stop are proudly displayed on the walls inside, and though now retired and living away from Guangzhou, the lady who established the restaurant is still a celebrity of sorts, with newspaper cuttings about her and her shop posted in the front window.
The story goes that Dezheng Middle Road used to host a number of hardware furniture stores, when one day a little unassuming restaurant opened between two of the shops. An old grandmother would sit outside the shop all day making fresh prawn or pork wonton, her hands moving deftly and with ease. Her homemade noodles are marketed as so well made that if you boiled them until tomorrow they would not break – the secret being a few extra eggs in the mix. Besides, you know they are serious about noodles here as they have a four-character calligraphy painting hanging on the wall that reads (以面為皇) – eat noodles to be emperor!
The wonton themselves are usually the stars in most wonton soup dishes, but this only leaves the soup watery, bland and forgotten. The soup that grandma’s wontons bathed in was radiant and rich in flavor – a chicken stock boiled away with ginger, radish and spring onions. They claim to still use grandma’s special recipe to this day, made just how her grandson likes it best!
After having my fill of noodles, I thought I couldn’t eat another thing, until the neon lights of two Cantonese dessert shops, just a saunter away from the noodle restaurants, changed my mind. Facing off at two corners of the busy crossroad where Wenming Street and Dezheng Middle Street meet are Clear Memory Desserts (明记甜品) and 100 Blossom Desserts Shop (百花甜品店).
It is fortunate that the latter always seems to have a long queue, even if it does snake dangerously close to the busy road, as it takes about the length of the queue to scan the seemingly endless menu. I inquired at both establishments as to what their signature dessert was, or what dish was their best seller, to try and narrow down my choice. At both shops the waitresses responded that there is no signature dish as everyone’s tastes are different. I also asked if the two bosses were friends, to which I received another two identical grins, shakes of the head and firm “no’s”.
It is well known that the Cantonese love eating soup, come winter come summer, and the same goes for their desserts, the majority of which are sweet puddings and soups, served hot or cold, made for example from coconut milk, black sesame or a kind of custard. They can be finished off with a long range of toppings, from satisfyingly sweet tapioca balls or red beans, to juicy mango or papaya.
100 Blossom Desserts was established in 1986, a fact proudly displayed in big characters under their name – and easily spotted if you’re standing on the other side of the road by Clear Memory Desserts! Throughout the 90s, this was the place to take your crush on a first date, now called the “Holy Land” of courting. The new generation of Guangzhou residents have restarted this tradition, so it’s little wonder the shop is still so popular.
As with the two noodle restaurants, both shops have fairly similar menus, but it is this clever preservation of tradition that has left 100 Blossom Desserts significantly busier than Clear Memory Desserts. Aside from the seemingly endless menu, their recommended dishes are the seasonal “three treasures” (三宝): three options for spring, summer, autumn and winter. This could be red bean in syrup soup (红豆糖水) in spring, or taro and tapioca pearls (香芋西米) in winter. Customers old and new appreciate that while they continue to sell the “original three treasures” (原三宝) that have been unchanging since they opened, they have created “new three treasure” (新三宝) dishes, where any kelp (yes, seaweed is supposed to accentuate the flavors of the other ingredients) is swapped for ‘Job’s tears’, also called Chinese pearl barley.
Clear Memory Desserts, on the other hand, have got slightly different competition to worry about, with the popular milk tea brand yidiandian (一點點) having opened next door. Because of this, as well as the usual soupy desserts, they have begun selling sweet drinks and ice cream dishes, to draw some customers away from the queues of people wanting bubble tea. Their efforts appear to have been in vain, as it is still 100 Blossom Desserts that holds the title as the best dessert shop in Guangzhou, proving that heritage still has its place even in China's most modern mega cities.
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Editor: David Green