The unforgettable delicacies of Shantou in Guangdong

By Tiara Lin Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/15 23:08:40

The Queshi Bridge in Shantou, Guangdong Province Photo: CFP

The Queshi Bridge in Shantou, Guangdong Province Photo: CFP

If you want to travel for food in China, Chaoshan, a coastal region located in the east of China's Southern Guangdong Province, is the place for you. Ask any Cantonese person what he or she thinks of Chaoshan and they will tell you that eating is a huge deal there.

The philosophy of Chaoshan cuisine, much like Cantonese cuisine, is to preserve the original flavors of the ingredients.­

Take their famous beef meatballs for example, they have to be cooked just right so they are still firm yet soft when you bite into them. A single bite is like an explosion of freshness in your mouth. When I had them for the first time, it was like I had gone to Heaven. My impression of Chaoshan was forever linked with their meatballs.

Since eating is such a big deal there, I decided to eat my way through Chaoshan­.

Chaoshan beef meatballs Photo: IC

Chaoshan beef meatballs Photo: IC

Getting to know Chaoshan

Chaoshan is an area that combines the cities of Shantou, Chaozhou and Jie­yang. There are four flights every day from Beijing and the trip is about three hours. From Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong, you can take a long-distance bus to get to Chaoshan, which also takes about three hours.

When my flight landed at the Jieyang Chaoshan International Airport, it was almost noon. December in Chaoshan is not cold. Temperatures are often above 20 C. My friend, who works at Shantou University, picked me up at the airport and drove me to Shantou city, 28 miles (45 kilometers) from the airport. Shantou, home to 5.5 million of people, is a coastal city that takes pride in its abundant seafood such as fish, oysters and clams.

Chaoshan snacks

Our first destination was Xiaogongyuan, "Little Park," which is a cultural and historical area in Shantou. It is not actually a park, but an 86-year-old pavilion in Shantou's old town district.

The district was the city's financial center when the port opened in 1930s. It is home to a seven-floor department store with over 100 stores.

The department store, called "Old Paris" by locals, combines European and traditional Chinese architectural styles. Once the largest commercial complex in the city, full of artisans and manual laborers, it reflects the glory of China's past.

We walked past old buildings with aged windows before we stopped at a restaurant called Piaoxiang Xiaoshidian, or Delicious Snacks.

Since Shantou is a coastal city, I told my friend I wanted to find some seafood snacks. My friend recommended oyster omelet, a mix of egg batter and fresh oyster meat; and fish ball noodle soup, thinly sliced fishcakes with hand-cut rice noodles in clear broth.

You can find similar snacks in other Southeast Asian countries, but here in Shantou, cooking is mostly done by steaming or stir-frying ingredients. Sometimes deep frying is involved, but locals don't recommend it as it reduces freshness.

When you start eating, you might find your cup, bowl and plate have been sealed in plastic for hygiene purposes. However, many Cantonese people still doubt their cleanliness. For instance, my mother always washes these utensils with boiled water after she unwraps them.

After lunch, we continued eating. Getting around the city is really cheap. The city bus costs 2 yuan (30 cents). Taxi fares start around 10 yuan depending on the destination. Trips by motorized trishaws are cheaper than taking a taxi, but you need to bargain with the driver.

We took a taxi to Paifang Street, another cultural and historical area in Shantou. In Chinese, paifang is a traditional Chinese wooden or stone archway built to commemorate an individual.

Paifang Street is another place to find Chaoshan snacks. We stopped at a restaurant and ordered changfen (rice noodle rolls) and rice rolls - steamed rice rolled up with some prawns or barbecue pork inside and doused in soy sauce. It is a classic part of Cantonese Dim Sum.

As you might know, Chinese people are not really in the habit of having dessert. In Guangdong, however, Chinese-style sweets such as red-bean soup and coconut milk are very popular. I also ordered my favorite dessert, tofu pudding - beancurd jelly with sugar syrup. I used to have it every day when I was little.

Cantonese style cold tea

After two rounds of snacks, I was so full that I couldn't move. My friend suggested we have some Cantonese style "cold tea" to help digest our meal.

Cantonese style "cold tea" is not really cold. It is served hot most of the time. A more correct translation would be "herbal tea," as it is a drink made from Chinese medicine meant to reduce heat in the body. It is an old custom to drink this tea in Guangdong since the weather there is damp and hot. It can be enjoyed year round as it helps to drive away the heat in summer and relieve sore throats in winter.

It's easy to spot a "cold tea" shop. They are very small, usually about three square meters in size. They usually do not have any table or chairs and you'll see some large bronze jars containing different kinds of herbal tea on the counter.

I'm not actually a fan of "cold tea" as I find it too bitter. But as the Chinese saying goes, "Good medicine tastes bitter." One of my favorite types of Chinese medicinal teas is Five Flowers Tea, which helps alleviate fatigue, indigestion and insomnia. You should give it a try.

Gongfu tea  Photo: IC

Gongfu tea Photo: IC

Gongfu tea

In the afternoon, I was invited to my friend's place. When locals invite you to their place, the first thing they do is serve you a cup of Chaoshan gongfu tea.

You probably already know how much Chinese people love tea. Chaoshan gongfu tea has been around for more than 200 years. Actually, gongfu tea is more than just tea, it also involves a ceremony. In China's tea history, Chao­shan's gongfu tea is considered one of the most representative and glamorous tea-making techniques.

My friend showed me how to make gongfu tea during my visit. First, he used boiled water to clean the tea set, which included a tiny red water kettle and three tiny red tea cups. One teapot holds enough water to make three cups of tea.

I asked why the accessories were so small. Did it have something to do with how expensive the tea in Chaoshan is? My friend told me that, actually, it's because a small tea cup allows you to appreciate the taste and smell of the tea before you drink it, and then enjoy the fragrance left behind in the cup after you finish.

After cleaning the tea set and warming up the teapot, he poured some tea on a piece of paper and then put that into the pot. You have to be patient, the first round of tea is not meant to be drunk. It is purely to "wash the tea," as my friend put it. From the second round onward, you can enjoy your tiny cup of tea. Each round, tea is served to the guest first, the host second. While I didn't find the taste of gongfu tea amazing, I think the tea ceremony is really what makes it so special.

Chaoshan beef hotpot Photo: IC

Chaoshan beef hotpot Photo: IC

Beef hotpot

If you are bored with the city, island hopping is a good alternative for tourists in Shantou. After having gongfu tea, my friend and I went over to Nan'ao Island. We took a ferry that looked like it had survived World War II. After a 45-­minute ride, we arrived on the island still in one piece.

Honestly speaking, Nao'ao Island is overrated. It is more like a park with some scenic spots, such as a couple of 800-year-old wells, a few temples, some fishing boats and a white sandy beach. During the summer, you can ride jet skis. In the winter, there is nothing much to do but eat overpriced seafood.

For me, winter in Guangdong means only one thing: hotpot season. So we decided to order beef hotpot. We took a ferry back to the city and went to a seafood dapaidang on Xiti Road. Dapaidang is a food vendor where you sit on a small chair on the side of the street and listen to the noise of the city while eating your food. This type of street food is usually cheap yet yummy.

Different from the spicy Sichuan hotpot, Chaoshan beef hotpot focuses mainly on the freshness of the ingredients.­ For example, the reason why the beef is so fresh is because it is usually delivered to the restaurant a few hours after the cattle is slaughtered. According to our waiter, the meat from a 1- or 2-year-old female yellow calf is the best.

When it comes to hotpot, slices of beef, meatballs, seafood and vegetables are my favorite items. Hotpot in Guangdong means more than just sharing a meal. It represents a bond of friendship because you do not do hotpot with people you dislike.

And with that meal, my delicious journey in Shantou came to an end.

Rules of Thumb

Getting there: Chaoshan is located in the eastern part of Guangdong Province. It combines the cities of Shantou, Chaozhou and Jieyang. The Jieyang Chaoshan International airport is about 60 kilometers from Shantou and 50 kilometers from Chaozhou. From Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, you can get there by high-speed rail or long-distance bus to the Shantou car terminal. It takes about three hours.

Getting around: Taxis are hard to find in the Chaoshan area. If you decide to take a taxi, insist that the driver to use the meter. Traveling by motorized trishaw is faster and cheaper, but you need to negotiate with the driver.

What to wear: Chaoshan is blessed with a mild and humid climate as well as abundant sunshine. The temperature is pleasant almost all year round, except for in the summer. The average temperature is about 22 C, and in summer, it can reach 38 C.

Newspaper headline: Eating your day away


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