As the saying goes, “Except the plane and the stool, Guangzhou people eat everything in the sky and on the earth” – words I’m fast discovering are true on my brief encounter with the city located in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.
At Qingping market, soup is the dish of the day – but these aren’t your standard consommés or bisques. Giant plastic bags bulge with dried-out seahorses, sacks spill over with dessicated fish stomachs, and lifeless scorpions spread across sacking on the sides of the pavement. Along with an otherworldly collection of fungi, this faded brown menagerie is destined for the stock pot, thanks to their ability to bestow a secret stash of energy, according to the ancient wisdom of Chinese medicine.
But dead creatures eventually give way to the living, as the narrow street opens out into a jigsaw of glass tanks teeming with glittering goldfish or tiny turtles that are intended to be pets rather than dinner.
We make our way to the Temple of the Six Banyans – an ancient Buddhist temple originally built in 537 and named after the glossy-leaved trees that surround it. As we stroll through its shaded courtyard, warm droplets of tropical rain start to spit from the yellow-tinged sky. The city’s southerly location means it is warm and humid all year round with little discernible shift between seasons.
We dart into the incense-rich shelter of the temple where three 10-tonne bronze Buddhas gaze serenely down at us as devotees quietly offer their prayers.
“We eat food to help to get the body fit for the weather because it’s wet, so soup is very important for the Cantonese to drink before each meal – it gives us a very strong stomach,” my companion Milly explains in a hushed tone.
The other culinary weapon in the battle to overcome the elements is tea, she adds. From steaming pots of pale purple chrysanthemum infusions to the familiar fragrant jasmine, tea forms a fundamental part of life here and it comes complete with not only intricate tea seats, but also its own rituals.
The quest for health doesn’t end with soup and tea however. Far more outlandish ingredients can be found among the city’s backstreet stores and markets for a somewhat stronger boost.
Milly tells me her boyfriend’s father has been known to hack the head of a snake and drink the blood from its still twitching body in pursuit of health benefits. Male potency is said to be one of its gifts, but it is also said to bestow anti-inflammatory effects and reduce clogging of the arteries.
Fortunately, snake blood is not on the menu at the Sofitel’s chic Le Chinois restaurant that evening. But everything else is – turtle, crocodile, goose tripe, century eggs, shark fin soup, birds nests, although I’ve missed the boat on the blood birds nests which have to be preordered. Admittedly a little lily-livered, I go for crispy wok-fried prawns smothered in an addictive gluey sesame chilli jam.
It is this authenticity – a far cry from the increasingly cosmopolitan worlds of Shanghai and Beijing – that is luring tourists to explore Guangzhou’s unique blend of culture and history, dating back to the times of the Silk Road, hidden among the faded pink tower blocks of its past and the glistening skyscrapers of its future.
The drizzle holds off for us the next day as we arrive at Shamian Island – the 0.3 square kilometre sandbank on the Pearl River cut off from the mainland and reserved for French and British settlers during the 19th century. Although the Europeans departed following the declaration of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, as has the city’s historic name of Canton, this small outpost retains a markedly European look and feel. As such, it has become the most popular place in the city for young couples to come and take their wedding pictures, which here is done before the wedding so that the pictures are on display when they actually come around to tying the knot.
Girls flounce down the street in gigantic ball dresses in a variety of pastel tones accompanied by an entourage of bridesmaids, inevitably slightly more dowdily dressed, and of course by a photographer that seems to never take his finger from the button as the camera whirrs approvingly.
A more modern face of the city can be found in Tianhe – a gleaming business district packed with air conditioned malls and a burst of new luxury hotels from international brands such as Sofitel, W and the Ritz-Carlton.
Here, visitors to Guangzhou less inclined to sample the local fare, most famously on offer at historic restaurant Panxi, can find an abundance of fine dining international restaurants. In fact, the city’s top three recommended restaurants on TripAdvisor serve up European cuisine.
Or those in search of dinner accompanied by sweeping panoramas of the evolving Guangzhou skyline can head for the 450 metre Canton Tower which once laid claim to the title of the tallest tower of the world until it was overtaken by the Tokyo Skytree in 2011.
Now, it is the site of the world’s highest ferris wheel offering panoramic views across the city, and also a number of restaurants including two which revolve.
Although don’t come here expecting to get your daily dose of all-important soup – a note on the website warns that: “Soups can unfortunately not be served since the natural way of the building could reach in windy circumstances up to 1.5 metres in either direction, leaving not much soup in your plate for you to eat.”
That refusal to succumb to hunger is, after all, written into Guangzhou’s DNA. At Yiexiu Park in central Guangzhou, the granite Status of the Five Goats was erected in 1959 to honor the legend that five celestial beings brought five goats into Guangzhou. The goats were all carrying rice as a sign that they would forever ensure the area remained free of famine – even if that does mean eating some weird and wonderful stuff.