am no great fan of Chinese cuisine. Yes, I know there’s millennia of history behind it, but noodles are noodles and stir-fried anything tastes mostly the same to me. So when our friends – the duo behind YouTube’s Chinese Cooking Demystified – chose to leave bustling Shenzhen for Shunde, Guangdong Province, the ancestral home of Bruce Lee and Cantonese cooking I was, well, mystified.
Yet they enticed a group of us to visit over Christmas, educating my curmudgeonly palette to the simple wonders of charming Shunde and its celebrated cuisine.
Getting there was easier than expected, as Shunde’s city center is just a half hour by car from Guangzhou’s southern high-speed rail station. The true nature of “Shunde” is slippery, as it was first a county under the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), then a county-level city, then a district of sprawling Foshan, and now an independent district reporting directly to the provincial government.
What’s clear is that Shunde is quite old, frequently prosperous, and well-deserving of the attention. Early prosperity from the silk trade gave rise to both exquisite food culture and the Comb Sisters. As early as the 1500s, women in Shunde were able to earn so much in the silk industry that they cast off marriage altogether, ceremonially combing up their maiden braid into the bun of a married woman. Whether a liberating Boston Marriage between like-minded women or a way for parents to keep a breadwinner in the family (and allow younger siblings to marry), the custom of “self-combing” spread across the Pearl River Delta for centuries. When the industry collapsed in the 1930s, many emigrated to Hong Kong or Singapore, sending money home to brothers and nephews until their return after 1950. But, restrained by custom, the women could neither live with their families nor break their vow and marry. So they pooled funds to build the Hall of Ice and Jade in Shunde’s Shatou Village, where they could live out their days in peace and sorority.
Ninety-year-old Huang Peirong is thought to be the last survivor of the sisterhood, and the hall she helped create now stands as a museum honoring their legacy.
Today’s Shunde, with just over a million residents, feels spacious and well-kept, with an urbanized mall district beside a AAA tourist trap. The only Cantonese pan-handlers I’ve ever encountered were right there, with a frightful determination in their eyes. Keep your distance.
Besides one incredibly crass section, where flower stalls of former dynasties have collapsed into shops blasting stereos and hawking consumer goods, this area is as charming as the rest of the district and well worth a visit.
Nearby, hutong-like alleys of the old city feel like a Cantonese village, covered with ancient holdovers like paper shrines to the mother, the father, and the horse. Cleanswept side streets wind their peaceful way between white-plaster homes long molded in the damp southern clime.
But set beside Zhuzhai Mountain – close at hand and easily ascended for an after-meal stroll – these signs of age feel distinguished, like the laugh lines of a cherished auntie.
It was in that pleasant warren of alleys, down Jinbang Street, that we discovered Jinbang Huanji Cow’s Milk, home to a particularly excellent version of shuang pi nai or “double skin milk.” This local delicacy is unusually dairy-rich and creamy-smooth, with the addition of egg whites to perfect the light custard. If you like, you can have it served with the pudding skin which some favor, but I can only see as a strange lactose scab. And, if that’s really your thing, you can buy a bundle of just milk skins, seemingly sold at every street corner.
Throughout there are murals and old-style art along those side-streets, part of the same project that’s installed public toilets to make the ancient town more modern. But the al fresco food stalls still offer the time-worn charms of southern Chinese eating, with all the seafood that Shunde cherishes as well as beer and baijiu (strong liquor) aplenty. With roast goose and all variety of local fare, we were incredibly well fed for little more than 50 yuan (US$8) a head.
With our friends as guides, we were treated to many incredibly affordable gems of Shunde cuisine. You can of course find the standard fare, but you really came here for the Cantonese barbecue, fishballs, clam hot pot, offal and more. There’s truth in that saying about anything that runs, swims or flies, but Shunde rightly takes pride in their somewhat-unique tradition of letting ingredients’ flavors shine through. (I’m looking askance at you, Sichuan and Hunan.) I am no foodie, but I found myself enjoying a medley of strange new additions to my diet, all prepared with care and craft, no matter how ordinary the surroundings. But even among so many places to eat in Shunde, it will linger in my memory as the place where I discovered the pleasure of well-prepared congee. For years I’d turned up my nose at the bland, watery, wasted-rice soup I’d been served too often and with too little joy. But here, I discovered how people come to crave the stuff.
Technically not just congee, but “congee hotpot,” their version brings the mixture to the table well before it’s ready to eat, set atop a flame to keep it bubbling and boiling away the excess liquid – not water, but stock and a fragrant volume of ginger. Bits of pork are set inside to stew and, as it approaches its maturation point, greens are added to break down some of their caosuan (oxalic acid). Only then is it ready, and it was a revelation. If the congee of my past was a thin reed flute, this was a full symphony of flavor. Thick and substantial, with a melody of savory notes, I went back for multiple bowls.
Others enjoyed traditional carp sashimi before the congee, rolling the fish around in an assortment of toppings like chopped peanuts and sugar. But not me. Baby steps.