The Flower City
On my way to Bali for the first Bettina’s Kitchen Bali Retreat, I chose a layover in China and I decided to spend 21 hours in this Chinese city, mostly because of the food! Food is a huge part of life here, and the culinary scene is booming, hence my otherwise unusual choice of stopover destination!
A Bit About Guangzhou
Guangzhou is the capital city of Guangdong Province in Southern China. Formerly a port for traders from the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Today Guangzhou is a bustling metropolis, known as a ‘real’ Chinese city, and is home to 16 million people.
It is also called The Flower City, as it is bursting with greenery and blossoming. Walking around the old town and along the canals you’re flanked by ivy, trees and pops of beautiful colour.
Of most interest to me though, Guangzhou also happens to be an epicentre of Cantonese cuisine! Cantonese food was introduced by the huge number of emigrants from Guangdong province; it is all about showcasing the natural flavours of food, so dishes are mildly spiced, sprinkled with sweet sauces, and filled with a mix of fermented and dried ingredients, with fresh vegetables as a staple.
Food here is as good if you get it from a hole in the wall or at a fine dining restaurant.
To know before you go:
Many Guangzhou residents are bilingual, speaking Mandarin and Cantonese. Mandarin, being the official language of the whole country, so almost everyone speaks it. Cantonese is also common, especially in local shops, restaurants, and markets. You won’t get very far if you only speak English unless you have an app and some good miming skills!
Laid back, friendly, quirky, and with a little edge!
Transport: Guangzhou Bus Rapid Transit is easy, cheap and reliable public transport. Walking is a great way to get from A to B in Guangzhou too.
Airport transfer: If you’re here for a flying visit like I was, it’s helpful to know that the simplest way to get to into the city centre from the airport is via Guangzhou Metro Line 3 from the Airport South station where trains leave every 7 minutes. It takes about 42 minutes, and a one-way ticket costs 7 RMB.
How to eat vegan and vegetarian in Guangzhou: Cantonese cuisine and China’s Buddhist roots mean Guangzhou caters wonderfully to vegetarian and veganism, the Cantonese excel in meat-free cooking. There are over 100 vegetarian restaurants to choose from in Guangzhou. In non-vegetarian restaurants, look out for meats added to sauces, pork finds its way into many Chinese dishes.
For Herbal Medicines: Qingpeng
A must visit for a colourful insight into local life and a fun culture shock! This market, which is made up of more than 2000 stalls, is the place to go for apparently strange and unusual herbal medicines.
We saw everything from dried seahorses, insects and snake skins to dried fruits and herbs. You can ask the stallholders for natural treatments for all manner of issues and they will have a solution! Treat yourself to a bag of tasty red dates while you’re here.
For a Peek into Guangzhou Culture: Wet Markets
Down the road from the medicine market you can find the noisy, strong-smelling wet markets. If you’re vegan, I would suggest giving this one a miss, otherwise it’s an interesting peek into traditional culture. This is where locals get their meat, poultry, and live scorpions, turtles and eels, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables.
For Vegan Food: Chan Yi Tea House and Vegetarian Restaurant 禅意茶素
Next to Xiao Gang Park main gate on Qian Jing Road, Haizhu District
“Chan Yi” means Zen Buddhism. The restaurant is set next to the tranquil Xiao Gang Park. Once you step inside, you will instantly forget that you are in the middle of a mega city. The dishes here are yummy and creative and are based on Zen Buddhism principles and so there is a theme of nature, health and cleansing. The menu covers dim sum, soups with different health properties, and traditional vegetarian dishes. Run by the well-rated Bing Sheng Group, it is not surprising that everything is done to perfection and the food is simply divine.
Recommended dishes are the Chinese yam and bamboo fungus in Maggie sauce – Thinly sliced yam and bamboo fungus are deep-fried and sprinkled with Maggie sauce, red and green pepper strips and salt and pepper mushrooms
For Mock Meat: Ci Sheng
6 Jinghui Road, Yuexiu District, Guangzhou
Ci Sheng Restaurant looks a bit like a guest house from the outside – just a small wooden entryway. Look for the lovely lady who stands outside to welcome guests and let them know they found the right place! Ci Sheng is decorated with Buddha statues.
The menu is big and includes a huge array of mock meats, soups, different styles of veggies and traditional Chinese sides.
I recommend the Healthy Soup, the taro ‘fish’, sweet and sour ‘pork’ made from walnut, and the Treasure of Mother Earth with sweet taro and yam.
Shui Yun Tian
1/F, West Side of No.38-42 Jinghui Road
This eccentric restaurant is well known among vegans and vegetarians in Guangzhou for its fake meat dishes, including mock fish, fried tofu and their meat free answer to tie ban niu rou.
Fo Shi Jie
2-8 Er Sheng Gong, Tongfuzhong Lu, Haizhu District, Guangzhou
This Buddhist restaurant is a quiet, simple place to enjoy some vegetarian food. Fo Shi Jie offers traditional vegetable dishes and meat substitutes, including crispy chicken, duck and fish - look out for gluten if you’re celiac or intolerant.
They also proudly serve alcohol free beer. Similarly, with many Buddhist restaurants, Fo Shi Jie don’t use garlic or onion, something people on the low FODMAP diet will appreciate!
Have a try of the Luo Han Zhai, made from black fungus, mushrooms, bamboo, asparagus, corncob, tofu and nuts.
For Dim Sum: Guangzhou Restaurant
One of Guangzhou’s oldest and most popular dim sum restaurants. There are now many chain locations throughout the city, but the original location makes for an extra authentic experience.
I tucked into some delicious steamed buns filled with kale and mushrooms.
For Sugar! Lianxiang Lou Bakery & Restaurant
7 Shipu Rd., Liwan
Established in 1892, this cute bakery sells tempting treats for those of you with a sweet tooth like me! Sample a lotus seed pastry or a moon cake stuffed with runny egg yolk.
For Dinner: Bingsheng
The place to stop to enjoy a helping of silky handmade tofu. I will be completely honest --- the language barrier meant Nikki and I weren’t one hundred percent sure what we were eating! We believe it was tofu…!
I recommend the pineapple buns dipped in caramelised sugar for dessert.
There is usually a queue of hungry locals and tourists here, so arrive early or be ready to wait a little while to eat - it’s worth it!
For Shopping and Sightseeing: Shangxiajiu pedestrian street.
After you’ve filled up on foodie delights, take a wander down Shangxiajiu pedestrian street. This bustly street is a popular spot for local shopping - and even more eating! There are lots of Guangzhou’s best Cantonese restaurants to be found here.
The backstreets are fun to explore and get lost in because there is so much to see, including plant shops, the pet market and the QingPing Chinese herbs market.
For a Stroll: Shamian island
Separated from the mainland by a small canal, Shamian Island used to be an important port for foreign trade from the Song to Qing dynasties. Because of its history, it is like a small European town in the middle of China, perfect for a walk for an hour or two.