Unlike the previous business trips to China, there were no lavish banquets to occupy the nights. It didn’t matter. Alone, I had a good time roaming about central Chang’an and Shenzhen on foot and tasted some, by corporate standard, cheap food along the way. Rechecking my trip's reimbursement claim, I realize that I am potentially the most (willingly) spendthrift employee of the year.
Chang’an may be just a small town but is well-known for being populous within the industrial city of Dongguan. That’s according to my Chinese colleague. I must explore Chang’an, I promised myself. During the day, I worked mostly from the hotel room and in the evening, I would hit the streets. No hotel food for dinner, thank you.
I would walk about 2 kilometers to central Chang’an. Into the first 500 meters, my shirt would soak in sweat. July in the Guangdong province is hot and humid, so don’t be alarmed to see shirtless local men everywhere, be it on the streets, in restaurants and even in shopping malls. I would have gladly taken off my shirt too, had this not been an official visit. Another observation is the group of line dancers that I passed by daily. Despite the heat, they seemed to be enjoying themselves tremendously.
In general, I am all for streetfood but here, I was mostly disinterested because they were all provincial cuisines that are readily available back in Chinatown. Also, hygiene was of a concern. I had to constantly remind myself that this was an official visit, so I had to stay healthy. I decided on something less adventurous but still fun – tackling as many Chinese fastfood chains as I could, starting with 真功夫. Its trademark, a Bruce Lee-like figure, can be found all across China. The food is, as they claim, steamed to retain the nutrients. I think some dishes, like soups, are boiled, then steamed. Anyway, the staff recommended the herbal chicken soup set meal, which included some broccoli and steamed rice topped with minced pork. There’s nothing extraordinary about the soup that came perfumed with the usual Chinese angelica but it was a filling set.
The types of food that these fastfood restaurants offer do not differ much from each other, as I’d learnt in a week. All the menus have a similar listing of soups and steamed rice served with a variety of ingredients including braised pork ribs, stir-fried vegetables, beef slices and chicken cubes. However, I did find some rather noteworthy dishes like the Vitamin C noodle (with a reddish broth loaded with lots of tomatoes and pickled cabbage) at 永和大王 in Shenzhen and lean pork balls with 石解 (Radix Aristolochiae Fangchi, a rope-like herb) soup at 添添聚源味 in Chang’an.
I’d dined mostly at 活力旺, a local fastfood chain in Chang’an. It’s slightly cheaper than the competition and unlike its more glitzy rivals, 活力旺 does not thrive on a formula of modern (and clean) interior, bright displays and creative marketing but simply serves hearty dishes on worn plates and bowls. I really enjoyed the sour and spicy pork ribs soup noodle, served with peanuts, lettuce and dried daylilies. What an explosion of flavours in the mouth! Not numbingly spicy, but it made me sweat a bucket. The rice sets come with a good selection of toppings including bittergourd, yellow chive and some undetermined exotic vegetables. All walks of life dine here; elders, students, couples in factory uniforms, small families, etc. They made my dinners more interesting as I observed their eating habits and overheard conversations that were not too heavily accented.
Being in southern Guangdong, Hong Kong seems like just a few steps away. At Shenzhen, I found some Hong Kong bakeries and cafés, including Maxim’s and Café de Coral. On a sweltering Saturday afternoon, after hours of frenzy shopping at 华强北, Shenzhen’s mega electronics market, I replenished at Café de Coral with some generously herbed, tender roast duck and pork belly. It was a random but good choice.
Since we’re on the topic of Hong Kong, I did, after trying so much oriental fastfood in China, plan to lunch differently at the Landmark’s l’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, before catching my evening flight back to Singapore. A check on the airline’s schedule later, I’d decided to forgo Robuchon to catch an earlier flight on the A380. It was my virginal boarding this aviation wonder, so I was quite excited. With some time to spare at the Hong Kong airport, I headed to the reputable (and rather expensive) Maxim’s Chinese Restaurant for their signature roast goose and some dim sum before started shopping for confectionaries and mooncakes at Kee Wah and Wing Wah.
Back to Guangdong. If I were to choose the most memorable food-related experience during this trip, I think it has to be enjoying the pack of mini wife’s biscuits from a local supermarket that cost only RMB5. Considering the price, the biscuits were good. Perhaps freshly baked, the skin was crispy and the filling of glutinous rice flour paste was soft and just nicely sweet. Oh, there were bits of winter melon too! Best deal of the trip, definitely.
Besides exploring Chang’an and Shenzhen, I spent the rest of my free time watching the cable news channels. It was during that week that we were horrified and saddened by the Norway twin attacks, Wenzhou trains collision and Amy Winehouse’s death. Reports on the devastating Horn of Africa famine didn’t making the week any easier. But instead of ending this rather lengthy post with obvious, neutral comments or even suggesting unintelligent remedies to these issues, I just want to be thankful for this safe trip. And a healthy and peaceful life so far. Once too often, I do take these blessings for granted.