Eating dim sum in Guangzhou is delightful ... and confusing.
03.06.2007 35 °C
It was 8:30 in the morning when Tony sat straight up in bed and proclaimed, "Is it too late for breakfast?"
We'd been planning our trip to Guangzhou pretty seriously. Or as seriously as one can get when the major decisions of a travel day are the "When are we going to eat lunch?" variety.
We'd come to Guangzhou for two days with one major purpose: to eat. Specifically, to eat dim sum, the eclectic smorgesbord of individually-ordered small dishes that is popular to China's southern coast.
Guangzhou is also our furthest point from our end destination -- Berlin. From here we start heading west, then north around the Himalayas and west again into Kazakhstan.
Guangzhou, known in English as "Canton," is a densely-populated and industrialized port city just inland from Hong Kong. The site of numerous Western trade ventures and the Opium Wars in the mid 19th Century, Guangzhou is now where Westerners come to adopt Chinese babies.
We stumbled upon the baby market at Shamian Island, the same spot where Western powers formerly set up shop and what is now a pleasant park boulevard of clustered shabby colonial buildings.
At the White Swan Hotel, newly created families sit sipping cocktails. Past a line of baby clothing stores, a Thai restaurant offers baby food on the menu served with baby spoons to boot.
The rest of downtown makes for relaxed wandering with a number of peaceful parks and busy local shops, even with temperatures in the sweltering 90's. One nice touch are the banyan trees, which canopy a number of the streets. Spindly roots hang from the branches and grow glued to the tree trunk like varicose veins.
Inspired by Tony's call for breakfast, we bounded out of bed Saturday morning to make it to prime dim sum hour at a cavernous joint with great views of the Pearl River.
The restaurant had three floors dedicated to artful eating. We chose Floor 5, where a full elevator of the hungry spilled out.
Once there, we stared blank-faced at a single sheet paper menu with more than 100 dishes whose names were written in Chinese characters.
Now we've had this problem before. Many restaurants have English translations (though we suspect that the menus are often not equivalent to the Chinese as they are catered to Western tastes -- whatever they think that is). But many other menus are in Chinese only, which has led to numerous point and eat sessions, a risky endeavor that has brought both pleasant and unpleasant suprises (like the time we ended up with a bowl of chicken feet soup).
This menu was particularly troubling.
Jacob, using his palm pilot with its Chinese-English dictionary, began stumbling over some translations, including a category he read labeled "Very Bad Dim Sum."
The next step was to turn to the chain-smoker beside him, who offered us his stewed pork dish and, once cajoled, eventually pointed us to some truly wonderful shrimp dumplings and egg rolls.
Alas, he left and we were on own again. How about some "Time-honored horse pulled pudding," Jacob translated. Or is it "Time-honored horse seduced pudding?" Or "horse rip-off pudding?"
Between all the metaphors inherent in the Chinese language and all the homonyms, you never know what you're going to eat.
The "horse pudding" ended up being a spongy cake, which we greatly enjoyed and in the words of Jacob "hardly tastes like horse at all."
"It's a nice cake," he continued. "It needs a little more horse, though."