These 4 villages in Guangdong province put themselves on the culinary map with signature Cantonese dishes, and ‘oil tea’
- Food tourists travel for hours to try goose in a spicy broth, chicken with ginger dip, pork roasted in a well and a drink made with stir-fried herbs
- They are available through the One Village One Product project, which sees villages specialise in one type of produce and serve a dish showcasing it
Food is not only a big part of Chinese culture, it is also one of China’s biggest exports. You’ll find Chinese restaurants in cities all around the world, and even in places as remote as Ilulissat, Greenland.
But the term “Chinese food” is a misnomer. There are in fact many regional cuisines in China, and they can be very different from one another.
Many of the most internationally well-known Chinese dishes are of Cantonese origin, so their roots are in southern China’s Guangdong province.
Guangdong has rivers and a long coastline, along with a moderate climate and fertile soil. That means the region has lots of fresh produce to work with all year round. Cantonese cuisine highlights the original flavour of its ingredients, with steaming and stir-frying being two of the signature cooking methods.
Because ingredients are so central to Cantonese food, sometimes certain dishes can only be sampled in a specific village.
This is why the Chinese government set up a project called One Village One Product, to encourage villages to specialise in one type of local produce and use it to create a signature dish. It is aimed at boosting tourism and generating income for underprivileged villagers.
We set out on a provincial road trip to discover some examples of these villages and their dishes.
Meiling’s ‘Goose Kings’ serve up spicy flavours
We kick off our food tour in Meiling village in Nanxiong city in the northern part of Guangdong. This area is famous for the Mei Pass, an ancient post road dating back to the Qin dynasty (221-206BC) that has been turned into a heritage site.
Meiling is also known for its “Goose King” restaurants, which serve a spicy goose dish that has put the village on the culinary map.
One of these restaurants is Zhengfa Goose King. The owner, chef Lai Zhengfa, says: “This dish has some 30 years of history. Many villagers used to have very little income, but the goose dish became famous ... locals began to get into raising the geese, and they have been lifted out of poverty.”
Lai says there are about 60 goose restaurants in the area, but claims his recipe is the best in terms of bringing out the meat’s original flavour. Customers sometimes drive for hours to visit, and the village sells about 500 geese a day on average, according to the chef, with the number going up to 800 on weekends and more than 1,000 during Chinese New Year.
What’s so special about the goose?
“This dish contains goose meat, intestines, kidney and blood, along with seasonings such as ginger, chilli pepper, garlic and so on,” Lai explains. After a cooking process involving stir-frying followed by braising for about 40 minutes, the goose is presented in a rich, fragrant spicy broth.
“When the dish is served, the aroma whets your appetite,” he adds. “It does not taste that spicy at first, but the more you eat, the spicier it gets. The more it gets spicy, the more you want to eat, to the point that you won’t want to put down your chopsticks.”
Lai emphasises that the quality of the meat is key to the dish, which calls for the goose to be 80 days old.
“If the bird is too young, the meat won’t have enough flavour, but if it is too old, the meat will become dry.”
Shijiao’s baiqie chicken is a traditional household dish
Heading almost 300km (186 miles) south, we arrive at Shijiao town in Qingyuan city. Tourists frequent the area to visit the striking Matou Mountain.
After a scenic trek, visitors usually return to Shijiao and treat themselves to the local delicacy of baiqie ji, which translates to “white sliced chicken.”
“Baiqie chicken is a traditional dish that basically every local household cooks,” says Li Jianming, a chef of 25 years from the region. He recalls enjoying the dish during festivities when he was growing up.
It requires a very precise cooking method in order to preserve the flavour and tenderness of the meat.
A freshly slaughtered chicken is washed, then blanched for exactly 20 minutes in water heated to just below boiling point. It is then immediately cooled down in ice water, which gives the skin a crunchy yet silky texture.
The main ingredient has a home-grown quality — it is a regional breed of free-range chicken that has been raised for 220 days and fed with grains and insects, and is known for its smoothness and full flavour.
After cooking, the chicken is chopped and then reassembled into the full shape of the bird. The dish is completed with a dip made from a ginger puree that is scalded with oil and mixed thoroughly with various seasonings.
“The ginger dip is the essential part of enjoying the dish. Every plate of baiqie chicken is always served with it,” Li explains.
Mazhang’s roast pork is cooked in a deep well
Continuing to the far southwestern region of Guangdong, we find ourselves in Mazhang, a town in Zhanjiang city. The Huguangyan scenic area is located here, drawing visitors to its picturesque mountains and lake. But for self-proclaimed foodies, this is the premier destination for roast pork.
“The entire western Guangdong area knows that Mazhang is most famous for its roasted pig,” says local chef Chen Weiliang. Weddings or festivals there will always have a roasted pig as one of the main dishes, he adds.
This dish offers a combination of delectable, crispy skin and succulent, tender meat.
The locally reared hogs are what make the dish special, according to Chen. There are strict requirements around the pork that is used. Choice cuts are sourced from local farms, and the animal used must be mature, because suckling pigs won’t have a rich enough taste.
The freshly slaughtered meat is treated in a traditional marinade for 30 to 90 minutes before being quickly baked to toast the skin, then is given one to two hours to cool down.
After that, the pig is finally ready for roasting to achieve the famous crunchy texture. This is why orders for the roast pork must be made at least eight hours in advance.
The main part of the cooking process also calls for a specific method — deep well roasting. “This way of roasting has been passed on from a long time ago,” Chen says. “It is different from using a metal oven. It is the best way to retain the meat’s original flavour and juices.”
Luhe oil tea is hand-pounded and stir-fried
You’ve probably heard of green tea, oolong and jasmine — but what about oil tea? For our final stop, we travel through central Guangdong to arrive in Luhe, a county located in the eastern part of the province under the administration of Shanwei city.
“Every family here knows about oil tea. People have been drinking it from when they were children,” says Peng Zao, the chef and current owner of Yong Xing Oil Tea.
“Some of the locals who had the tea when the shop first opened in 2004 are married, and they visit with their children for the tea,“ she says.
Oil tea is made of seven ingredients: wormwood, fennel, loosestrife, coriander, mint leaves, gotu kola, and leaves from a type of tree indigenous to the local area.
While each ingredient offers different health benefits on their own, oil tea is primarily regarded by the locals as a formula for detoxing and easing indigestion, and it is a welcome part of their daily diets.
The name “oil tea” refers to the cooking process. The herbs and leaves are hand-pounded, cut and ground before being stir-fried in oil. This blend is then used to brew the tea.
According to Peng — who has been running Yong Xing Oil Tea since 2010, when she took over the shop from her mother-in-law — the key ingredient is wormwood, which gives the tea its potent taste. The other ingredients round out the flavor. In the past, people would put lard crackling in the tea, but Peng has not continued this practice.
“The lard crackling smoothed out the bitterness of the tea,” Peng explains. “And back in the day, there was not much oil in people’s diets, and they needed more fat to help curb hunger. Nowadays, people prefer to eat more healthily.”
At Peng’s shop, oil tea can be enjoyed alongside a variety of fried noodle dishes. As this Cantonese culinary tour comes to an end, this unique digestive tea is the perfect drink to have so we can begin to recover from all the indulgent signature dishes enjoyed along the way.