It’s challenging being a tourist in a city that doesn’t pay much attention to tourism, where about one person in 300 speaks a language you can understand, you can’t even try to estimate what the written word means because the characters might as well be indentations on the surface of Mars, and Google has been blocked by the government.
But once in awhile you get lucky. Wandering frustrated in the southwest quadrant of massive Guangzhou, fresh from an unsuccessful search for a pharmacy dispensing antidiarrheals, my brother gingerly suggested that we explore an alley near the Pearl River where a dozen trucks with water tanks were unloading live fish.
Thus began our discovery of this vast, rich, and complex fish market which none of the tourist resources makes a fuss of or even mentions. No big surprise, considering that the tourist resources consist mainly of YouTube and posts by 30-ish adolescent Australians, and desiccated descriptions of how to use the transit system written by American nerds in the 1970s.
I’ve never seen such a variety of seafood on display anywhere. There must be fifty sales stalls across several acres, each containing three or four dozen species: abalone, scallop, geoduck, octopus, squid, edible barnacle, shrimp, langoustine, lobster, tropical lobster, five kinds of crab, sea urchin, cuttlefish, sea snail, and vertebrate fishes. And every single creature in every one of those stalls is alive and swimming around with its relatives in small irrigated aquariums. And there was something intentionally seductive in the visual presentation of all this.
We spent 90 minutes or so exploring this scene in disbelief. Who are the sellers? Who buys here (we saw, in the afternoon, very few people looking like customers)? Why the inviting presentation? Some of the prices were outrageous, especially for the really big exotic creatures like giant tropical lobsters. And where did all this stuff come from? No way was most of it caught locally. We even saw what had to be Atlantic salmon, although only dead filets. More questions than answers as we returned to the hotel.
Our exceptional concierge lady had enough English to let us know that there were restaurants in the fishmarket. Sales on the ground floor, restaurants up above, she said. So, fascinated, we headed over at about 7 PM and were absolutely astounded at the change of scenery. Now in the dark, seductive artificial lighting the stalls were alive with hawksters, and plenty of people were looking over the wares. We climbed up to the third floor through a small lobby behind one of the big vertical neon signs, and it took us about 10 minutes in sign language conversation with nice young ladies in what was obviously a restaurant before we figured out what was going on.
The fishmarket serves as the ultimate fresh source for the restaurants! Not only that, diners shop the seafood stalls, purchase whatever they want to have for dinner, and bring it wriggling and squirming in plastic bags up the stairs. They then choose from among four or five preparations adjacent to colour pictures of each creature in menus with plastic pages and place their orders.
We hurried downstairs. Dodging hucksters’ entreaties, we picked out a bunch of seafood from one of the street stalls and carried the goodies upstairs to the restaurant. The place seemed to be filling up quickly. We found seats at a table and showed a server by pointing which preparation method and ingredients we wanted for each of our flapping perch-type fish, scallops, big razor-type clam, four langoustine-like little creatures, and a couple of small abalone, adding a plate of Asian broccoli. She took them away and we sipped our beer and waited.
I think the abalone arrived first, followed by scallops and the clams, vegetables, fish, etc. We had ordered predominantly garlic and noodle preparations, and everything predictably was exquisitely fresh but it was also skillfully cooked. Abalone firm but tender in its garlic and scallion mélange, scallops beautifully flavoured with transparent rice noodles, and the langoustine swimming in a classic understated soy and plum garlic-scented sauce. The fish had been baked to tender perfection in another fragrant Asian ginger sauce, and although it was more of an ordinary white fish than oily succulent sablefish or mackerel, the thing had been alive 20 minutes ago and wasn’t overcooked, so we enjoyed a fabulous silky tender treat.
The atmosphere in the restaurant was classic Cantonese chaos, businesslike servers coming and going with stainless steel carts under the bright fluorescent lights, diners chattering loudly, and giant plates of all sorts of exotic seafood and trimmings arriving at tables all around us.
There were pictures near the entrance of a goose and a goat, suggesting that seafood wasn’t the only thing on offer here.
Walking around after dinner we thought there might have been twenty or so of these restaurant-containing buildings, each with a huge garish Chinese-character neon sign outside, and each with who knows how many separate restaurants accessible by elevator or stairs.
The freshest seafood imaginable, an absolutely dazzling exotic selection, apparently effortless good-quality preparation, and lots of condiments, sauces, and vegetable accompaniment. What an unbelievable culinary adventure of discovery! And imagine if instead of turning down that alley, we had decided to hell with it and headed back to the hotel for a well-deserved beer and had some more regular restaurant cantonese fare.
The live seafood cost about C$40; preparation, beer and service another C$20. Probably an expensive night out for a lot of locals, but a pretty tidy bargain for us unless of course you start figuring on the flight, hotel, lost income, and all the rest of the financial downside of vacation. Don’t even think about it.
Food 9.2, service… hard to say really. They certainly went out of their way to accommodate us: 8.9, ambience that inimitable unassuming Cantonese restaurant comedy scene, value 9.3.