Huangsha Aquatic Products Market, Guangzhou China.

January 2015

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, and 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 that appeared to contain a dozen trucks with water tanks containing live fish.

Thus began our discovery of this vast, rich, and complex fishmarket 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 a hundred separate sales stalls across several acres, each stall 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 kicking 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 peculiar 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 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 had enough English to let us know that there were restaurants in the fishmarket. Sales on the main floor, restaurants up above, she said. So that evening we headed over at about 7 PM and were absolutely astounded at the change of scenery. Now in nighttime 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 a big vertical neon sign, and it took us about 10 minutes in sign language conversation with the waitresses and hostesses in the restaurant before we figured out what was going on.

The fishmarket serves as the ultimate fresh source for the restaurant. Not only that, diners shop the seafood stalls, purchase whatever they wanted 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.

The place filled up quickly. A server took away our bags containing a flapping perch-type fish, a few scallops, a big razor-type clam, four langoustine-like little creatures, and a couple of small abalone. We had selected these from a stall below, and indicated to her by pointing which preparation method and ingredients we wanted for each of them, adding a plate of Asian broccoli. 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 also quite skilfully 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 mildly garlic-scented sauce. The fish had been baked to tender perfection in another fragrant Asian ginger sauce, and although it was far from the oily succulence of say sablefish or mackerel but more of an ordinary white fish, the fact that the thing had been alive about 20 minutes prior to its presentation and wasn’t overcooked resulted in a fabulous silky tender treat.

The atmosphere in the restaurant is classic Cantonese chaos, businesslike servers coming and going with industrial carts under the bright fluorescent lights, diners chattering loudly, and astonishing giant plates of all sorts of exotic seafood and trimmings constantly 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 a dozen or more 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.

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.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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