Lunar New Year in Canton, China (pic-heavy food tour)

Last month, Nick and I visited Guangzhou/Canton, China for Lunar New Year. This is the biggest holiday of the year there – all homes are decorated in lucky red, streets are lined in lanterns, and businesses are closed for 1-2 weeks at a time. Children and unmarried young adults especially love this holiday, as they can go around relatives’ homes collecting red envelopes full of “lucky money.”
I was born in Canton and am extremely partial to good Cantonese cuisine. The people there place so much emphasis on eating fresh food, and spend a large portion of their income doing so. They go to the local outdoor market every day to buy ingredients for that day’s meal. My uncle frowns upon buying meat and seafood that were previously refrigerated, or veggies that don’t still have dirt on them. As a child, I absolutely loved tagging along at the market as he scurried from booth to booth, inspecting and smelling the ingredients while brainstorming dishes for dinner.

1. The Cantonese live for fresh noodles. First stop: The quintessential local dish is wonton noodle soup. We went to a shop where they beat fresh noodles (with a bamboo stick…apparently it’s an art) and fold pork and shrimp wontons every morning.
2. Left: Slurping up more noodle soup at a street-side vendor. Right: You pick veggies, meat and sauce to be braised together in a table-top pot. Hand-pulled noodles were made on the spot and tossed into the casserole. The noodles were thick and had a deliciously springy texture.
3. Dim sum (Chinese version of Spanish tapas) originated in Canton and is a beloved pastime there. I like the classic dishes, but these were tasty too: (clockwise, from right) sticky rice atop shortrib, tuna rolls, matcha green tea pudding cakes, and rice noodle with braised beef sauce.
4. Munching on spicy BBQ lamb skewers while buying festive decor for Lunar New Year…

5. If you’ve ever had dim-sum, you may have tried thin rice noodle sheets with shrimp, beef, or roast pork folded inside. This shop made every plate of rice noodles to order, and filled ’em with an ingredient of your choice. The result: delicate, paper-thin noodles hot off the steamer machine, perfect with soy and a touch of hot sauce.
6. One of my favorite photos from the trip. There’s a word in Chinese, “chan” (meaning loves to continuously eat or snack), that describes the subjects in this photo very well. My little brother’s eyes are closed in pleasure as he savors a candied fruit, and Nick is too engrossed with his egg puffs to look up. The vendors on the left are selling roasted yams.
7. This is congee or rice porridge with a savory broth, packed with mix-ins and topped with fried dough. Congee is my favorite comfort food, and this was the best I’ve ever had. On the coldest days, we’d stop by all bundled up, and warm up with a piping hot bowl of this on a shaky outdoor fold-up table.
8. Left: My pretty cousin, who is the same exact size as me. I gave her my ON rockstar jeans in “Russet” and love how she paired them with a leopard throw and mustard suede moccasins. Right: Freshly-pressed sugarcane juice.
9. Traditional Cantonese pastry – egg tarts. Melt-in-your-mouth filling with perfectly flaky crust.
10. My little brother is an absolute handful. To prevent him from running into the street or bouncing into the river, I convinced him that holding my umbrella and purse in exchange for 3 Yuan (50 cents) was a fair trade. Scarf, coat, and OTK boots here borrowed from my cousin.
11. Mickey D’s there has yummy wings (2 flavors), curly fries, and various red bean-flavored desserts like pie, sundaes, and McFlurries.
12. The Chinese (myself excluded) believe strongly in an inner system of “hot and cold.” When you eat too much of certain foods (like fried stuff), they believe your body “heats up.” A remedy for this is the unfortunate herbal or “cooling tea,” which allegedly cools your body back down. This tea is pitch black and unbelievably bitter. You can get it at many street-side shops or brew it at home using herbs and sticks (and probably dirt…because it tastes like dirt). My aunt and uncle made us drink it every few days to “stay healthy.”
13. One of the most delicious dishes I tried – crab and green onions over spaghetti in a Macau-style coconut curry sauce, served atop a mini burner to stay hot. When the noodles were gone, they provided soft Portuguese bread for sopping up the sauce…yum.
14. Left: It’s Chinese tradition to make dumplings together as a family on New Year’s eve and consume them for luck and prosperity. I’ve trained Nick over the years to be a rather efficient dumpling-folder. Right: Chef uncle cooking up a storm on the big night. His braised pork belly dish is one of my faves.
15. Left: I put aside my fashion dignity to stay warm. ALL of us grossly under-packed for this trip. When I looked at the forecast, I scoffed at the 40 degree temps (compared to frigid Boston) and brought just a light coat. What I didn’t know was that it was a damp, constant cold that chilled you down to your bones…and the homes don’t have heat! At night, we kept our heartbeats alive with electric mattress pads or microwaveable stones for clutching on to.

We all wore my cousin and uncle’s clothes – layers upon layers of it. Hopefully that explains why my little brother is rocking a leopard scarf or why Nick looks puffy (he donned 5-6 layers of garments). Right: Rice noodle rolls with peanut, spicy sauce, and sesame seeds. I know these photos are completely unrelated.

Readers – I hope you enjoyed my travel diary. Thank you for letting me share part of my “hometown” and culture with you. Next stop…the Philippines!

172 thoughts on “Lunar New Year in Canton, China (pic-heavy food tour)

  • Reply jadeite March 28, 2012 at 2:38 am

    I'm cantonese chinese too (living in Singapore) and you actually made me want to go back and visit China – even though I'm born and bred Singaporean, I've been there a couple of times (not to Canton though I have been to HK). It's lovely to have that connection with you, heh! do you still speak Cantonese or Mandarin with your family?

    I know the season is pretty much over, but gong hei fatt choy/gong xi fa cai to you and yours!

  • Reply tananastyle March 28, 2012 at 6:55 am

    I got hungry just reading your post & looking at your pics!
    One of my fave yum cha is the rice noodle with the shrimp inside & soy on top. I have that every time we yum cha.
    And I know exactly what you mean by under packing! Hubby & I, sis & her bf wen to Shenzhen early Dec 2011 before visiting our home country, the Philippines.
    Like you, we only packed light jackets & pants so when we got there, we had to shop straightaway after we dumped our stuff at the hotel! Lucky clothes are very cheap & we can haggle!
    We were only there for 2 days though so obviously it wasn't enough time to explore most of it but I will go there again in the future.

    Well I hope you'll enjoy the Philippines as much as you've enjoyed your Guangzhou trip. Oh & you can pack light clothes for the Philippines. It's pretty much warm weather 24/7 365 days a year over there. Love it!

    I love your blog btw, it gives me ideas on what women my height wear ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Reply Anonymous March 28, 2012 at 10:59 am

    I loved viewing your photos and actually loved how you spoke about hot and cold foods. I still remember my mom trying to persuade my brother and I to drink bitter teas and soups to balance our hot and cold when we were little. These days, I ask my mom to make me a soup to "cool" me down.

    Gong Hai Fat Choi.

  • Reply Kay March 28, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    Amazing pictures! It looks like everyone had a fantastic time (despite the weather). The food pictures look aaaammaazzzing!

  • Reply Emily March 28, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    Hi Jean! Long time follower, first time posting. This post was so great – funny and mouth watering all at the same time. Love the pic of your brother and Nick basically on top of each other in the street, since they were so focused on their food. As a fellow petite person, I loved finding your blog and seeing how you rock a maxi skirt. ๐Ÿ™‚ Good luck with your studies!

  • Reply Anonymous March 28, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    You have no idea how many memories these pictures bring back, because I was just in Canton (I was also born there :D) over the summer and my mouth is watering just looking at the delicious food.
    I also had Macau-style curry crab in Guangzhou and the most amazing po tats (I guess they would be called Portuguese egg tarts in English) and unfortunately, there are no Macau-style food places in even New York :/
    It's also kind of funny how our experiences in Guangzhou were exactly the opposite – my brother and I were so unaccustomed to the harsh hot summers whereas you were really cold!
    thanks for sharing these gorgeous pictures with us!

  • Reply Anonymous March 28, 2012 at 10:40 pm

    great pictures and thanks for sharing! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Reply Louise March 29, 2012 at 9:48 am

    I used to live there during my college, really miss all those foods

  • Reply Gjee March 30, 2012 at 6:07 am

    Reading this at 3 am was definitely not a good idea. I've suddenly become so hungry from looking at all of the delicious, amazing food… and the only place open right now is McDonalds or a mexican place. haha San diego is known for the carne asada fries but alas, nutella and bananas it is.

    These are my favorite types of posts from you! Hope to see more in the future ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Reply Gjee March 30, 2012 at 6:10 am

    And your brother is adorable! And the boyfriend is handsome as always. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Reply Kay March 30, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    I enjoy reading your blogs. Your trip to Canton looks so fun ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Reply CY March 30, 2012 at 6:31 pm

    Oh, I loved this! I was born in Hong Kong & speak Cantonese fluently. I was just visiting HK last November/December! I can COMPLETELY relate to the whole heating/cooling idea they have and all the foods you had! Dim sum ftw! Looks like a fun trip packed with food, food, and MORE food- just the way it should be! I'm excited to see your future adventures! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Reply CY March 30, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    Sorry! I just read your note about links! Here's my post without my blog link:

    Oh, I loved this! I was born in Hong Kong & speak Cantonese fluently. I was just visiting HK last November/December! I can COMPLETELY relate to the whole heating/cooling idea they have and all the foods you had! Dim sum ftw! Looks like a fun trip packed with food, food, and MORE food- just the way it should be! I'm excited to see your future adventures! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Reply Angie April 1, 2012 at 12:53 am

    I haven been reading your blog for a while and today I just came to realize that you are Chinese American! I speak Cantonese, do you? ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Reply Anonymous April 1, 2012 at 2:41 am

    It is so lovely. I love reading your travel diary. Your little brother is so adorable too. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Reply Sara April 2, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    Awesome run through of the food!! In regards to the heat/cooling idea – it's actually pretty spot-on with what Western medicine is coming around on, but heat is referred to as inflammation. Those foods really do cause inflammation in the body, but it's not so clear if the "cooling" remedies actually work as well as they're claimed to. I'd believe it! I actually see a Tibetan medicine doc (it's very similar to Chinese medicine), and he's been working on some research to show that this stuff is scientifically based. Neat!

  • Reply Karen (littlepiecefnb) April 4, 2012 at 2:13 am

    LOL I love the photos, Jean! I am Chinese as well and really enjoyed looking through these since I have never been over there during the big holiday. Mmm Cantonese food and dim sum are my fave. I totally make that face when drinking that bitter stuff too! Glad you had a good time!

  • Reply Alice April 4, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    Ahhhh this post makes me so happy!! One thing I miss the most about China is all the food and how people love love love food. Huge breakfast, huge lunch, huge dinner, and throw in another xiaoye late at night. All the people out and about makes it feel quite festive too. The one down side is I always end up gaining a lot of weight…. Lol. I'm not sure about Canton, but when I visit family in the Shenzheng, Zhuhai area, we always go out to eat zaocha. So good! Did you get to enjoy that during your visit?

    And for some reason I've always thought you are Korean? I think it's because you mentioned talking to your tailor in Korean in a post. Or my mind is just making up things and tricking me. Oops, my bad!!

  • Reply Issabella Stephanie May 9, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    did you ever make a travel log from your trip in the philippines?!?! i'd love to see it :]

  • Reply Sadia Nur August 25, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    Love this jacket, the colour and the texture are so nice!

    Cheongsam dresses

  • Reply dentistvschef September 23, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    really lovely "chan" photograph, and i really love how you react to that…
    my ex-girl used to be mad at me when i did that actually, lol
    such a fun journey there
    lucky you all guys!

  • Reply Stephanie January 6, 2016 at 5:30 pm

    Oh my gosh!! My family is from Canton too! I thought you were Mandarin Chinese until I saw your wedding video and this!! I used to love eating the egg puffs when I was a kid. My mom used to get them for us in the corner shop of Chinatown in Boston. They have a little sushi bar and noodle shop in there as well. Nick should check it out!

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