Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Lunch at the Village of Fish and Rice

We put on our travel backpacks for the second consecutive weekend in early November and headed out for a short break to Shunde (順德), a small town in Guangdong province just north of our border, about 2 hours away by speed ferry.

Locals have long referred Shunde as a "village of fish and rice" (魚米之鄉) - for its abundant produce from its fertile land at the Pearl River Delta region. And people from Shunde were known to have exquisite taste and cooking skills, and arguably, their dishes represented the best of Cantonese cuisine.

A couple friends of ours from church come to Shunde quite often so they rounded up a big group for a weekend of food, drink and fellowship. Both of us have been to a few towns nearby in Guangdong but it was only our first time setting foot at Shunde itself.

It was just before noon when we arrived and checked in to our hotel, and so we took off for our first meal in a suburb restaurant called "Jiao Hua Farmhouse" (照華農莊). The place is a bit out of the way in the countryside with down-to-earth decor which plastic chairs and tables that resembles more to a larger-scale dai pai dong. The dining area - almost as big as a small soccer field - was housed under a makeshift canopy next to the river bank and without air-conditioning, while the kitchen was at a concrete hut on the other side of the ground. There's no menu at the restaurant per se, with all the fresh seafood kept alive in the fish tanks by the entrance so customers can just pick and choose, and decide on the spot how they want those to be cooked.

The restaurant was best known for the steamed big-head fish served with scores of other ingredients on a big plate. Big-head Fish is essentially a genetic variation of the river carp common along the Pearl River, with an uncharacteristically big head as compared to the length of its body, as the name suggests. While the smaller one may be caught wild, the big ones were almost exclusively farmed. And by "big" I meant gigantic - some took a few years to grow and could get up to 15kg plus when mature.

With so many people in our group we opted for the largest fish available at the restaurant, which was approximately 9kg in weight and almost one meter in length. To be honest I have never recalled having such a big fish before in my life so I was curious how that would taste.

While we were waiting for our big fish to be steamed, we had a few other dishes to start. First to arrive was the "Deep-fried Milk Custard", another Shunde specialties, made using local buffalo milk, mixed with egg white, slightly cooked into custard form then wrapped in a thin slice of bread and deep-fried. Outside it was crunchy and inside was smooth and delicate, and I also loved that savory-sweet taste.

When we saw Giant Mottled Eel (花錦鱔) kept in the fish tank, we thought we would pick one and have it chopped up and stir-fried with pork and black beans. We quite often see those eels available in Hong Kong markets, though usually not as big as the one we had here. Even though I wasn't a huge fan of river eel, I liked the bouncy texture and the rather clean, fresh taste.

A good 30 minutes has passed since we sat down and we finally saw our big fish being lifted in on a gigantic plate held by 4 servers on their shoulders in a ceremonious manner. On a round ceramic plate over 1 meter in diameter (taken up almost the entire lazy susan for our table of 15), in the middle sit the whole big-head fish - from head to tail - which has been steamed with oil, green onions, ginger and soy sauce. And surrounding the fish were numerous ingredients, from river shrimps to crabs, to green vegetables and gourd, which were cooked on the same plate, taking in the flavors from the sauce too.

After the obligatory photo shot, we quickly dived in to our big-head fish feast.  Steamed whole fish is always one of the trickiest dish to prepare which requires precise timing, let alone fish of such size, but I thought it was done brilliantly. The fish itself was perfectly cooked and the meat was firm and flaky with a delicate taste, and with the sheer size of the fish it means everyone got a fair chunk of meat and I didn't feel bad for skipping the parts with a lot of bones. I also loved the side ingredients too. The clams, shrimps and crabs looked small as compared to the fish but they were of decent size and super fresh. I particularly loved the think slices of lotus root, which was prime at this time of the year, with almost sweet taste and a pleasant grainy texture. Just as we were finishing everything, we ordered some plain rice noodles and poured that into the big plate so the noodles could take up the flavorful sauce - we all managed to have a big bowl of those each with the remaining fish and vegetables.

I couldn't believe we actually had rooms for dessert after we emptied the giant plate but we chowed down a dozen of pumpkin glutinous rice cakes in no time - it was sweet and delicious. This is just the beginning of 2 day's non-stop eating in this "village of fish and rice", and one of the many meals we were blessed with.

When? November 7 2015
Where? Jiao Hua Farmhouse 照華農莊 - 廣東省佛山市顺德區容桂镇西堤一路
Menu Highlights? House Special Steamed Big-head Fish
Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut Champagne NV
2013 First Creek Winemaker's Reserve Hunter Valley Shiraz
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Margaret River Sauvignon Blanc

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