Eating a la cart in Guangzhou

Crowds flock to celebrate the social ritual of eating and drinking tea in Guangzhou, in search of the holy grail of yum cha.

Australia's favourite food blogger Not Quite Nigella, aka Lorraine Elliott, indulges in a local smorgasbord. 

There's a complaint often heard about politicians: they hold too much power. And in some countries, they choose to exercise this in curious ways. When Chairman Mao took to power, he abolished the ritual of yum cha as it was deemed too capitalist and not in keeping with the country's newly adopted communist strategy. The social ritual of eating and drinking tea only resumed in 1976 after his passing.

Panxi, meaning "by the river", is a 1,000 seater, 10 square kilometre restaurant famous for its yum cha. Given the size, it's almost as big as a small town. Indeed, it has the same sorts of issues as a large city. A man sits at a table yelling at staff about his order. His protests are loud and attract the attention of those around him, who look up from their bowls of food and turn away from conversations to regard his outburst.

The last time I was here a waitress whispered to me to look after my bag and to be on the lookout for pickpockets. And on the same occasion as we were exiting, a journalist from our group grabbed a packet of tissues to wipe her hands. She was yelled at by four staff members. Which makes our little encounter with security at the end of the meal an echo of prophecy.

Graph for Eating a la cart in Guangzhou

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Panxi is located at the Western City Gate in the old town (that is, the Chinatown of China). They have several yum cha seatings a day (7-10am, 11am-2pm, 3-5pm, 6-9pm, 9pm-midnight). The restaurant caters to a mostly Chinese clientele.

There is a small yum cha menu in English but this shorter than the 70-plus item Chinese version that will later cause an international incident.  If non-Chinese speakers want to use the trolley system (the look-and-choose system) then the best times to go are outside of lunch and dinner times when the trolleys will roam one of the over ten dining rooms. Servers fetch dishes for large orders from the main kitchen. For smaller orders like ours, they go to the outdoor kitchen. I notice on the menu that there is apparently a special peacock dinner available. Yes, it's actual peacock.

We order with the help of our guide Hobbie who goes through the Chinese menu with us. What we end up learning is that a lot of the yum cha offerings available in Sydney are similar to what is available here.

The food comes out quickly and we start in on the dumplings. Topped with a single prawn, the siu mai are fresh, bouncy and delicious. The last bite with a touch of salty roe is perfect, and I reach for another.

The shallot pancakes here are swirled and a little thick and dry. I took one bite and mostly left this.

The mapo tofu is a deep bowl filled with soft tofu and a deeply flavoured chilli, garlic and ginger sauce. It's gingery and hot and slips down the throat like silk.

Graph for Eating a la cart in Guangzhou

Everything is looking quite similar to the offerings we get in Australia and the chicken's feet is an interesting one because it has such a noticeably sweet sauce. The chicken's feet are soft and the flesh and skin eases off the bone easily.

As we leave, our guide Hobbie passes us a few of the paper menus for us-they're single sheets of paper that customers fill in with the details of what we want. But before we know it, a server comes over to us and snatches them out of our hands. Then security is called and discussion about the menus lasts for about ten minutes.

We finally extricate ourselves from the firm grasp of security and leave the restaurant and walk to Fengshuiji (Feng Shui Bridge). As we recover from our brush with security we pass a man who ambles down the road carrying his bird in a cage. He's taking it for a walk. We giggle and he smiles and poses for photos. Of course and only in China.

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