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Food and Drink

It can take quite some while for expat newcomers to get acclimatized to their new host town of Guangzhou. Our local contributor offers valuable tips to help you make heads and tails of life in this southern Chinese megalopolis.

The Three Essentials

Coffee, chocolate, cheese. All three essentials can be found in Guangzhou if you look in the right places.

Starbucks is the main foreign coffee chain in town and there are over a 1000 branches in China. More and more cute and appealing independent cafes are opening, and they all are recognizable to European tastes, with menus in English and a tantalizing range of tasty treats. The prices tend to be Western and sometimes even higher, something Starbucks has been officially criticized for. On the other hand, Starbucks is the only café I’ve found so far with soy milk. Be prepared to enunciate the word “tall” very clearly as to Chinese people it sounds like “two” and it can result in unexpected extra coffees.

If you want coffee at home (which you will if you are trying to save money), you can buy beans and ground coffee from some cafes, most supermarkets in the areas foreigners live and the big mauls. Cheaper options can be found at IKEA, if you like imported Swedish coffee. Chocolate is somewhat behind in the conquest of China. You can give Dove chocolate bars in most branches of the convenience store, Family Mart, and a wider selection in big supermarkets like Aeon and Metro. However, being imported, it’s expensive, so this might be a good time to wean yourself off your cocoa addiction.

Cheese is even harder to come by and even more expensive. Specialist import shops catering to foreigners, such as Share Foods, will feature cheddar from New Zealand but at a high cost. It’s worth the taxi ride to Metro to buy a much bigger slab of cheese, which you can slice up and freeze. Yes, I discovered in China that you can freeze cheese.

To Eat Meat Or Not To Eat Meat

Living in Guangzhou has suddenly converted me into a Vegetarian. The first test of my carnivore habits was travelling into the town centre and seeing pigs and then ducks packed tightly into a poorly maintained van, rocking and reeling as it cruised down the highway. Such sights used to be common in Europe twenty years ago until consumer outcry forced meat producers to be a lot more discreet.

The next chapter in my transformation was visiting a nearby Wet Market: the local peoples' fresh produce market. Here you will find chickens squawking angrily, feathers flying; turtles in bubbling baths nodding their heads sadly; and, the saddest of all, the many shallow tubs crammed full of gulping fish that are layered in so densely they lay flattened on their sides. I have managed to avoid seeing chickens killed but have seen many a fresh, flapping plastic bag with the slowly drowning fish inside.  

There are the other classic market scenes of bowls of insects, deep fried and freshly stir-fried; more piles of dried and desiccated carcasses than I ever thought I would see; fish head soup; entire glazed ducks hanging in restaurant windows. Gagging is a common reflex now.

The stereotypical summary of all of this is: Chinese people eat anything that swims, crawls, wriggles, walks and flies. Seeing turtles served from an icebox at a local football game seems to confirm this. However, there is an honesty about eating meat that we in the West prefer to hide behind cellophane, packaging, pretty pictures and processing euphemisms. I grew up hardly able to connect a pork chop with a farmyard pig. Here you deal with the blood and death and guts yourself. Well, not me.


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Sean Henderson

"Looking for an appartment on InterNations, I met the expat community in Canton. Now I am sharing a house with another member."

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