Savoring Chaoshan

Technology | Katie Hung in Chaoshan, China 12 Jun 2019

Chaoshan, a region in the east of Guangdong province primarily referring to cities of Chaozhou, Jieyang and Shantou, perhaps isn't one of the best-known tourist destinations in China. But it's a hidden gem for gourmets fond of regional Chinese fare.

It's said the Chaoshan people are particular about beef with assorted selections of precise cuts available for hotpot, which is popular even during summer. The hotpot restaurants are all over the town, and I ended up trying the whole beef hot pot feast at the Fu He Cheng.

The beef is all hand-cut as you can see the butcher cutting the raw meat into thin slices through the window at the front of the restaurant.

Apart from the marbling chuck eye roast slices we usually have in Hong Kong for hotpot, some rarely-seen cuts include chunky short ribs, which refers to the part around the cow's upper front arm.

With a tissue in the middle of every slice, the cut stands out with prominent beefy flavors. The texture is firmer though still tender after cooking.

Another uncommon cut is the fat in the brisket, which is actually a whole slice of white fat. The taste is surprisingly not greasy at all, but crisp followed by a full-bodied meaty taste. The eatery is also renowned for beef balls, which are succulent and bouncy, compared to those we can buy in Hong Kong supermarkets.

It came recommended to put the beef slices into the soup base - made with white radish, corn and bones - for only a few seconds until the meat turns pink for the best degree of tenderness. Then to dip it in the Shacha sauce, a Teochew condiment made with ingredients like garlic and dried shrimp, which has a subtle hint of sweetness and goes well with the meat.

To help get rid of the feeling of meaty fullness near the end, put a bit of celery in a bowl (instead of the soup base to not destroy the pure beef flavoring) to enjoy together with the beef slices.

The price of each plate of sliced beef was very reasonable - about 40 yuan (HK$45.41) - compared to Hong Kong, where hotpot restaurants charge from HK$100 to HK$200.

If you're looking for a fancy modern dining experience of Chaozhou cuisine, Han Shang Lou, in Chaozhou, has put a creative twist on some renowned Chinese dishes. Topped with caviar, its roast Peking duck slices, for example, are paired with thin layers of melon, wax apple and spring roll skin, instead of a conventional thin flour crepe.

However, other traditional Chaozhou dishes such as deep-fried bean curd served with salted water dip with scallions, fried fish noodles with bamboo shoots strips, and fried chai tau kueh - the savory cake made of white radish and rice flour - can also be found there.

Meanwhile, dim sum fans can enjoy the causal street food: steamed Chaoshan vermicelli rolls, or what we call cheong fan in Cantonese. Unlike those we have for yum cha - three rolls together in one plate - the Chaoshan's version features one giant roll stuffed with bountiful filling wrapped inside the thin translucent rice sheets, which is slightly more chewy than those Hongkongers are accustomed to.

For supper, I randomly found a simple eatery on the street that serves different flavors from meat to seafood. Topped with dried radish and served with soy sauce, the rolls are cooked to order, priced at about 15 yuan depending on size.

My "all-in-one" flavored roll was stuffed with different kinds of meat and seafood, which was basically oysters and shrimps, along with vegetables like lettuce and mung bean sprouts. The mix of ingredients provides quite a fulfilling mouthful.

You can expect much more than delicacies as the region has historic attractions that are worth a visit.

Xiang Zi Bridge, also known as the Guangji Bridge, in Chaozhou, is acclaimed as one of the top four ancient bridges in China.

The side view of the Song Dynasty-built bridge across the Han River, or Han-jiang in Chinese, is quite impressive with various temple-like pavilions, and wooden boats chained as a floating bridge in the middle.

The bridge is also unique as it combines a beam bridge, arch bridge and pontoon bridge all in one.

The drive from Chaozhou's city center to Shantou's takes about an hour. Stepping into the Old Town of Shantou feels like traveling back in time, where you would get a mixed scene of the East and West.

The Sun Yat-sen Memorial Pavilion stands out in an assortment of broken-down unused architecture of European influences, some of which are included in the first batch of Shantou historic buildings.

There are some small shops opened on the ground floor of those buildings, which is perfect for finding traditional delicacies. Usually served hot, the starchy paste-like sweet soup is very filling.

The waitress at the Man Sheng dessert place told me that its traditional taro paste with gingko is actually fried with lard, which is exceptionally sweet.

Another classic one is the mushy "ginger potatoes," which is a vegetable similar to wild yam. With sugar added, it is mashed and steamed, which is smooth, and tastes like yam puree too. A chewy pick would be the sesame paste-filled rice balls in clear sweet soup. Made of glutinous rice flour, it is chewier and firmer in texture than those Hongkongers are used to having on Chinese Valentine's Day.

If the weather is good, it would be nice to take a stroll around Shantou University, especially with numerous Instagram-friendly spots and meadows on the campus, which is open to the public.

Standing next to a reservoir, one of the popular photogenic points is a sculpture of a gentlemen dressed in suit holding up umbrellas, which was created by renowned artist Ju-ming.

The unmistakable sculpture near the entrance to the library, which is of an adult and child, named Looking up Looking down, by British sculptor Zadok Ben-David, is another hot spot.

It used to take about a five-hour bus ride from Hong Kong to Shantou, but now the High Speed Rail has opened up the region with a roughly three-hour train journey from West Kowloon Station to Chaoshan Station (HK$331 first-class and HK$207 second-class).

It takes another one-hour drive to transfer from the train station to the city center. Although there are public buses and taxi stands next to the station, it's more convenient to book a chartered car if traveling in a group.

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