Wednesday, April 11, 2007

abalone in zhuhai

zhuhai (珠海) literally means "pearl sea" and is located on the pearl river delta. it borders macau and is 140km southwest of guangzhou. it was designated as a special economic zone in 1980 and its outstanding geographical location and deep-water port serve as an attractive location for foreign capital. at least that's what wikipedia says. my parents sold the idea of a long weekend in zhuhai to me somewhat differently.

their sales pitch involved, among other things, full body massages, budget shopping and loads of food and dim sum (my parents know me well), and travelling there couldn't be simpler - one merely needed to walk across the border from macau via the gongbei customs. The focus of my dad's pitch however was one main thing: abalone.

for the uninitiated, this is what fresh raw abalone looks like. not entirely a thing of beauty, but neither were the many other types of wierd and wonderful sea creatures being plied on the zhuhai city curved young (wanzhai) seafood street (literally translated from 珠海弯仔海鲜街). at one end of the pedestranised street was a bevy of oyster shucking women in black rubber boots, at the other, a myriad of traders selling dried salted fish and sharks fin. in between, the turf was occupied by gutsy fishmongers plying their sea creatures on wooden tables. once you got over the sensory deluge of the rousing tones of fierce trade negotiation and the tables of frankly rather strange looking sea creatures, getting your seafood was a rather straightforward affair: go up to any fishmonger whose goods take your fancy, decide how much you want to pay having done a brief round of market research on the day's prices, and begin a firm and fast paced negotiation which may or may not sound like it is about to erupt into fisticuffs. this isn't a market for wimps. my dad is probably one of the best bargainers i know, and his bargaining powress served us very well. once you've bought the creatures, you will be attacked by one of the restaurant vultures who will draw you into letting their establishment cook your purchases with promises of free soup and desert.

the seafood street market isn't tsukiji or billingsgate, but it does have a charm of its own. zhuhai's proximity to the fish farms means that the fish sold were all locally sourced. buying your purchases alive meant that it couldn't get much fresher. however, it also meant that your purchases might decide to plot their escape by jumping out of the bag. while we weren't given the run by any sly shrimp, i did get peed on by a mollusc.

if you've managed to survive all that, the meal is an absolute pleasure. when asked how some of the more unusual sea creatures should be cooked, suggestions were usually made along two lines: steamed with scallions and soya sauce, or stir fried with black beans. not entirely michelin star creativity. but when seafood is as fresh as we got, it should be cooked simply. and we were fortunate that the chefs who did our sea creatures did a fantastic job with our meals.

we started with free soup as promised. the pork rib and corn broth had been simmered for hours and the corn gave a sweetness to the meaty broth. first up was deep fried white bait. it was served straight out of the wok and was light and crunchy with a good amount of spicy heat from its sheer flour and curry powder coat and the sprinkling of deep fried chillies.

steamed prawns were next. i think prawns should always be eaten this way - fresh, steamed, and with a soy/chilli dip to counteract the sweetness of the prawns.

this was followed in close succession by steamed turbot with scallion oil. the fish was so fresh and sweet it flaked easily off the bones. the light dressing of oil added to the smooth glide of the fish which disappeared down into our tummies with much ease.

the third course was an omelette of bamboo clams in a light oyster/soy sauce dressing. though a little on the salty side, the chewiness of the bamboo clams went well with the soft savoriness the fried egg.

finally, the two star shellfish of the day - the scallops and the abalone. we had requested that they be cooked the same way, and they were brought to us, steamed with a light paste of garlic, sesame oil, scallions and chinese chives. what did surprise me was that they served them beneath a bed of mungbean noodles. eating my way through the dish, i soon realised why. the sweetness of the scallops and the abalone were complemented nicely by the savouriness of the garlic oil, but as the garlic oil dribbled its way through the bed of mungbean noodles into the shellfish, the transparency of the noodles took on the full flavour of the garlic oil and chives, and it brought the noodles to a whole different level, not entirely unlike very well made spaghetti aglio e olio.

we returned again the day later for dinner and decided to try a different restaurant. we picked one that had a penchant for serving up everything on paper doillies. it was along the same lines as our lunch the day before and it was just as delicious. we did also order a serve of scallion pancakes, also served on a paper doilly. i interrupted my meal halfway to go out into the street to watch this man perform what looked like surgery on a shark. his customer had ordered a fillet, and the man simply took his cleaver and made a cut round the circumference of the shark, taking care not to cut through the stomach, and voila, pulled off a fillet for his customer while keeping the stomach whole. not often you see the man at the waitrose fish counter do a manouvere like that.

zhuhai isn't glamourous, though i'm sure if one so desired, one could seek out being spoiled rotten at one of the luxury hotels catered for the tourist and expense account dollar, though i'm not sure why you'd want to. my parents and i went to local stores, local cafes and my long suffering parents were even kind enough to come with me to a rather industrial looking part of town in my quest for a poul christiansen le klint reproduction. we met some rather pleasant locals, including the young proprietress of a tea store who charmed us with giving into our many requests for tastings and entertained us with her rather comprehensive knowledge of tea and its various traditions, and a really sweet lady who gave us directions to the aforementioned industrial bit of town. we're planning to return there as a complete chia unit sometime this summer for dad's birthday, and this time round, i'm starving myself for a month before i go.


Blogger leymondcha said...

It's so fun to read about your adventures! Gosh, your reviews are SO POSH!! :D

Wouldn't be out of place in some posh magazine, heh...

Am I missing something- peed on by a mollusc???

6:26 AM  
Blogger Lyndis said...


Loved this post. Wow - zhuhai is so off the beaten track eh? reminds me of Pusan in Korea.

And scallions is... cong1?

I had to check up the non-Brit equivalent of mungbean... is it the green bean? what are green bean noodles??

10:59 PM  
Blogger the guvnor said...

hihi!!!my goodness! i didn't even realise people could put comments on this post until Ley told me so. v suakoo. mungbean noodles are tunghoon. scallions are cong1. and hurrah - i finally have internet access after a very long battle with the manufacturers of the router, so hopefully will be more consistent at this blogging thing cos now i can write inane food blogs while sitting in the garden with george.heh. and yes - the stupid shellfish peed on me while i was taking its picture. screamed and stepped on my dad's foot which he wasnt pleased about cos he almost dropped the bag of abalones he was carrying.


7:09 AM  

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