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Why Foodies are Flocking to This Southern Chinese City

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There’s a good reason why Chinese food lovers have been making excursions to Shunde.

Located in China’s Guangdong province, the southern “city” is the sixth in the world to be awarded as one of UNESCO’s Cities of Gastronomy. It’s also an important origin for China’s most popular cuisine overseas: Cantonese food.

(Technically, Shunde is now a district of the city of Foshan, but many still refer to the area as a city in its own right and the locals are keen to stress their unique local identity.)

In recent years, Shunde has piqued the interest of young foodies such as 28-year-old Shanghai resident Joice Wang, who went on a dedicated three-day food tour of the city with her best friend during last year’s October National Holiday. “The food was absolutely amazing, no matter which restaurant we went to,” she recalls. “The vibe of the city was also quite down-to-earth, and everything was pretty affordable.”

shunde city street guangdong

But why are Chinese people suddenly interested in this food destination, which eaters overseas might not have even heard of?

Food on Film

Prior to 2016, unless you had extraordinary local food knowledge, you probably would only know Shunde as another small-ish city in China — if at all. 

But that year a video about the city’s culinary scene — produced by the core team behind the hit Chinese-language foodie doc A Bite of Chinabecame the most viewed food documentary in China quickly after its release.

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On Douban, China’s book and film rating site known for its hard-to-please commenters, A Bite of Shunde has received a startlingly high score of 9 out of 10.

“Food porn,” writes the most upvoted user comment simply. “I want to become a ‘Shunder’ in my next life.”

The groundbreaking three-episode documentary tells compelling stories of more than 30 Shunde residents through the lens of over a hundred dishes. It earned praise for providing a rare and well-researched glimpse into the city’s gastronomic and cultural heritage that wouldn’t have otherwise reached the public eye.

​The success of these documentaries helped fuel a renewed interest in gastronomic tourism. After A Bite of China’s Season 2 was aired in 2014, travel agencies across China launched over 100 new food tours, and regional dishes featured in the show received an increased amount of attention from both netizens and the media.​

34-year-old Siqin Pan, who has been running a youth hostel in Shunde since 2016, has witnessed the documentaries bringing a “phenomenal number” of tourists to the city for food tourism. “At least 80% of guests at our hostel come to Shunde for the food,” she says.

What is Shunde Famous For?

People might fly to Chicago to try deep-dish pizza at the source, or Philadelphia for its cheese steaks. But there isn’t actually one dish that Shunde gets its fame for — which is part of why the city is so remarkable. Local and visiting foodies attest that most dishes they try there are dazzling, even when made at the most humble-looking restaurant by an unknown chef.

Should you visit the city, however, there are a few items we’d recommend trying.

First, there’s congee. Sure, overcooked rice might sound a bit boring at first, but give this dish a chance. The congee you find in Shunde has a wide offering of crispy meat that is cooked to an exact temperature — including slices of chicken breast, fish filets, and pork offal (if you want to eat like a local).

A fun fact: local grandpas will wake up early and gather at their neighborhood congee eatery. They might sip traditional pork offal congee along with special baijiu — a potent type of Chinese fermented liquor — and brag about the most memorably stupid things that they’ve done in their lives. The tradition is so established that owners of the restaurants are often kind enough to save the gradnpas’ left over baijiu for the next day — how homey!

Second, you must try Shunde sashimi. If your knowledge of sashimi is only limited to Japanese diners, we don’t blame you. But while Japan’s version is undoubtedly more famous, Shunde’s take on the raw fish dish is actually believed to predate it.

Related:

Chinese Takeout: The Surprising South Chinese Origins of Sashimi

Thirdly, we recommend a dessert called “double-skin milk.” While boba tea enjoys fame all over the world, double-skin milk is its low-profile cousin, yet still a classic in the pantheon of Chinese desserts.

Invented in Shunde, the dish is made with milk, egg whites, and sugar prepared to a creamy, delightful consistency, and then eaten with a spoon.  Interestingly, double-skin milk became one of the go-to recipes for aspiring chefs to try at home while China was under lockdown at the beginning of pandemic in 2020.

Shunde Chefs

Ever wonder what it’s like to be spoiled by a city where everyone is a chef? There is an old Chinese saying that goes, “Guangzhou is for eating, Shunde is for chefs” (“吃在广州,厨出凤城”). That’s because Shunde is actually best known for producing some of the best Cantonese cuisine cooks out there.

“Almost every Shunder is a gifted chef — that’s no exaggeration,” says Pan.

“I think the reason why Shunde is home to so many of them has to do with its abundance of resources,” she adds. “Historically, its unique agricultural ecosystem has provided the locals with fresh ingredients and inspirations for fine cooking recipes and techniques.”

Among the most acclaimed skills that Shunde chefs have is a cutting technique that can clean out all the bones from a fish in a very short period of time. A perfectly steamed fish is another thing that master chefs take pride in — a testament to how precisely they understand the ingredients, as well as can carefully manipulate both heat and air.

In the wake of food documentaries such as A Bite of China, a growing appetite for food tourism — plus a storied food scene with many, many local chefs — have made food lovers such as Wang eager to become repeat offenders in Shunde.

“It truly was a foodie heaven,” she recalls of her trip. “I would definitely go again if I have the chance.”

All images: Siyuan Meng

Siyuan Meng
    Born and raised in Shaoxing, Siyuan lived in New York and Los Angeles prior to Shanghai. If she is not at work, she is probably at an art museum, a gym, a Mom-and-Pop restaurant or a park. She likes reading books or playing the piano on rainy days. She thinks she takes great photos.