Shenzhen, New Destination for Foodies?
In the summer of 2019 I had an amazing opportunity to visit Southern China, because I had applied to teach children in this tiny town called Chenghai, near Shantou. There I met other volunteers from the UK, USA and Poland. Anyway, we were having the time of our lives but at times of complete exhaustion we started thinking about our travels after leaving the warehouse, the compound, the toy factory a.k.a. our accommodation...yes we lived in a warehouse/ toy factory for nearly two months and loved it ! Quite a few people decided to go to Guilin in Guangxi province near the border of Vietnam. Others decided to tour a few bigger cities together, but I thought - you know what, I’m probably going to miss home and will be sick of these guys by the end of this experience, so I’m going to travel alone for a few days. I was very wrong. I started to miss them right after we seperated.
To be honest I felt like I was going to be very lonely and because I didn’t really know what to expect from Shenzhen, I put myself in a miserable mood. Just a quick three hour train journey and I arrived in Shenzhen. I took a taxi to my hotel called ‘Idea Jar Hotel’, which was very central and cheap, and as I later found out - right next to Huaqianbei - the biggest electronics market in the world. It was impressive but like most things in China - confusing. Wires, LED lights, SD cards lying about.. all that in a couple of massive shopping centre-like buildings with at least five floors each. It was interesting to just roam around for a bit and buy electronics I really didn’t need.
As soon as I walked in the hotel, I felt like I was in a library, there were books everywhere. It was quite modern and very cute, although stuffed animals everywhere you look might come off as creepy for some people. Also, there was a gaming computer in every single guest room. It was a strange place. The aircon in my room was broken and at first I didn’t think it would be a big deal, but I woke up covered in mosquito bites. When you travel to a humid and warm place - you really do need a room with a working aircon, also the mosquitoes got to me during the night. It wasn’t fun. Woke up the next morning crazy hungry and I decided I need some fresh local fruit, which are way beyond cheap, pints of bubble tea and some great food. At first I was slightly worried about the food available, because before Shenzhen, I was used to seeing all these tiny family businesses, these “restaurants” that were quite run down but the food was immense. Shenzhen is something completely different than that with most food places being inside shopping centres or actual sit-down and pay loads of money restaurants. Obviously, I avoided the proper restaurants and decided to have my meals in a shopping centre near the hotel, and a Fashion Wholesale Market I accidentally found. Good decisions were made. Never thought I’d say this but I’ve had few of the best meals ever in a shopping centre in Shenzhen.
To back it up a little, Shenzhen is not known for an amazing food scene, but after being there and having amazing food every day I beg to differ. Geographically Shenzhen is located between Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Hong Kong is great for when you want a mixture between Western and Chinese food. Also, apparently it is worth it to find a place where they serve bubble waffles with ice-cream. Guangzhou however, is considered one of the Meccas for great food in China. Traditional Cantonese flavours are truly something else. Now, I found that Shenzhen food is something between very traditional Cantonese food and modern elements that come from Hong Kong. I have never been to Hong Kong, but I have heard many things about it’s food, one of them being - it’s super westernized whilst holding it’s Chinese origins. You can see that in Shenzhen, but not in dishes as much as in just food shops where you can buy actual milk (not powdered) and actual ice-cream that has not got beans in it..yes the Chinese put beans in ice cream. Although, there is one exception and that is a durian pizza, which was advertised everywhere in the shopping centre and outside of it. I genuinely can’t stand the smell of durian, so I didn’t try it but not trying it honestly might be one of the biggest regrets of my life.
As I mentioned before, I didn’t really have the best time in Shenzhen because I missed my friends from Chenghai and I felt like there was not much to do in Shenzhen. But now that I look back at it, I was wrong, classic case of FOMO! I visited the biggest electronics market in the world, I climbed Wu Tong mountain which took about 5 to 6 hours, it was so much fun and the view at the top was amazing. I saw the impressive Shenzhen port, one of the busiest ones in the world. And I did spend a day in the amazing Junma Fashion Wholesale market, where honestly all the food looked beyond fantastic and tasted great. The Wholesale market felt like a rabbithole - there was no visible end to it, but the further you go the cheaper the clothes get, the bigger the food variety and more the people.
The food really made my Shenzhen trip. Shenzhen food tastes very spicy, but also sour and sweet. And who does not like to taste all these different flavours in one single dish. But the weird thing is - everything was exactly that; sweet, sour, spicy, flavours and perfectly cooked. The food was always something strange, something you wouldn’t ever put together or it was super simplistic. I sent a picture to my friend in which there was this ‘shopping centre’ dish and her response was: ‘what am I even looking at?’ I’ll leave a picture with this egg, tomato, fried chicken, noodle marinated potato and carrot salad with some beef on the side dish. But it’s more than that, it’s the spices they use and the variety of techniques when cooking. This reminds me of the first ‘shopping centre’ meal I had and I just didn’t know what I was eating whatsoever. There were noodles, some meatballs, some potatoes and spring onion...the rest of it, no idea. But that is what I love about the strange Shenzhen food, whatever it is - it tastes insane! The food in the Junma Wholesale market was more traditional than ‘shopping centre’ food, therefore more simplistic. At least I knew what I was eating. I spent so much time in the Wholesale Market, I ended up having four meals in 7 hours and I do not regret it. The only thing I regret about that day was not knowing how strong wasabi is in China. I had some amazing sushi with the most colourful toppings, and I put a decent amount of wasabi on each and every one of them, but even the smallest amount made me tear up. At least I had a reason to get my tenth bubble tea of the day, without feeling bad about it. Although the amount of sugar consumed may have knocked a couple of years off my life.
When thinking about China, Shenzhen does not really come up as an amazing place for food, but it really should. Shenzhen does not have this one popular signature dish like Beijing duck, Chengdu hotpot or Lanzhou noodles...although, something might have changed in a year and the durian pizza might have conquered peoples hearts. The food that you can get in Shenzhen will never disappoint you. The lack of ‘Chineseness,’ the surroundings, the prices of accommodation might disappoint you, but the food in Shenzhen and how cheap it is never will. I think Shenzhen should be put on the map for amazing food along with massive cities like Guangzhou, Xiamen, Hangzhou and Beijing.