Cantonese Cuisine

Cantonese cuisine originates from the region around Canton in southern China’s Guangdong province.

There is a Cantonese saying: “We eat everything on the ground with four legs except tables and chairs. We eat everything in the sky except airplanes.” [1] Cantonese cuisine includes almost all edible food in addition to the staples of pork, beef and chicken — snakes, snails, insects, worms, chicken feet, duck tongues, ox genitals, and entrails. A subject of controversy amongst Westerners, dogs are raised as food in some places in China, though this is not a common food you find in restaurants, and is illegal in Hong Kong and will soon be in Taiwan.

Despite the countless Cantonese cooking methods, steaming, stir frying and deep frying are the most popular cooking methods in restaurants due to the short cooking time, and philosophy of bringing out the flavor of the freshest ingredients.

Elements of Cooking:

Spices
Cantonese cuisine can be characterized by the use of very mild and simple spices in combination. Ginger, spring onion, sugar, salt, soy sauce, rice wine, corn starch and oil are sufficient for most Cantonese cooking. Garlic is used heavily in dishes especially with internal organs that have unpleasant odors, such as entrails. Five spices powder, white pepper powder and many other spices are used in Cantonese dishes, but usually very lightly. Cantonese cuisine is sometimes considered bland by Westerners used to thicker, richer and darker sauces of other Chinese cuisines.

Freshness
Spicy hot dishes are extremely rare in Cantonese cuisine. Spicy hot food is more common in very hot climates, such as those of Szechuan, Thailand, etc. where food spoils easily. Canton has the richest food resources in China in terms of agriculture and aquaculture. The copious amount of fresh food and mild weather allows Cantonese cuisine the bring out, rather than drown out, natural flavors.
As an example of the high standard for freshness in Cantonese meals, cows and pigs used for meat are usually killed earlier the same day. Chickens are often killed just hours beforehand, and fish are displayed in tanks for customers to choose for immediate preparation. It is not unusual for a waiter at a Cantonese restaurant to bring the live flipping fish or the crawling lobster to the table to show the patron as proof of freshness before cooking.

Seafood
Due to Guangdong’s proximity to the southern coast of China, fresh live seafood is a specialty in Cantonese cuisine. In the Cantonese viewpoint, strong spices are added only to stale seafood to cover the rotting odor. The freshest seafood is odorless, and is best cooked by steaming. For instance, only a small amounts of soy sauce, ginger, and spring onion is added to a steamed fish. The light seasoning is used only to bring out the natural sweetness of the seafood. However, most restaurants gladly get rid of their stale seafood inventory by offering dishes loaded with garlic and spices. As a rule of thumb in Cantonese dining, the spiciness of a dish is usually inversely proportional to the freshness of the ingredients.

Soup
Another unique Cantonese specialty is slow cooked soup. This is almost unheard of in any other Chinese cuisines. The soup is usually a clear broth prepared by simmering meat and other ingredients for several hours. Sometimes, Chinese herbal medicines are added to the pot. The ingredients of a rather expensive Cantonese slow cooked soup are: fresh whole chicken, dried air bladder of cod fish, dried sea cucumber and dried abalone. Another more affordable example includes pork bones, watercress with two types of almonds, etc. The combinations are varied and numerous.
The main attraction is the liquid in the pot, the solids are usually thrown away unless they are expensive ingredients like abalones or shark fins. A whole chicken may simmer in a broth for six hours or longer. The solids are usually unpalatable but the essences are all in the liquid. Traditional Cantonese families have this type of soup at least once a week. Though in this day and age, many families cannot afford this tradition due to the long preparation time required. For the same reason, not many restaurants serve this type of soup either. Even if they do, it can only be served as soupe du jour.

Preserved food
Though Cantonese cooks pay much attention to the freshness of their cooking ingredients, Cantonese cooking also uses a long list of preserved food items. Some items gain very intense flavors during the drying/aging/preservation/oxidation process, similar to Italian style sun-dried tomatoes’ intensified flavor from drying. Some chefs combine both dried and fresh variety of the same items in a dish to create a contrast in the taste and texture. Dried items are usually soaked in water to rehydrate them before cooking, such as mushrooms. Or they are cooked with water over long hours until they are tender and juicy. For example, dried abalone and dried scallop have much stronger flavors than the fresh one without the undesirable strong fishy odor. Not only do preserved foods have a longer shelf life, sometimes the dried foods are preferred over the fresh ones because of their uniquely intense flavor or texture. Some favorite dried/preserved food products include:
Dried Shiitake mushroom
Dried abalone
Dried scallop
Dried sea cucumber
Dried air bladder from various fishes
Dried shrimp
Dried shark fin
Dried bird nest
Dried Bok Choy – a kind of chinese green vegetable
Pickled Bok Choy
Pickled raddish
Fu Yu – Salted and fermented tofu
Salted preserved fish
Salted preserved duck
Salted preserved pork
Salted egg – preserved in brine until the egg white turned watery and the yolk turned solid
Thousand year old egg – preserved in lime until the egg white turned gelatinous and dark brown, the yolk dark green
various dried fruits, herbs and flowers, etc.

Sample Dishes
Some notable Cantonese dishes include:
Dim Sum – (literally touch of heart), small dishes served with tea usually at lunch
Shrimp wonton noodle soup
Char shiu – BBQ pork usually with a red outer coloring
Braised squabs
Thick rice porridge with various toppings and deep-fried breadsticks
Pork rind curry
Dace fish balls
Steamed fish
Steamed fish intestines
Salted preserved fish
Steamed chicken
Slow cooked soups
Shark fin soup
Braised dried abalone
Herbal turtoise gelatin
Various steamed desserts and sweet soups
Steamed shrimp dumplings (har gow)
Lo mein – noodles served a unique way

Other favorites with unique Cantonese style:
Roasted suckling pig
Roasted duck
Braised crispy chicken
Soy sauce chicken
Beef entrails
Beef stew
Hot pot
Pan-fried crispy noodles – two sides brown fried egg noodles
Black tea with condensed milk
Various dessert drinks served with shaved ice

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