When people think about Chinese food they are more than likely thinking of Cantonese cuisine.
China is one of the largest countries in the world with over one billion people and their food varies greatly depending on the region; however, what most people know of as Chinese food is actually Cantonese cuisine. If you are ever in China, do not be surprised if the food you are offered is very different from what you are accustomed to.
Just make sure to ask around for a good Cantonese restaurant to find food that looks more familiar. Traditional Cantonese cuisine is very different from westernized Chinese food. True Cantonese cuisine comes from centuries of culture and tradition deeply rooted in honouring the ingredients.
Cantonese cuisine comes from the Cantonese culture largely found to the south of China in the Guangdong province. Cantonese culture is a subset of Chinese culture known for the Cantonese language and cooking style. Cantonese people were some of the first Chinese to emigrate to other parts of the world such as Europe and North America.
Many of these immigrants started Chinese restaurants. Chinese food is very adaptable and can be readily adjusted to the new environment, using the ingredients available and incorporating local tastes. As a result it became a comfort food known around the world.
Cantonese food is characterized by sweet and mild flavours, focusing on a taste that is mild, fresh and natural. A wide range of meats is used, from the usual ones such as pork and chicken to the more exotic, such as snake. The most popular cooking techniques are steaming and stir frying.
Balance is key; greasy, oily foods are generally avoided. Spices are used in moderation to avoid overpowering the taste of the main ingredient. As with most haute cuisines, quality of ingredients and freshness of product are central to preparing the best dishes.
Minimally use is made of fresh herbs, scallions and coriander being the exception to this rule. Many of the most popular Chinese sauces are prominently used in Cantonese cooking, such as oyster sauce, sweet and sour sauce and hoisin sauce. Many of these are used as glaze for barbecue. The lack of strong flavours is used to show up the freshness of the ingredients, such as seafood.
As a coastal part of China and with access to the Pearl River, the Cantonese traditionally have fresh seafood. Furthermore this part of China has good rain-fall and temperatures which are conducive to good quality produce. They take advantage of this by highlighting the fish instead of masking it with strong flavours. Ironically, Chinese food in the rest of the world has its basis in Cantonese cooking, but has been adapted to be oily comfort food overloaded with flavour, very different from the original.
The best way to get to know a cuisine is to know the dishes. The following are a few typical Cantonese cuisine dishes that are a great place to start.
This dish uses a Chinese barbecue technique. The Char Siu sauce has hoisin sauce and soy sauce as a base and other spices and sauces are incorporated in it. Next the sauce is lathered on top, the meat is marinated, and then roasted. Generally speaking it is made with pork, but the same sauce can be used on other meats. The meat is usually red on the outside because of the sauce and a perfect, fully cooked white on the inside. This dish has a sweet and salty fla-vour and is sticky on the outside.
Char Siu is usually paired with a simple bowl of white rice so as not to detract from the flavour of the meat. The meat is also used in the steamed buns called, bao.
Cantonese steamed fish is an incredibly common and important dish. It may seem simple, but it requires subtlety and restraint. Many cultures make steamed fish; however this dish epitomizes the hallmarks of good Cantonese cuisine, using fresh, natural flavours with an emphasis on showcasing the product at its best.
The fish should be fresh, served whole and steamed to perfection with a very simple combination of soy sauce, ginger, scallions and cilantro.
Extra care must be taken to make sure that the fish is not overcooked and the sauce must compliment the fish, never overpower it.
The idea is to highlight the freshness of the fish. Steamed fish is always served at major events such as weddings.
BEEF CHOW FUN
This meal is made of wide rice noodles and beef. It should be stir fried in a wok and eventually all mixed together with soy sauce, ginger and scallions. Again, in its purest form everything should be tenderly cooked.
The dish should not be oily or saturated in sauce. It should be coated with just enough sauce to bring out the flavour of the noodles and the beef.
This dish can be a test of the chefs cooking ability, not only balancing the fla-vours, but also the noodles and the beef.
SWEET AND SOUR PORK
Sweet and sour pork is a very common take-away dish at Chinese restaurants. It is a scrumptious meal that everyone appreciates. The pseudo-Chinese ver- sion is a bright, sweet, red sauce that is poured over everything. At its best, this dish is well balanced with both sweet and sour coming through and just a sticky coating on lightly battered, crispy meat. Sweet and sour sauce can also be used as a dipping sauce, made with vinegar and a sweetening agent. Tradi-tionally, preserved plums were used; today sugar or honey is substituted.
RED BEAN SOUP
This is actually a dessert soup made from red beans. The beans should be boiled until they have broken down, creating the soup. There should be a sweetness to the dish. In addition there should be some texture without being lumpy, almost a sandy quality. It is very common to have this dish served at the end of banquet meals, the perfect end to a fantastic meal.
Dim sum is a style of Chinese cuisine that comes out of Cantonese cuisine. It comprises small portions of different types of food, creating a whole meal. Traditionally it was served with tea, similar to a tea-time brunch. The beauty of dim sum is that it allows people to try several different things instead of committing to one big dish, especially appropriate if the group is large.
Everyone is able to choose different foods. There are many different types of dim sum. There are dumplings, buns, rolls, soups, cakes and desserts all rang-ing in vegetables, meats and preparations. Going to a dim sum restaurant can be unique dining experience because there can be an overwhelming range of foods to choose from.
This style of dining is common throughout China, but is known as a Cantonese style. In recent years it has also gained popularity around the world. Here are five common dim sum dishes for you to try when you visit:
These are buns with different types of fillings. The most famous filling is the char siu pork bao.
One the most common dim sum dishes, it is a steamed dish with a thin wrap-per encasing ground pork.
An Asian-styled rice porridge. This dish can also come with various meats and vegetables.
BLACK CHICKEN FEET
Chicken feet cooked in black bean sauce until they are tender and sticky.
A dessert dim sum, these flaky tart pastries are filled with a sweet custard.
*Chinese food is a blanket term used, but the food itself is incredibly regional. Cantonese cuisine is a large portion of the ‘Chinese food’ known to the rest of the world, unfortunately it is only a shadow of real Cantonese cuisine. It is the type of food that is very dependent on freshness. However, Cantonese cooking can be very varied.
Understanding the difference can give an appreciation for the different levels of Asian cuisines. It may be a different way of thinking about food, however with an open mind Cantonese cuisine is absolutely delectable.
If you are ever given the opportunity to visit Guangdong make sure to try as many different dishes and dining experiences as possible.