It wasn’t until I lived on the outskirts of London proper and spent days off looking at architecture and the evenings eating in China town that I learnt that my favourite Chinese dishes dim sum, roasted meats like red hued Char Sui Pork, steamed fish and elegant vegetable dishes are from a specific region of China and its own cuisine Cantonese food. Cantonese food really doesn’t include generic takeaway ‘Sweet and Sour’ which has none of the subtlety and lightness of authentic Cantonese food, although it has the name it often lacks balance and is over sweet, ‘Sweet and Sour’ is a westernisation of China’s most internationally popular style of cooking.
The popularity of Cantonese food is due to the immigration of Chinese people from their native province to America and the west. The Pearl River Delta area of Guangdong province, and the city of Guangzhou, had been opened to trade with the outside world as early as the eighteenth century. Foreign merchants arriving in the region established trading posts and brought along with good to trade and their culinary customs which influenced the region. In return, Chinese natives followed them on their voyages taking their Cantonese food with them.
Cantonese cuisine is all about simple dishes and letting the natural flavours stand out, not like the spice-laden cooking of Sichuan, it just uses the regions abundant natural produce such as seafood, pork, chicken and beef and a few additional flavours. In Cantonese food garlic, ginger, and scallions ( spring onions ) are the key ingredients in almost every dish alongside spices such as chilli, Chinese Five Spice, black pepper and, star anise which are used with much more restraint. Likewise, as well as the almost ubiquitous Soy sauce you may find the sweet Hoisin and plum sauces and salty shrimp paste, oyster sauce and dou chi or salted fermented black beans which need to be used very sparingly.
Dishes are cooked quickly often in a wok which imparts its own distinct flavour or Wok hei, with just a pinch of sugar to bring out the sweetness or a splash of Chinese rice wine vinegar to add the essential Cantonese sour taste. A splash of sesame oil adds a touch of smokiness and a gloss to finished sauces. The ingredients can be shallow fried, stir-fried, steamed, braised or roasted and served with plain boiled or steamed rice or noodles to bulk out the meal.
Classic Cantonese Dishes
Bao zai fan – Little pot rice – Is a dish of rice cooked in a small ceramic casserole dish with a variety of toppings including spare ribs, Chinese sausage, and preserved meats.
Congee – Rice porridge – Often served to children and invalids and as a breakfast staple and can simply be made from rice and water or stock more complicated recipes can include herbs, a sweet version with dates or a more complete meal including Shiitake mushrooms, minced pork and bamboo shoots. Congee is often eaten with intensely flavoured items as fermented tofu or preserved eggs.
Steamed Seafood with Ginger and Garlic – Whole fish such as flounder, scallops and even oysters are steamed with very fine strips of ginger, garlic and a splash of Soy sauce.
Cantonese Fried Chicken – A banquet style recipe for whole chicken. It is poached with aromatics such as star anise, cinnamon, and nutmeg, then dried off and fried without any batter or dredging until the skin is really crisp. The chicken is then chopped up and topped with heaps of fried garlic.
Slow-cooked Soups – are commonplace at banquets but are also consumed for medicinal purposes. Soups are very important for Cantonese people, for instance, a soup of spare ribs with watercress and apricot kernals (nan bei xing xi yang cai zhu gu tang) is also renowned for its cooling effect upon the body.
Dim Sum – At one time dim sum was humble, cheap street food, but now around the world, it is served in palatial dining halls and fabulous restaurants. There are numerous varieties, spring rolls, steamed filled buns, spare ribs, deep-fried squid and sweet custard tarts ( taken from the Portuguese in Macau ) but most people think of dumplings.
siu mai open dumplings, filled with shrimp and pork and topped with crab roe
har gao crescent-shaped dumplings packed with shrimp and pork fat
Teochew with peanuts, garlic, chives, pork, dried shrimp, and Chinese mushrooms
Xiao long bao filled with meat or seafood and rich broth
Char Sui Pork – is a form of Chinese BBQ pork made from a cut such as shoulder or pork belly marinated in a mix of honey, Chinese Five Spice, Dark Soy, Hoisin sauce, rice wine vinegar and red fermented bean curd. Commercial preparations may contain red food colouring and maltose. The marinade gives the pork its characteristic dark red exterior.