What’s Eating China: Exploring the Middle Kingdom’s Eight Main Cuisines

When I first came to China over four years ago, I obliviously thought all Chinese food was the same. Growing up in the U.K., I was given a false presumption about the country’s cuisine. Due to the colonial history between the U.K. and Hong Kong, 95 percent of Chinese restaurants back in the old country are Cantonese. The relative ease of Hong Kongers’ ability to travel, compared with the restrictions of mainlanders, inevitably led to Canton culture stretching much further afield than other Chinese variations.

After travelling within the reaches of China, I came to learn that there are, in fact, eight traditional Chinese cuisines. With the start of the new year, there’s no more perfect time to get educated on the diversity of our home away from home. Now,
go on and wash up. Dinner is served.

We begin this gastronomic adventure in our own back yard where originates arguably the most well-known Chinese cuisine of all: Cantonese style. The capital of Guangdong province, Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton), has long been a trading port and as a result, many imported foods and ingredients are used in Cantonese cooking. Beside pork, beef and chicken, the menu also incorporates almost all edible meats, including offal, feet, tongue, snakes and snails. In contrast to the cuisines of northern or western China, lamb and goat are rarely eaten.

Back to basics
Known as the “Godfather” of Cantonese cooking, world famous chef, Ken Hom OBE, is heavily responsible for exposing much of the globe to Guangdong cuisine and still insists the capital’s food is “Cantonese at its very best!”

Hom explains that many cooking methods are used to prepare Cantonese food, but steaming and stir frying are the most favored, due to convenience and speed. Other techniques include shallow/deep frying, double steaming and braising.

Hom also believes that for many traditional Cantonese cooks, the flavors of a finished dish should be well balanced and not greasy. Apart from that, spices should be used in modest amounts to avoid obscuring the tastes of the primary ingredients, which should be at the peak of their freshness and quality.

In Cantonese cuisine, seafood with repugnant odors is cooked with strong spices, but the freshest seafood is odorless and best cooked by steaming.

Fresh herbs are not too common in Cantonese cooking, as opposed to their liberal use in other cuisines. Still, garlic, chives and coriander leaves are notable exceptions, although the latter are usually used merely as a garnish in most dishes.

A whole host of other ingredients, such as spring onion, sugar, salt, soy sauce, rice wine, cornstarch, vinegar, scallion oil and sesame oil are also used to enhance flavor. Garlic is sometimes used, but especially when cooking with internal organs—like entrails—that may emit unpleasant odors. Ginger, chili peppers, five-spice powder, powdered black pepper, star anise and other spices can also be added, but usually sparingly.

Although Cantonese cooks pay much attention to the freshness of their primary ingredients, they also use a long list of preserved foods for additional flavors. This is possibly influenced by Hakka culture, since the Hakkas were once a dominant group occupying imperial Hong Kong and other southern territories.

Some items gain very intense flavors during the drying, preservation and oxidation processes. Later, dried items are usually soaked in water to rehydrate before cooking. These preserved ingredients are usually not served a la carte, but rather go with fresh vegetables or other Cantonese dishes.

Some southern traditions
Due to Guangdong’s location on the southern coast of China, fresh seafood is also prominent, with many restaurants keeping seafood tanks on-site. In Cantonese cuisine—as with other parts of Asia—seafood with repugnant odors is cooked with strong spices, but the freshest seafood is odorless and best cooked by steaming.

In some steamed fish recipes, only a small amount of soy sauce, ginger and spring onion is added. According to Cantonese cuisine, light seasoning is used only to bring out the natural sweetness of the seafood. As a rule of thumb, the spiciness of a dish is usually inversely proportionate to the freshness of the ingredients. In other words, if a dish is especially spicy, the food products used may not be too crisp. shāo là; siu1 laap6

As a rule of thumb, the spiciness of a dish is usually inversely proportionate to the freshness of the ingredients. In other words, if a dish is especially spicy, the food products used may not be too crisp.

All Cantonese-style cooked meats can be classified as siu laap (烧腊; shāo là; siu1 laap6), whereas little potted rice or buozǎzce (煲仔饭; bou1 zei2 faan6) are cooked and served in a flat-bottomed pot (as opposed to a round-bottomed wok). Usually, this tool is a sauce or braising pan. Such dishes are prepared by covering and steaming, which makes the rice and ingredients very hot and soft. Usually the ingredients are layered on top of the rice with little or no mixing in between, but many combinations exist.

Slow-cooked soup, or lou fo tong (老火汤; lǎohuǒ tāng; lou5 fo2 tong1)—literally means old, fire-cooked soup—is typically a clear broth prepared by simmering meat and other ingredients over a low heat for several hours, with Chinese herbs sometimes included. Noodles are served either in soup broth or fried. These are available as home-cooked meals, on dim sum side menus or as street food at dai pai dongs, where they can be served with a variety of toppings, such as fish balls, beef balls or fish slices.

Usually eaten as breakfast, dim sum (点心; diǎnxīn; dim2sam1) is linked to the old tradition of drinking tea with visiting travelers from the ancient Silk Road that needed a place to rest. Dim sum serving sizes are usually small and normally served as three or four pieces in one dish or basket. It is customary to order family-style, sharing among all members of the dining party. A typical dim sum brunch includes various types of steamed buns, dumplings and rice noodle rolls, which contain a range of ingredients, such as beef, chicken, pork, prawns and vegetarian options. Many dim sum restaurants also offer plates of steamed green vegetables, roasted meats, congee and other soups.

In Cantonese restaurants, a number of dishes are served only at dinner time. Dim sum eateries stop serving bamboo-basket options after the yum cha period (equivalent to afternoon tea) and begin offering an entirely different menu in the evening. Some dishes are standard, while others are regional or occasionally customized for special purposes, such as Chinese marriages or banquets.

After the evening meal, most Cantonese restaurants offer tong sui (糖水; táng shuǐ; tong4 seui2), or “sugar water,” which is a sweet soup. Many varieties of tong sui are also found in other Chinese cuisines. Some desserts are traditional, while others are more innovative.

The most expensive restaurants usually have their own specialty desserts, but the majority of places will offer the customary egg tart that is generally synonymous with the region of Macau.

Chef’s Specials
肠粉 / chángfěn / Rice noodle roll
烧乳猪 / shāo rǔzhū / Roast piglet
红豆沙 / hóngdòushā / Red bean soup

Where to find it
Hollyii 何莉儿点心小厨
Phone: 2662 0982
Address: No. L1-008, Vanke City Plaza, Qifeng Rd, Guancheng

Guan Xiang Lou 莞香楼
Phone: 2217 7788
Address: No. 1, Jintai Rd, Wanjiang

Cymbidium House 芷兰轩
Phone: 2168 3838
Address: 4/F, Zone 8, First International, Hongfu Rd, Nancheng

More Guangdong restaurants go to: http://heredg.com/business-directory/?action=search&dosrch=1&listingfields%5B2%5D=42&listingfields%5B20%5D=-1

See Fujian cuisine here
See Hunan cuisine here
See Jiangsu cuisine here
See Zhejiang cuisine here
See Anhui cuisine here
See Sichuan cuisine here
See Shandong cuisine here