Cantonese cuisine (Chinese: Pinyin: yuè cài) originates from the region around Canton ( Guangzhou ) in southern China 's Guangdong province. Of the various regional styles of Chinese cuisine, Cantonese is the best-known outside China ; a "Chinese restaurant" in a Western country will usually serve mostly Cantonese food, or an adaptation thereof. The prominence of Cantonese cuisine outside China is likely due to the disproportionate emigration from this region, as well as the relative accessibility of some Cantonese dishes to foreign palates. Cantonese dishes rarely use "hot" spices like chilli, unlike, for instance, Szechuan cuisine.
There is a Cantonese saying: "Any animal whose back faces the sky can be eaten" 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, and entrails. One subject of controversy amongst some Westerners is the raising of dogs as food in some places in China ; however, dog is not a common restaurant food, and is illegal in Hong Kong (and may 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
Cantonese cuisine can be characterized by the use of very mild and simple spices in combination. Ginger, spring onion, sugar, salt, soy (soya) 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-spice powder, white pepper powder and many other spices are used in Cantonese dishes, but usually very lightly. Cantonese cuisine is sometimes considered bland by those used to thicker, richer and darker sauces of other Chinese cuisines.
Spicy hot dishes are extremely rare in Cantonese cuisine. Spicy hot food is more common in very hot climates, such as those of Sichuan , Thailand , etc. where food spoils easily, and in the cold climates of the north. Guangzhou has the richest food resources in China in terms of agriculture and aquaculture. Natural flavors are a highlight of Cantonese cuisine, thanks to the copious amounts of available fresh produce, and the mild weather of the region.
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.
Due to Guangdong 's proximity to the southern coast of China , fresh live seafood is a specialty in Cantonese cuisine. Many authentic restaurants maintain live seafood tanks. 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 amount 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.
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, dried scallop, and dried abalone. Another more affordable example includes pork bones, watercress with two types of apricot kernels, 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 with both working parents cannot afford this tradition due to the long preparation time required. However, wealthy families with servants and a cook still enjoy the luxury every day. 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.
Hong Kong style
Sometimes in the US , the term "Hong Kong Style" is used to distinguish this style of cooking from the more Americanized version most Americans are familiar with.
Though Cantonese cooks pay much attention to the freshness of their cooking ingredients, Cantonese cooking also uses a long list of preserved food items. This may be an influence from Hakka cuisine. 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 black mushroom
- Dried abalone
- Dried scallop
- Dried sea cucumber
- Dried air bladder from various fishes
- Dried shrimp
- Dried shark fin
- Dried bird nest - bird saliva
- Dried Bok Choy - a kind of Chinese green vegetable
- Pickled Bok Choy
- Pickled radish
- Fu Yu - Salted and fermented tofu
- Salted milk thin films of milk preserved in brine
- Salted preserved fish
- Salted preserved sausage
- Salted preserved duck
- Salted preserved pork
- Salted egg - preserved in brine until the egg white turns solid white and the yolk a solid yellow/orange
- Thousand year old egg - duck egg preserved in lime until the egg white turns gelatinous and dark brown, the yolk dark green
- various dried fruits, herbs and flowers, etc.
Some notable Cantonese dishes include:
- Dim Sum - (literally touch of heart), small dishes served with tea usually at brunch, e.g. char siu bao, steamed shrimp dumplings (cantonese ha gow), watercress dumplings etc.
- Shrimp wonton noodle soup
- Stir-fried vegetables - Green leafy vegetables stir-fried in oil and sometimes garlic or ginger, topped with soy or oyster sauce.
- Char siu - also called BBQ pork; usually with a red outer coloring
- Siew Yok or crispy roast pork- Slices of roast pork skin, fat, and meat cut from a pig that is usually roasted whole
- Roast(crispy)young pigeon/squabs (Hanyu Pinyin :hóngshao rúge/kao rúge)
- Shahe fen - Thin and flat rice noodles
- Dry-fried beef with hefen - Shahe fen stir-fried with fried beef, a common dish
- Thick Rice congee with various toppings and deep-fried breadsticks
- Pork rind curry
- Dace fish balls
- Steamed fish
- Steamed/stir fried fish intestines
- Salted preserved fish
- Steeped chicken or steamed chicken served cold with ginger and spring onion oil dipping
- Salt-baked chicken
- Soy Sauce Duck
- Slow cooked soups
- Shark fin soup
- Braised dried abalone
- Guilinggao - Jelly, traditionally made out of turtle shell boiled in herbal medicine, now mainly with only herbal grass
- Various steamed/boiled/double-boiled desserts and sweet soups
- Sticky Rice - Glutinous rice cooked with soy sauce as well as other ingredients such as sausage, scrambled egg pieces, peas, carrot bits
- Lo mai gai or glutinous rice chicken , a type of Zongzi, - Glutinous rice wrapped in lotus / bamboo leaves with pork, chicken, salted egg, beans, chestnuts and winter mushroom inside
- Stir-fried watermelon skin - Home-style stir-fried dish usually made with the peeled skin of a watermelon
Other favorites with unique Cantonese style:
- Roast suckling pig
- Roast duck
- Roast goose, the most famous version being from Yung Kee in Hong Kong
- Braised crispy chicken
- Soy sauce chicken - chicken slowly cooked in soy sauce
- Beef entrails
- Beef stew
- Hot pot
- Hong Kong style Lo mein - noodles served with a separate bowl of broth.
- Pan-fried crispy noodles - two sides brown fried egg noodles
- Various dessert drinks served with shaved ice
- taro duck
- salt and pepper fried squid
- salt and pepper fried shrimp