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Cantonese cuisine

Cantonese cuisine (粵菜, pinyin: yue4 cai4) originates from the region around Canton in southern China.

There is a Cantonese saying: "The only four-legged things that we don't eat are tables and chairs." Cantonese cuisine includes almost all edible food. Snakes, snails, insects, worms, chicken feet, duck tongues, ox genitals, entrails, you name it. If it is edible, there may be a Cantonese way to cook it. Pet lovers may not like it, but dogs are raised as food in ranges in China. The above says a lot about Cantonese cuisine.

Despite the countless Cantonese cooking methods, steaming, stir frying and deep frying are probably the most popular cooking methods in restaurants due to the short cooking time.

Cantonese cuisine can be characterized by the use of very mild spices. Ginger, spring onion, sugar, salt, soy sauce, rice wine, corn starch and oil are sufficient for most Cantonese cooking. Garlic is also used heavily in some dishes especially with meat that has unpleasant odor 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.

Spicy hot dishes are extremely rare in Cantonese cuisine. Spicy hot foods are more common in very hot climate, such as that of Szechuan, Thailand etc. where food spoils easily. It is believed that chili peppers kill food spoiling germs and induce sweating which helps tropical people keep their cool (pun, sic). Canton is on the richest soil in China in term of agriculture, and aquaculture. The endless supply of fresh food and mild weather make spicy hot dishes unnecessary in Canton.

Due to Canton's proximity to the southern coast of China, fresh live seafood is a specialty in Cantonese cuisine. In a Cantonese's 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 little soy sauce, some ginger and some 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 would gladly get rid of their stale seafood inventory by offering dishes loaded with garlic and spices. So if the waiter insists on a spicy preparation for your pick of seafood, it may mean that it's already started to smell. Pick something else. 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 and dried abalone. Another more affordable example includes pork bones, watercress with two types of almonds, etc. The combinations are endless. 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. Imagine how the whole chicken will taste like after simmering in the broth for six hours. 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.

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. Italian style sun-dried tomatoes are good examples of 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. The dried items are usually soaked in water to rehydrate them before cooking. 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. Besides, fresh abalone and scallop have a strong fishy odor that the dried version lacks. Not only preserved foods have 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

Cantonese dishes are too numerous to be listed. Some food can be uniquely identified as Cantonese:

  • Dim Sum - (lit. touch of heart), small dishes served with tea usually at lunch
  • Shrimp wonton noodle soup
  • Cha Shiu - BBQ pork usually stained in red food color
  • 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 jello
  • 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
  • Black tea with condensed milk
  • Various dessert drinks served with shaved ice

See also: Cuisine, Chinese Cuisine, Szechuan cuisine, Hunan cuisine, cooking

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