Cantonese Chinese food

  • by

Cantonese food. There is a Chinese proverb that says to “be born in Suzhou, dress in Hangzhou, eat in Canton, die in Liuzhou” (生 在 苏州 , 穿 在 在 杭州 , 吃 在 广州 , 死 在 柳州 shēng zài sūzhou, chuān zài hángzhōu , chī zài guǎngzhōu, sǐ zài liǔzhōu).

Why is that? Because it is in Suzhou where we find the most beautiful women, in Hangzhou the best silk and in Liuzhou the best wood to make your coffin. And if it is necessary to eat in Canton (Guangzhou) is of course because it is, in the opinion of the Chinese themselves, in this city where the best food is.

And it is true that Cantonese cuisine, which is one of the four (or eight, depending on the authors) great Chinese culinary traditions, is one of the pillars on which the worldwide reputation of Chinese gastronomy has been built.

In fact, it is through Cantonese gastronomy that we generally know Chinese cuisine in the West, because most Chinese restaurants, from London to Paris via New York or Madrid, more or less base their menu on the cuisine of this city.

City of Canton

It must be said that the city of Canton benefits from conditions very favorable to the development of an unparalleled culinary art. First of all, because of its geographical position: in the south of China and by the sea, it is located in a region with the most fertile subtropical climate. Almost everything grows there.

The land is replete with an incredible wealth of flora and fauna, and the sea also offers the province a wealth of seafood. Also for its history: the city of Canton served as a refuge, at the time of the Southern Song (12th-13th centuries A.D.), for some of the most famous cooks who, at the same time as the imperial court, had fled from northern China invaded by the Mongols.

In addition, the city of Canton, very close to the city of Hong Kong, was from very early on one of the main ports open to foreign trade, and its gastronomy is not exempt from external influences. The region was also a region of settlement of ethnic minorities, which did not fail to influence the gastronomy of the Chinese in the region.

What is Cantonese food?

Before talking about the ingredients, the most popular dishes worldwide and the ways of preparation, we must first ask ourselves, what is Cantonese food? Also called Guangdong food, it is the most popular form of Chinese food outside the country.

Cantonese Chinese food, what is it
  • Save
Cantonese Chinese food, what is it

Cantonese gastronomy is characterized by using a great variety of ingredients in its dishes. Its geographical location gives access to different species of seafood, mollusks and fish, which are usually the protagonists in the preparations. But that’s not all, extravagance is another aspect that represents this style of food; it is common for some Cantonese dishes to be prepared with snake, cat, dog or other animal species that are not familiar to foreigners.

It is good to keep this in mind and inquire a little about those strange names on the menu before ordering. Another factor that has been a determining factor in the diversity of food is the commercial importance that this province of China has had; being a coastal area, ingredients and resources continually arrive from other places. This has allowed the Cantonese to create unique combinations.

Origin

It is common to find restaurants offering this gastronomic modality in any country, but where does Cantonese food come from? Its origin is Canton, one of the twenty-two provinces in the south of the People’s Republic of China.

The massive extension of this culinary style to other regions is due to the fact that most of the Chinese who migrated after the Chinese Civil War were natives of Guangdong province, better known as Canton.

These emigrants brought completely unknown and attractive gastronomic knowledge to the different territories they began to populate; therefore, the opening of restaurants was the best opportunity to initiate a new lifestyle.

In those places where they did not have access to the same ingredients they used in their country, they began to make modifications to the original recipes; they combined pieces of different vegetables, meats and vegetables seasoned with soy sauce, obtaining a wide range of dishes with a sophisticated flavor.

Taste

The main objective of Cantonese cooks is to preserve the natural and fresh flavor of the food; to achieve this effect, Cantonese food experts only use a minimum amount of seasonings and spices, otherwise the original flavor of the ingredients would be dulled.

Likewise, it is common for restaurants that offer this type of gastronomy to have tanks where they can keep the marine species alive until they are cooked. Undoubtedly a necessary method to preserve an authentic flavor.

Despite the popularity of Cantonese food around the world, it differs from other culinary styles applied in Chinese cuisine, where the excessive use of spices is fundamental in recipes.

This characteristic may seem to some foreigners to be insipid, very simple; but the truth is that it takes a while to appreciate the smooth flavors of the meats and vegetables. Once you get used to differentiate the original textures and flavors of the ingredients, tasting these exquisite dishes will be a real pleasure.

Spices and seasonings used in Cantonese food

It is not common to use them, but in controlled quantities some spices are ideal to intensify the flavor of the meat of some animals or ingredients. Cantonese food is known for its mild and light flavor; therefore, all seasonings that produce this effect will be used in this type of recipes.

Ginger

The pungent flavor of ginger, a tropical root, plays an important role in Cantonese dishes. It can be used whole or ground to give a refreshing touch to meats, stews and vegetables; likewise, the aroma of the food will benefit from this natural ingredient.

Garlic

On the other hand we have garlic, a plant whose root is used in the kitchen. Garlic has a very concentrated smell and flavor, capable of flavoring any type of food; in Cantonese cuisine, it is common for cooks to use it to reduce the unpleasant smell of some parts of animals, such as entrails.

Coriander

Coriander leaves are another type of spice widely used by the Cantonese and Asians in general. This aromatic plant is added to dishes to enhance the aroma of the food, but it is versatile enough to adapt to the ingredients without dulling their flavors. In addition, the small leaves of this plant can be used as a garnish.

Rice vinegar

Rice vinegar is another typical ingredient of Asian cuisine that Cantonese cooks often use in their preparations. Its flavor is lighter than the vinegar used in the West, it is very versatile and combines very well with a wide variety of foods.

Soy sauce

Finally, we have soy sauce, an indispensable condiment in all Chinese culinary styles. It is obtained from the fermentation of soybeans and its main objectives in cooking are to enhance the flavor of food, intensify the color of the food and reflect the oriental roots in any dish.

Cantonese or not?

Fortune cookies

No. It is said to have been invented by the Japanese, popularized by the Chinese and is mainly consumed by Americans. American journalist Jennifer Lee explores the history of the Chinese cookie in her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.

Chicken legs

Yes, they are first fried and then simmered in a flavorful sauce. Their texture is tender and quite spongy. They are eaten by biting into a leg and then spitting out the small bones.

General Tao No Tso’s Chicken

Tsung-tang or Zuo Zongtang (1812-1885) was a Hunan Qing dynasty general who defeated the Taiping Revolt, one of the deadliest conflicts in history. His link to the dish that bears his name is only honorary. The recipe is said to have been created in the 1950s by chef Peng Jia, originally from Hunan like the general, but exiled in Taiwan.

In the United States, General Tao’s (or Tso’s) chicken went from being a spicy dish to a rather sweet dish, which the chef himself no longer recognizes today!

Chop suey yes and no

The distant origins of chop suey, which means “mixture of parts,” take us to Taishan, a coastal town south of Canton. The recipe is said to have traveled to the western United States with Cantonese immigrants and then appeared on the East Coast (New York, Boston) as railroad workers fled racial violence across the country.

The original version of “simmered” included offal and fish. It has been adapted over time to appeal to American palates.

Dim sum, Yes

The first dim sum houses were established in Canton province. Once upon a time, small bites were designed to accompany tea. Today it is the other way around. Dim sum is very much integrated into the lives of Cantonese and Hong Kong people, who eat it with family or friends at lunchtime or on weekends.

Cooking methods

Unlike other regions in China, where most ingredients are sautéed, this is not the case in Cantonese cuisine. The use of oils for frying food is also not common; instead, they prefer to boil or steam meats and vegetables.

There is a reason for using these cooking methods; these alternatives can maintain the original flavor of the ingredients. In addition to enjoying fresh, unprocessed foods, you will be doing without the high fat consumption that puts your health at risk. Even so, there are some recipes for chicken appetizers or servings that are a bit different from this concept, and they must be fried to vary their texture.

Chicken recipes

Cantonese chicken

This recipe is nothing more than the typical sweet and sour chicken served in Chinese restaurants; an irresistible dish that can captivate even the most demanding palate. The advantage is that its preparation is very simple and does not require many ingredients, therefore, it can be cooked at home without any inconvenience.

If we want to prepare a meal for 2 or 3 people, we need 6 chicken thighs; the rest of the ingredients such as soy sauce or tamari, sugar, ginger, two egg whites, cornstarch and oil will be used for seasoning the chicken and cooking it.

Before starting with the recipe, it is important to point out that other parts of the chicken can be used, as long as they have enough meat and are easy to cut into smaller pieces; the breast is also a good option to achieve excellent results in this dish.

The difference between thighs and breasts is that the former can withstand longer cooking times; therefore, the sauce and spices will be able to penetrate the meat better. On the other hand, the breast is mainly used in quick cooking techniques such as roasting and sautéing.

The first thing to do to prepare this popular Cantonese chicken is to cut the thighs into smaller pieces. Then in a bowl place 1 tablespoon of oil, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, 2 tablespoons of cornstarch, egg whites and ginger. Marinate the chicken in this preparation for 30 minutes.

After this time, we fry the chicken in a pan with previously heated oil. Next, add to the pan a dash of soy sauce, onion in small pieces and the amount of sugar of your preference; cover and let it cook over medium heat until the sauce is thick.

Cantonese chicken
  • Save
Cantonese chicken

Cantonese chicken with vegetables

There is a variation of this recipe in which we add some vegetables to give more texture and color to the dish. In addition, a chicken broth can be added to make the sauce lighter. The first thing to do is to fry the chicken as described in the previous recipe; set it aside and in the same pan place onion, peppers, mushrooms and broccoli in small pieces to fry them.

When the onion takes a transparent appearance it is ready. In a glass or small cup we dissolve 4 tablespoons of cornstarch and when it is free of lumps we mix it with 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, the chicken broth and 1 tablespoon of oyster sauce. Add the previously fried chicken to this sauce and stir it for a few minutes. The chicken in both recipes can be served with white or fried rice, an excellent combination.

Soups

Slow cooker soup

It is one of the specialties of Cantonese food; as its name suggests, it is cooked over a slow fire, so it takes approximately 3 hours to be ready. As for its ingredients, it usually contains animal species or some of their organs, making it an extravagant dish for foreigners. However, for Cantonese families it is just another typical meal; it is estimated that they eat it at least once a week.

Here’s a little of what you can get in a slow cooker Cantonese soup:

Dried cod swim bladder

It is an organ or membranous sac possessed by some species of fish, in this case the dried cod; it is located in the coelom, a cavity located under the backbone of these animals. The function of this organ is to fill with gas to ensure the buoyancy of the fish in the water.

Sea cucumbers

They are animals with elongated bodies that are commonly mistaken for marine plants. They live at the bottom of the sea and there are several species; most of them measure 25 or 30 centimeters, but others can reach 3 meters. At the culinary level, these animals are widely used in South Asia; their entrails can be used to prepare sushi, while in soups they can be used whole after being dissected.

Bào yú or abalone

It is a very popular mollusk species in China, expensive and scarce in certain regions of the world. At the culinary level, the portion of this animal that the Chinese really use is the dissected abductor muscle. Finally, the preparation of this slow cooking soup is based on the use of a clear broth to which we must add the meat (or organs) of the aforementioned animals and cook for several hours.

This recipe is also considered curative by the Cantonese, which is why medicinal plants are sometimes added to it.

Thick Cantonese soup

This soup is a combination of meats, vegetables, noodles, spices and egg submerged in an exquisite chicken broth. Being a very varied and consistent dish, it can provide a lot of energy to the organism. We must start by cutting our ingredients; the pork and carrot are cut into strips, the onion and leek into slices, while the mushrooms should be cut into thin slices.

As for the noodles, depending on the brand we use, we must cook them according to the manufacturer’s instructions and set aside. The next step is to beat an egg and cook it at very low temperature for 4 minutes on each side; when the omelet is ready, cut it into strips.

In a frying pan or wok we fry the pork meat with a little vegetable oil until it is browned. Then we do the same procedure with the carrot, mushrooms, onion and leek; when ready, we add the noodles.

Add chicken broth, tomato sauce, soy sauce, soy sauce, rice vinegar and hydrated corn starch (previously dissolved in water) to the wok with the vegetables and noodles. After cooking for four minutes, finally add the meat, the tortilla strips and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Wonton Soup

This is another of the basic and traditional recipes of Canton; of all the typical soups of the region, this may be the most complicated to prepare, since the procedure is long. Generally speaking, it is a chicken or pork soup containing sacks of dough stuffed with prawns and pork.

Ingredients for Wonton soup

This recipe is made in two stages and for each one specific ingredients are required; to make the dough bags we need Wonton dough, this can be obtained in Asian supermarkets or it can be homemade. If the meal is for four people, the required amount of Wonton pieces is 40.

For the filling of the Wontons we need pork and prawns; which will be seasoned with spring onion stalks, soy sauce, cornstarch, sugar, salt, white pepper and sesame oil. Finally, we will need 1 kilo of pork or chicken bones, onions, soy sauce, salt and water to prepare the soup.

Steps before starting to cook Wonton Soup

In every recipe it is essential to start cleaning and preparing the ingredients. For this particular case, we will start by cleaning the chicken or pork bones that we are going to use; for this we introduce them in boiling water for five minutes, take them out and wash them again. The next procedure we must do at first is to cut our vegetables into slices.

Soup preparation

Heat two liters of water with the onions and bones, when it starts to boil let it cook for 30 minutes; after this time add soy sauce, salt and let it cook for 30 minutes more.

Wonton preparation

We must create a sticky mixture with the pork, prawns, cornstarch, soy sauce, salt, the white part of the spring onion, sesame oil and white pepper; this preparation will be the Wonton filling. Then place a little of the filling in the center of each Wonton piece, fold the sides forming a triangle and seal the edges by moistening them.

The next step is to cook them in boiling water for 6 minutes; after this time we take them out and put them in cold water. Finally we cook them again for 1 minute. Integration of all the ingredients Once we have all the food cooked, we add the Wontons in a cup and pour the soup on top.

The dimsum

The dimsum
  • Save
The dimsum

The jiaozis

This is simply called steamed ravioli, most often filled with pork, veal or shrimp. The dough is made from wheat flour, water and salt. In the end, it doesn’t take much to make an entree that wrecks it all.

The baozis

Again, a wheat-based dough, but thick as a brioche, and filled with meat. The dough has a slight sweet taste, the mixture is excellent, and so much to say that after a few baozis it can already start to stagnate, so take it easy, there are still dishes to follow.

Main courses

Pepper and salt pork ribs

George Abitbol himself mentions them in The American Classroom and it is a delight. The ribs are marinated and fried, then finally seasoned with…salt and pepper. Surprised, huh? So yes, it’s fatty, but that’s what we like.

The fried pigeon

Pigeon meat is full of good things, but it is a bit firmer than chicken meat. We Cantonese therefore marinate it for a good while in brine before cooking it in the pan (okay, more fat, we love it) and the result is perfect.

Street food

Fish balls

A staple of Chinese street food. Minced white fish mixed with vegetables and deep fried in a too-good-to-be-true batter. Be careful, you run the risk of getting addicted and confusing your loved ones with fish balls and eating them at the first sign of hunger.

Egg waffles

They are easily recognized by their kind of round bubbles. Other than that, they are a bit like our waffles made with a batter containing eggs. On top, you can add chocolate, green tea or ginger. And it’s good. And we walk at the same time, just to give the impression that we’re not just gaining weight.

Lamb skewers

For the equivalent of ten euro cents, you can afford a skewer with spicy lamb cooked in frying. Yes, ten cents, enough to feed you exclusively on that and explode in less than 10 days.

Centennial eggs

Well, we say a hundred years because it looks fancy, but in reality we are talking more about an egg (cane, even chicken) left for several weeks or months in a mixture of lemon, ash and green tea. In the end, we have an egg whose white has turned brown and the yellow has turned green, all with a strong smell of ammonia.

In short, it does not endear you. Except that it is like with our cheeses, you have to go beyond the look and smell to discover a taste that is not bad at all. If you are nearby, at least try it, it will give you a story to tell.

Chicken legs

They can be present in dishes or alone as a snack, marinated in many different ways. The trick is to stick your foot in your mouth to eat the meat and spit out the rest. Perfect for a first date.

Fermented tofu

Unlike normal tofu, this one is left for 5 to 15 days to ferment with mushrooms (not nice mushrooms, we are talking about mold) and possibly bacteria. Afterwards, we salt it and let it mature for 6 months. A bit like cheese, but with soy milk.

Desserts

Tong shui

A great Cantonese specialty, tong shui is a kind of soup that we eat for dessert. There are many different types, but the most common are made of beans, sesame or nuts. Sweet, perfect to conclude all this fatty orgy.

Importance

Cantonese cuisine was a fundamental resource for the survival of immigrants in other continents; therefore, it is considered important in the history of the province of Canton. This culinary style was the inspiration for Cantonese cooks to open restaurants in countries that were completely unfamiliar with their culture and traditions.

At the same time, this style of food is currently an important part of the gastronomy of other countries; for years foreigners have studied the culinary techniques of the Cantonese and have adapted them according to their interests, achieving new versions of dishes with the ingredients available in the region where they live.

However, many people are not aware of these adaptations and confuse Cantonese food with other styles of Chinese food. Therefore, encouraging people to inquire about the dishes they eat is a good alternative to maintain the gastronomic roots of each country.

Importance of Cantonese food
  • Save
Importance of Cantonese food

Summary

Especially because Cantonese cuisine is very varied. It is certainly known for its “dim-sum” (snacks, often steamed, such as assorted and varied ravioli, ribs with black beans, chicken feet in spicy sauce, beef dumplings, small buns stuffed with pork, etc.), its roast suckling pig and other caramelized meats (pork throat, duck, goose, chicken, etc.), its multiple sautéed “Cantonese” rice and its noodle soups, but it would be very unfair to reduce it to that.

Cantonese cooks are famous for developing often very complex dishes, which take an infinite amount of time to prepare. Set of textures (soft, crunchy, rubbery, gelatinous, etc.), cooking methods (steaming, frying, sautéing, braising, stewing, etc.) and flavors (sweet, salty, bitter, spicy, sometimes spicy), it is a complex cuisine, developed among other things to achieve a balance, a certain harmony between yin and yang.

In Cantonese cooking, we avoid masking the basic ingredients with lots of herbs and spices.

Read also: Chinese Fried Rice;

Many sources have been used for this article.

Español (Spanish) English Deutsch (German) Français (French) Nederlands (Dutch) Italiano (Italian) Română (Romanian) Português (Portuguese (Portugal))