How Cantonese cuisine made its way to the West
There are several well-known
sayings in Chinese that typically describe Cantonese food (yuecai). "Anything that walks, swims, crawls or flies with its back to heaven is edible," or the Cantonese "eat everything on the ground with four legs except tables and chairs and everything in the sky except airplanes." A bit of an exaggeration to some, but it does give an idea of how diversified Cantonese food is. For most, it is our first introduction to Chinese food before visiting China and eating "authentic" Chinese food. Terms such as "dim sum," "chop suey," "chow mein," and "wok" are more familiar to us than the standard Chinese or Cantonese equivalents.
It should come as no surprise then that Cantonese fare was the first regional Chinese cuisine to take hold in West. We are not talking of horse traders along the Silk Road during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), but southern Chinese that immigrated to the United States in the mid to late 19th century. These immigrants first worked as laborers on the transcontinental railroad and later moved to San Francisco. Gold fever struck the area along the Fraser River, attracting people from all over America and other countries, including China. San Francisco was soon called "Old Gold Mountain" (Jiujinshan). Immigrants from Britain, Europe, America and China also flocked to the Victorian gold fields in Australia in the early 1850s. By the end of the decade, the Chinese formed over twenty per cent of the gold field population.
Cantonese food is not heavily seasoned or overcooked, but for these immigrants, surviving in less than ideal surroundings with none of their familiar ingredients such as light soy sauces and vinegars resulted the creation of a "new" cuisine. Instead of parboiling or blanching fresh vegetables before stir-frying, they were thickly coated with corn flour to disguise the fact they were less than fresh. Meat was also heavily coated with corn flour for this reason. Both vegetables and meats were heavily seasoned with sugar and soy sauce. Western-style Cantonese cuisine was born: succulent sweet 'n' sour pork (gulaorou), Chinese prawn cutlets with a sweet and sour sauce, special fried rice (chaofan), lemon chicken (ningmeng ji) and pastries such as custard tarts, all catering to so-called Western tastes.
So what defines Cantonese cuisine? It uses very mild and simple spices: Ginger, spring onions, sugar, salt, soy sauce, rice wine, corn flour and of course, oil. There are many other spices used such as five spices powder (wuxiangfen) and white pepper, but these are used sparingly. Cantonese food is often considered bland by both Westerners and other Chinese because it lacks the fire and spiciness of other regional cuisines such as Sichuan or Hunan.
Guangzhou is richly endowed in food resources from the land and the ocean. Fresh produce is readily available, and this freshness makes its way into the kitchen of every restaurant or home in the region. This means that produce is bought and cooked the same day. In order to retain the foods’ natural flavors, fresh produce is not overcooked or heavily seasoned. A trip to a local food market will give a good idea of the wealth and variety of food that can be served at restaurants. The selection of green vegetables, many of them unavailable in colder or less mild climates, is truly amazing. The use of steam to cook the food highlights the desire to capture freshness. There is steamed chicken (baiqieji) and steamed fish as well as the popular steamed dim sum delicacies.
As a coastal city, Guangzhou has rich resources of fresh seafood. The freshest seafood is best cooked steamed with the most delicate of ingredients, such as light soy sauce, rice wine and shredded ginger. It is a culinary sin in Cantonese cooking to overcook food or add extra ingredients to disguise less than fresh produce.
Guangzhou is also known for its tasty soups. The soup is usually a clear broth prepared by simmering beef, pork or chicken bones and other ingredients for many hours. Chinese herbal medicine can also be added to the broth.
The Cantonese refer to this process of cooking soup slowly for many hours as baotang, literally meaning "to simmer or cook in an earthen pot" or laotang, meaning old soup, which refers to the process of continually adding ingredients to a simmering broth or cooked soup. In other parts of China, cooking soup is called duntang not baotang, but it amounts to almost the same thing, though what is thrown into the pot will of course be different. In southern Chinese communities outside of China, this process of cooking soup is also called baotang as well as aotang. Ao refers to cooking or simmering a soap or stew for a long time.
Despite all the freshness found in Cantonese food, preserved food is also very common. Dried ingredients such as mushrooms and sea cucumber (haishen) soaked in water before cooking. Chefs will also combine dried food such as shiitake mushrooms, dried scallops or salted preserved pork or duck. Other dried ingredients include shark fin, and abalone. Whatever your preference, Cantonese cuisine offers a feast for the eyes and tongue.