What, then, is Cantonese food? What is its essence?

Canton, Guangzhou, the surrounding province of Guangdong, and the Hong Kong New Territories are China’s food basket, and the Cantonese will say that with pride, pointing out that when the women of Shanghai gather together over tea the talk is always of fashion, but when the women of Canton meet, the talk is always of food. Cantonese food is fresh, but more than that, there is the belief among the Cantonese that in preparing it for consumption its essential character should not be altered. The tastes of vegetables, meats, and fish should not be changed; therefore cooking should be simple, straightforward, and brief. Lightly blanched and stir-fried vegetables and fish steamed in the Cantonese manner retain appearance and taste. Although some dishes are cooked for extended periods, they are the exceptions in the Cantonese kitchen. Cantonese cuisine is a light cuisine, with no heavy sauces, and though occasionally the Cantonese will employ peppery spices and oils, this is done for contrast, for the âœting,” as it might be recognized in New Orleans, not in the overpowering manner of Sichuan and Hunan, where such heat is often applied to mask the tastes of food that has been preserved. Just a touch of oil is used to stir-fry. Food is whisked through this oil in a manner described as wok hei, a Cantonese phrase that translates as “flame and air” and simply means food cooked precisely and quickly over an extraordinarily high flame that curls around the bowl of the wok, food cooked so that it retains its character and taste. A Cantonese will mix fruit and meat, nuts and poultry, roots and seafood. For spiciness the cook will use fermented black beans, fermented soybeans, touches of chilis, but more often dishes will be subtly scented by wrapping them in lotus leaves, perhaps bamboo leaves, touching them with sesame oil, or dropping flower buds into them. Should it be thought that only the Japanese eat raw fish, let it be known that the Cantonese have always had a delicacy called yueh song, that dish from my cousin’s wedding, in which a fresh carp is pulled from the water, knocked on the head and stunned, split, gutted, scaled, and filleted; then the fillets are dipped into that sauce of ginger, soy, boiled peanut oil, scallion, and white pepper, and eaten immediately. Which came firstâ”Cantonese yueh song or sashimi? A Cantonese cook will make two visits to the market each day: first in the morning for the vegetables, meats, and fish that will be the basis for lunch, and again in the afternoon to purchase food for the dinner table.

A fish will be selected as it swims about in a huge square vat; shrimp will be darting about in a freshwater-filled glass tank, unfed, so that their veins will become clean and they can be cooked in their shells, which the Cantonese say is the only way. Chickens, ducks, and pigeons will be strutting around in their bamboo cages; pigs and steers, killed that dawn, will be hung in the market waiting to be butchered to order. Buying in advance and refrigerating or freezing is unheard of. The peo- pie of Hong Kong, for example, will tell you that the reason Colonel Sanders failed in his attempt to sell Kentucky Fried Chicken there was because his chickens were frozen and the Cantonese would not eat frozen meat. A Cantonese kitchen is a laboratory in which a creative cook adapts. Give him a fish and he will quickly devise thirty ways to prepare it. A Cantonese cook’s head is a computer that never stops processing: it never rests; it always creates. If chicken, duck, shrimp, and lobster can be cut up and steamed so that their inherent tastes are not lost, why cannot a shrimp be cut in half, dotted with minced ginger and a fermented black bean or two, and then steamed so that three pure tastes are presented, not in competition as so much of today’s “new” cookeries seem to be, but as complements to each other? Why cannot that wonderful Cantonese basketlike dim sum, siu mai, a mixture of minced pork, shrimp, and mushrooms, be made with pork, shrimp, pungent chives, and crisp bamboo shoots? Why not indeed, so that the dim sum becomes new and fresh? Why cannot that other mainstay of the Cantonese kitchen, the won tun, be packed with veal to create a new tradition? Why not stir-fry chicken with sweet honeydew and cantaloupe melons? Why not substitute roast duck for chicken and create a new dish out of that traditional chicken ding, a dish further enlivened with fresh pistachios?

For centuries in Canton, chicken has been marinated in rice liquor, then steamed and subsequently deep-fried. Why not alter the process so that the marinade is Cognac? All of these I have done, and they have become “new” Cantonese dishes while remaining faithful to the essential character of the cuisine from which they came, the cuisine into which I was bom. It is the Cantonese who created the great banqueting delicacies of Chinese cooking: the celebrated shark fin, either braised or in broth; the equally celebrated bird’s nest, the nest of the swallow, cooked to resemble pieces of transparent noodles; those wonderful dim sum, of which there are about two thousand varieties and which are unknown in most other parts of China. And their cousins and brothers have contributed to the greater variety of the Cantonese table. The people of Chiu Chow, south of Canton, have made the widest possible use of foods from the sea, utilizing fish sauce akin to, but so different from, those of southeast Asia; an intense master sauce, lo soi, that never dies, and tangerine jams as new heightening flavors. The Hakka people, wanderers from Mongolia who settled in Canton, have contributed to the Cantonese table the fine tastes of chicken baked in coarse salt and pungent preserved vegetables. The cuisines of other parts of China are limited by geographical circumstance, tradition, and history. The food of Peking is the food of the royal court, wheat-oriented and often given to excessive decoration and oil.

The food of the west, of Sichuan and Hunan, is quite often too searingly hot to allow discernment by the palate. The food of Shanghai is cosmopolitan, an amalgam of all of the foods of China, beautifully cooked but often overly sweet and oily. Only the food of Canton has no limitations, no restrictions. It is a cookery open to experimentation and creativeness, China’s ever-growing cuisine. A traditional Chinese adage suggests that the perfect life on earth is attainable, and that to achieve it one should be born in Suzhou, the city of beautiful women; clothed in Hangzhou, where the most beautiful silks are said to come from; and buried in Luzhou, which makes the finest coffins. But if one is to taste the best, one must eat in Guangzhouâ”in Canton. A Chinese will think of Cantonese cooking in a classical way, with such a proverb. A non-Chinese, anywhere, will also think of Cantonese cooking when he considers Chinese food.

Because it is Cantonese cuisine, though alteredâ”and generally for the worse, I might addâ”with which they are most familiar. Things cloyingly sweet and sour, gelatinous stir-fried mixtures of vegetables thick with cornstarch, overdone omelets such as the ubiquitous egg fu yung, are all regarded as true Cantonese cooking. And the concepts that gave rise to them were indeed Cantonese in origin, but as produced in the West, they are these days inadequate, short-cut imitations unworthy of their history.

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