The Cooking of Canton

The occasion I remember was the day of the wedding of my grandmother’s grandson, who was my mother’s nephew, and so my cousin. I was ten years old and in Sun Tak; the suburb of Canton in which I lived, the wedding was to be an exciting event. My grandmother, who loved to have big parties for her family, had decided the wedding meal would be in her home. And I was to help prepare it. True, her servants would be there, and my aunts and my mother, but Grandmother, mindful that my mother had always urged me to learn to cook, said that I was to be in the kitchen that day. I felt ambivalent about the honor.

My young cousins would be playing catch or hide-and-seek or jumping rope; the older cousins would be chattering away in the garden around tables set up under the trees for the games of Mah-Jongg that would go on before and after our dinner. But I would be inside. I thought about it and decided that I preferred the honor of cooking with my elders. And so that day I helped pluck the chickens, some of which would later be steamed with fresh ginger, black mushrooms, and the sausages we knew as lop cheung, and some of which would be boiled in soup, then later cut up to make white cut chicken. I cut tender pieces of choi sum, so that later the servants could cook the young stalks with oyster sauce; and I soaked dried mushrooms so they could later be cooked with the expensive delicacy of cooked webbed duck feet that we all liked so much. I helped prepare the fish we call the yellow croaker, a favorite in my town, salting it so that when it was cooked with pork the resulting sauce would be so good that my cousins and I would compete to see which of us could pour it first over our cooked rice.

I helped boil the dried abalone until it was tender enough to braise, and I washed the oranges, persimmons, tangerines, and the grapefruit-like pomelos so that they would glisten as they sat in bowls in the centers of the tables set up in the big central room of my grandmother’s house, a room filled with heavy carved blackwood chairs and tables and paper images of the various deities she prayed to as a practicing Buddhist. There would be roast suckling pig and fresh carp. The grown-ups would eat raw, tissue-thin slices of this sweet and oily fish, dipping them in a sauce of ginger, soy sauce, boiled peanut oil, scallions, and white pepper. Those under sixteenâ”which meant me and two handfuls of cousinsâ” would not be permitted to eat the raw fish because the adults said it was too strong for our constitutions, but we could have thick rice porridge called congee, into which pieces of the carp, cooked, would be mixed. But I helped prepare the fish, the sauce, and the congee, which at least put me one leg up on my cousins. I had so much enjoyment that day, not the least of which was occasioned when my grandmother, whom we called pawpaw, came over to me and told me I had worked well and rewarded me with a handful of candied lotus seeds. It was something she did not do often. After that I really didn’t care that I had missed jumping rope.

And later, after I had changed into the new clothes which my mother had bought for the party, and which I had carried to my grandmother’s and stowed away until I finished my kitchen work, I sat with my cousins at the table reserved for all of us children and felt wonderful, a little superior, for I had been, temporarily, an adult. That is the sort of memory I have of my first days in the kitchen, the Cantonese kitchen of my Sun Tak girlhood. It was the food, the importance of the food, the joy in the food, that my grandmother wanted to impart to me, even though I was so young. It is memories such as this that I take with me to my kitchen. Though I cook the foods of all of China, the table I truly love is that of Canton, and I cannot say how happy I am that finally these days the Cantonese kitchen has come to be recognized for what it is: China’s finest classic cuisine. True Cantonese food, subtle, sophisticated, creative, adaptive, is now appreciated not only in the world of the West but in the rapidly changing People’s Republic of China, where in every city, it seems, fine Cantonese restaurants are being opened.

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