Elements of Cooking

Spices top

Cantonese cuisine can be characterized by the use of very mild and simple spices in combination. Ginger, spring onion, sugar, salt, soy (soya) sauce, rice wine, corn starch and oil are sufficient for most Cantonese cooking. Garlic is used heavily in dishes especially with internal organs that have unpleasant odors, such as entrails. Five-spice 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 used to thicker, richer and darker sauces of other Chinese cuisines.

Freshness top

Spicy hot dishes are extremely rare in Cantonese cuisine. Spicy hot food is more common in very hot climates, such as those of Sichuan, Thailand, etc. where food spoils easily. Guangzhou has the richest food resources in China in terms of agriculture and aquaculture. The copious amount of fresh food and mild weather allows Cantonese cuisine to bring out, rather than drown out, natural flavors.

As an example of the high standard for freshness in Cantonese meals, cows and pigs used for meat are usually killed earlier the same day. Chickens are often killed just hours beforehand, and fish are displayed in tanks for customers to choose for immediate preparation. It is not unusual for a waiter at a Cantonese restaurant to bring the live flipping fish or the crawling lobster to the table to show the patron as proof of freshness before cooking.

Seafood top

Due to Guangdong’s proximity to the southern coast of China, fresh live seafood is a specialty in Cantonese cuisine. Many authentic restaurants maintain live seafood tanks. In the Cantonese 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 small amount of soy sauce, ginger, and 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 gladly get rid of their stale seafood inventory by offering dishes loaded with garlic and spices. As a rule of thumb in Cantonese dining, the spiciness of a dish is usually inversely proportional to the freshness of the ingredients.

Soup top

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, dried scallop, and dried abalone (花膠海參鮑魚雞湯). Another more affordable example includes pork bones, watercress with two types of almonds (南北杏西洋菜豬骨湯), etc. The combinations are varied and numerous.

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. A whole chicken may simmer in a broth for six hours or longer. 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 with both working parents cannot afford this tradition due to the long preparation time required. However, wealthy families with servants and cook still enjoy the luxury every day. 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.

Hongkong Styletop

Sometimes in the US, the term “Hong Kong Style” is used to distinguish this style of cooking from the more Americanized version most Americans are familiar with.

Preserved Foodtop

Though Cantonese cooks pay much attention to the freshness of their cooking ingredients, Cantonese cooking also uses a long list of preserved food items. This may be an influence from Hakka cuisine. Some items gain very intense flavors during the drying/aging/preservation/oxidation process, similar to Italian style sun-dried tomatoes’ 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. Dried items are usually soaked in water to rehydrate them before cooking, such as mushrooms. 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 without the undesirable strong fishy odor. Not only do preserved foods have a 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 winter mushroom (冬菇)
  • Dried abalone (鮑魚)
  • Dried scallop (瑤柱)
  • Dried sea cucumber (海參)
  • Dried air bladder from various fishes (花膠)
  • Dried shrimp (蝦乾 or 蝦米)
  • Dried shark fin (魚翅)
  • Dried bird nest (燕窩) – bird saliva
  • Dried Bok Choy (菜乾) – a kind of Chinese green vegetable
  • Pickled Bok Choy (鹹酸菜 or 梅菜 or 霉菜)
  • Pickled radish (菜脯)
  • Fu Yu (腐乳) – Salted and fermented tofu
  • Salted preserved fish (鹹魚)
  • Salted preserved sausage (臘腸)
  • Salted preserved duck (臘鴨)
  • Salted preserved pork (臘肉)
  • Salted egg (鹹蛋) – preserved in brine until the egg white turned watery and the yolk turned solid
  • Thousand year old egg (皮蛋)- a duck egg preserved in lime until the egg white turned gelatinous and dark brown,
    the yolk dark green
  • various dried fruits, herbs and flowers, etc.

Sample dishes (top)