Easily the most well-known of the Chinese regional cuisines, Cantonese cuisine comes from the region around Canton in Southern China. Simple spices and a wide variety of foods used in cooking characterize Cantonese cuisine. Of all the Chinese regions, Canton (Guangdong province) has the most available food resources. Its proximity to the sea offers a veritable marine cornucopia to be added to its dishes, making possible such delicate matings as Seven Happiness, a dish that includes shrimp, scallops, fish and lobster along with chicken, beef and pork. The light, delicate sauce, quick cooking and subtle spicing allows the natural flavors to shine through rather than being overwhelmed and blending together.
The spices used in Cantonese cooking tend to be light and simple: ginger, salt, soy sauce, white pepper, spring onion and rice wine. For many who are used to the more rich, spicy and complex flavors of Hunan and Szechwan cooking, Cantonese cooking may seem bland – but the subtle blends of flavor and aroma are created by the hand of a master chef.
All Chinese cuisine takes far more into account than the flavor of a dish. Chinese cooking is a presentation of texture, color, shape and aroma with even the name of the dish contributing to its overall presentation. In true Oriental fashion, a meal is poetry, with every part of it contributing to the overall effect. Chinese courtesy demands that a guest be treated with honor, and to present a guest with anything less than perfection is the height of rudeness.
As an honor to guests, freshness is one of the ultimate ‘ingredients’ in Cantonese regional cooking. In many restaurants, guests can choose their meal from a seafood tank in the dining room. It’s not unusual for a patron to be brought a live fish or crab at the table as proof of the freshness of the meal about to be prepared. Vegetables are likewise fresh, crisp and sweet, and the quick cooking methods preserve each flavor separately to play against the others.
Light sauces with subtle seasonings bring out the natural sweetness of seafood – but the Cantonese chef will only use the very freshest seafood in those dishes. For ‘stale’ seafood, Cantonese cuisine offers thick, spicy sauces meant to mask the characteristic odor of fish. Pungent/sweet dishes like sweet and sour butterfly shrimp might be served this way.
There are few Cantonese desserts that are indigenous to the region, though many restaurants serve a mango based pudding or tapioca. Most meals are served with plain boiled rice, and accompanied by either tea or rice wine.
Wherever in the world you are, you’re likely to find restaurants that serve Cantonese cuisine. It has been carried across the world by emigrants from the Quangdong province, and its light, delicate flavors are easy on the Western palate. To truly appreciate it though, takes more than the taste buds. Cantonese cuisine is a treat for the eyes and the nose as much as for the mouth.