"Chicken," the dim sum lady said to my father when he gestured at the steamed-up, inverted glass bowl atop a white plate. He nodded and she handed over the chicken and stamped our ticket. He lifted the bowl and my brothers and I gasped as we beheld a tangle of gnarled chicken feet in a dark sauce shot through with fermented black soy beans. The old man gamely dug in.
Regular trips with my parents to New York City's Chinatown were a major part of my culinary education as a child. One of my earliest and most cherished food memories isn't about my father's Italian cooking; it's being hoisted up to steamy window to ogle glistening hunks of char siu.
We always visited the Chinese grocer, where my father purchased mushroom soy sauce. Next stop: the noodle factory, a bustling, decidedly non-retail production space where my father would peek behind the curtain and shout "wonton skin" to whichever white-clad worker was closest at hand. Dad used the wrappers for homestyle chow fun—the same dish that taught me to use chopsticks when I slurped down rice noodles with my brother Tony on Mott Street.
It wasn't until my twenties that I realized that dim sum, roasted meats, and such offal as chicken feet are all part and parcel of a specific regional cuisine of China: Cantonese food. Up until that point, I assumed that what I'd been eating in Manhattan's Chinatown was "real Chinese food," as opposed to the battered-and-fried Lotus Garden variety of Long Island strip mall Chinese.
It'd take even longer before I learned about the golden rules of Cantonese cooking: the importance of subtlety and letting ingredients speak for themselves. Yes, soy-sauced noodles, epic meals of dim sum, and fatty roasted meats are all indeed hallmarks of Cantonese food. But so are delicate steamed or fried whole flounder and light vegetable dishes. Even today, there's a lot more to Cantonese cuisine than what we Americans think.
China's Most Cosmopolitan Cuisine
"Cantonese cooking, which is from the province of Guangdong, has an undeserved negative reputation," says Kian Lam Kho, the author of Chinese food blog Red Cook who is currently working on a definitive cookbook on classic Chinese cooking techniques.
"This is unfortunate, since Cantonese cooking is one of the most refined and celebrated cuisines in China. Go to any large city in China, or indeed in Asia; Cantonese restaurants are the most popular and highly sought after."
The Pearl River Delta area of Guangdong province, anchored by the city of Guangzhou, was the first region sanctioned by the Qing Dynasty imperial court to be opened for trade with the outside world in the 18th century. As foreign merchants arrived in the region, they established trading posts and brought along with them not only their merchandise, but their culinary customs as well. Thus Guangdong cooking became the first truly cosmopolitan cuisine of China. And as Guandgong residents were among the first in China to immigrate to America, their food has cemented itself as the default Chinese cooking in the States.
All About Subtlety
Cantonese cuisine is typified by simple dishes that are all about clear, natural flavors, reflections of the region's abundant seafood and agriculture. While cooks in Sichuan and Dongbei may blast their food with spice, Cantonese cooks employ very few heavy spices, letting main ingredients speak for themselves. Also unlike the cuisines of Northern and Western China, lamb and goat are rarely seen on the Cantonese table. Pork, beef, chicken, fish, and seafood—and often all parts thereof—are the primary proteins. (Game meats like civet, finch, and snake are consumed for medicinal purposes.)
Ed Schoenfeld, the New York City restaurateur behind American-Chinese icons Shun Lee, Pig Heaven, and Red Farm, and sage of Chinese food in America, regards the Cantonese obsession with freshness thus: "Food is meant to taste like what it is. There might be a lot of manipulation, but the end product is meant to be something that tastes like itself."
You see the practice most in the Cantonese treatment of live fish. During my childhood trips to Chinatown, I was always amazed by Fish Corner Market's bins of grouper, flounder, and countless other aquatic edibles. Fish Corner Market is now long gone, but live fish plucked from a restaurant aquarium to be steamed or fried to order remains a tradition in Chinatowns from Queens to Hong Kong.
Cantonese fried fish should be as fresh and greaseless as the best tempura, and even subtler steamed fish should be light and delicate. "Cantonese people want that fish extremely fresh. The beauty to them is the texture the cleanness of the fish," Schoenfeld says.
Kho counts himself a fan of steamed fish, which he says should be doused with a sauce made from soy sauce, rice wine, and a little sugar before finally topped with finely julienned ginger and scallion drizzled with fragrant hot oil. "This savory fish scented with the ginger and scallion could make a gourmand cry if executed perfectly."
Soy sauce, sugar, black vinegar, and fermented bean paste are used all over China, but in Cantonese food, "garlic, ginger, and scallion is like the holy trinity," Schoenfeld notes. You'll find other seasonings in the kitchen, like chili peppers, five spice powder, black pepper, and star anise, but they're used sparingly.
In addition to soy sauce, which comes in a few varieties, Cantonese pantries call for sweet and savory hoisin sauce, plum sauce, shrimp paste, and dried black beans. The latter is known in Chinese as dou chi—often translated as salted black beans—and is used to make the pungent, fermented-tasting black bean sauce. Dou chi are actually the oldest known food made from soy beans, and they're not light on the salt. You can learn that the hard way like my father did when he added more than the recommended amount to a recipe that turned out inedible.
Other fermented, dried, or cured ingredients punch up Cantonese cooking's mild flavors. Jiang yao zhu, or fishy dried scallops, are often added to clear soups or the rice porridge congee. La chang, a sweet, fatty dried sausage that looks like a cross between a Slim Jim and a pepperoni stick, lubricates sticky rice. Xian dan, wobbly black salted duck eggs, liven up congee with their funky alkaline flavor. And mei cai, salt-pickled Chinese cabbage, is typically cooked with pork fried rice.
All these flavors are brought together with a variety of techniques that includes steaming, stir frying, shallow frying, double steaming, braising, deep frying, and roasting. The latter is a technique known in Cantonese as siu mai (or shao wei in Mandarin) and includes all manner of lovely roast meats, including that bright red, five-spice-inflected roast pork I used to ogle in Chinatown windows as a lad.
Crucial Carbs: Rice and Noodles
Steamed white rice is a staple in Cantonese cuisine, a way to fill out barbecued meats, steamed fish, or stir fries. Rice is also the central ingredient in elaborate chao fan, fried rice dishes, which far exceed what one would find in the corner takeout shop. One of my favorites, the grandly named Famous Golden Fried Rice at Canton Gourmet, in the bustling Chinatown of downtown Flushing, Queens, features savory XO sauce with dried scallop and shrimp, chili, and garlic; golden raisins; and shreds of cured egg yolk to delicious, sweet-savory-aromatic effect.
Bao zai fan, or little pot rice, consists of rice cooked in a ceramic casserole dish of sorts topped with other ingredients and served in the cooking vessel. Popular varieties include spare ribs (pai gu bao zai fan) and Chinese sausage with preserved meat (la wei bao zai fan). Then there's congee—rice porridge—a breakfast staple often eaten with such intensely flavored items as fermented tofu or preserved eggs.
More Cantonese Icons
There's more to Cantonese seafood than steamed and fried fish. Signature dishes include snails stir fried with black bean sauce, fried shell-on salt and pepper shrimp, steamed scallops with ginger and garlic, and other more exotic aquatics like sea cucumber and jellyfish, the latter of which is served as a cold salad.
Stir Fried Noodles
Chow fun, broad rice noodles, are a staple of my childhood. They're also a close relative of ho fun, also known as Shahe fen after the town in Guangzhou where they originated. Wok hei, literally "the breath of the wok," plays a large role in a perfect stir fried chow—the noodles should have a delicate smoky character from the wok's heat and seared oil. A good chow fun should be just oily enough to feel slick and should maintain a slight char without tasting dry or burnt.
Cantonese fried chicken (zha zi ji) deserves as much fame as its counterpart in the American South. A whole bird is boiled with such aromatics as star anise, cinnamon, and nutmeg, then dried off and fried without batter or dredging until the skin is shatteringly crisp, not unlike Peking duck. The glorious thing is then chopped up and topped off with heaps of fried garlic.
It's a common banquet dish, and the basis for more elaborate poultry preparations, like swatches of chicken skin atop deep fried shrimp paste. But the prize for most complicated poultry goes to Luk Yu Teahouse in Hong Kong, where an entire bird is deboned, then stuffed with a mixture of glutinous rice, Chinese sausage, chicken meat, shiitake mushrooms, and dried shrimp, among other things. The whole thing is then fried to a shattering crunch by repeatedly bathing it in hot oil.
Slow-cooked soups (lao huo tang, literally "old fire soup"), are commonplace at banquets, but are also consumed for medicinal purposes. "For me it's always about the soups," says Yen Yen Woo the co-creator of Dim Sum Warriors, a graphic novel with a culinary edge (Yen Yen and her husband are also active in Flushing's Chinese food scene). "There's a soup for every season and every ailment, so you eat winter melon soup when it's too hot. Soups are very important for Cantonese people," Woo explains. For instance, a soup of spare ribs with watercress and apricot kernals (nan bei xing xi yang cai zhu gu tang) is also renowned for its cooling effect upon the body.
The islands of Hong Kong and Macao lie on the coastal edge of Guangdong province at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta and were governed for many years by two European colonial powers, the British Empire and Portugal, respectively. Both colonies have left their mark upon Cantonese cuisine. The best-known Portuguese influenced dish would have to be the egg tart, or dan tat, now found in bakeries and dim sum restaurants from Vancouver to Hong Kong. "Few people realize that it is a version of the pastéis de nata that originated in Belém outside of Lisbon," Kho notes.
At one time dim sum was humble, cheap street food, but these days, in Chinese communities, it's served in palatial dining halls. The chicken feet that shocked me all those years ago are one staple, poetically named "phoenix claws," (feng zhao), featuring chicken feet that have been deep fried, boiled, marinated in a black bean sauce, and then steamed.
You eat them by nibbling on the savory skin and cartilage while discreetly spitting out the bones. "Chicken feet make you run very fast," a Chinese table mate at New York City's Jing Fong once said with a smile, as she and I dug into a fresh bowl.
But for me, dim sum will always be about the dumplings. I adore the pleated, open-topped siu mai filled with shrimp and pork and crowned with crab roe. My heart truly belongs to har gao, though, the crescent-shaped dumplings packed with shrimp and pork fat and wrapped in a chewy, slightly translucent dough that are a must-order at any dim sum house.