The savor of south China caters to all palates alike

By Elsbeth van Paridon
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Beijing Review, June 16, 2021
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Ever the food-oriented society, Chinese compliments of yore include such gems like "you've fattened up," indicating you've been eating a lot, indicating life's been treating you pretty well. In 2021, the aforementioned pretty much denotes you've been stuffing your face; gracing any modern (fe)male with these words, usually ends in a crash diet—or two. Having said that, not even the highest-flying resident of China will let these words come between them. And their Cantonese nibbles. Sharpen your knives because here are the parts unknown of Chez Guangdong. 

The great chef and food storyteller Anthony Bourdain once spoke the winged words: "Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life—and travel—leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks—on your body or on your heart—are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt." Those left by the BBQ pork buns or honey garlic spareribs, eggplant in garlic sauce, beef with oyster sauce and, of course, the illustrious practice that is dim sum-ing, burst with guilty pleasure.

Guangdong, or Cantonese cuisine, is matchless among Chinese cuisines. Its raw materials, cooking methods, and flavorings all differ from the other styles found across the vast land. Located in south China, the province of Guangdong is bordered by mountain ranges to the north and the South China Sea to the south.

The cuisine divides into three aromatic areas: Guangdong food is traditional Guangdong cuisine; Chaozhou food is similar to Fujian cooking because Chaozhou neighbors Fujian Province. The latter stresses seafood and many dishes are served in soup, with thick syrupy, scrumptious, and sweet senses. Fish sauce, hot sauce and red vinegar are the countertop must-haves for this one. Dongjiang food, epitomized by Huizhou food, stresses poultry and serves up dishes that veer slightly to the saltier side of things, drizzled in simple sauces.

Another staple in the Cantonese caboose is seafood, paired with a pantry displaying unique and mixed flavorings as the cuisine also puts on its plate a significant spoon of foreign cooking cultures. For example, one flavoring liquid is a mixture prepared from onion, garlic, sugar, salt, and spices. Gravy, then, is prepared from a mixture of peanut oil, ginger, onion, Shaoxing rice wine, crystallized sugar, anise, licorice root, clove, ginger powder, and dried tangerine peel. Spiced salt, in turn, is prepared from refined salt, sugar, powdered spices, and anise. These flavorings, along with other beloved condiments such as oyster sauce, clam oil, and curry, lend the Guangdong fare its unique taste.

Throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), Guangdong went on a journey towards prosperity and developed closer contacts with other Chinese regions. As slices of Western culture entered the picture, Guangdong cuisine absorbed the cooking skills of the West as well as a set of national cooking to develop its own distinctive techniques. Its most characteristic cooking methods are cooking in salt, cooking in wine, baking in a pan, and soft-frying. 

Cooking in salt means the preserved ingredient (a whole chicken, for example) is buried in heated salt until well done. The most famous of these dishes is Dongjiang salt-cooked chicken. Cooking in wine means the main component is steamed in alcoholic vapor. The most typical dish is twin pigeons cooked in rose wine. Baking in a pan means all ingredients are thrown into an iron pan. The pan is then covered with a red hot cast iron lid and heated until the dish is done. Typical example thereof: baked egg. Next in line: soft-frying. This technique sees the chef heat the pan over a hot fire, pour some oil in the pan to coat the bottom, add a little more oil and stir in the ingredients over a medium to low fire. Think stir-fried fresh milk or stir-fried eggs.

Good food, as they say, is very often, even most often, simple food. Yet, and perhaps contrary to popular belief, "simple" has never been an apt description for China's cuisine at large.

There are a lot of similarities between the historical depiction of the Chinese kitchen above and what Guangdong master chefs still do today. Nearly all dim sum prep is labor-intensive, with a lot of drive and detail going into something so petite.

Chez Guangdong has always been a frenzied place accommodating many specialists tasked with doing one single thing in outstanding fashion. Practice makes for the perfect p(a)late. To this very day.

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