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Highly cultured cuisine
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-05-05 09:00

One Cantonese saying goes that anything that walks, swims, crawls, or flies is edible. Another says that the only four-legged things that Cantonese people won't eat are tables and chairs.

But antonese cuisine is characterized by the use of very mild spices.

Guangdong Province in South China, with its mild, subtropical climate, grows an abundance of foods all year, including rice, fruit and vegetables.

And plentiful feed for livestock means high-quality meat and poultry is in abundance.

As a result, Cantonese chefs take pride in their cooking. They use fresh ingredients every day to retain the unique flavour and texture of each dish.

No wonder that for centuries local residents have been noted for their sophisticated cuisine, and their keen interest in food.

Its recipes, first appearing in the literature of the Han, Wei, Southern and Northern Dynasties (220-589), have become famous both at home and abroad since the beginning of the 20th century.

Because their food is of such superlative quality, local people consider themselves connoisseurs of both flavour and taste.

With the advantage of all delicacies from all over the country, Guangdong cuisine has gradually formed its own characteristics.

Using a wide variety of ingredients, it offers food of all tastes, shapes and colours, serving different types of dishes for all seasons.

Light food is provided in summer and autumn, while winter and spring see strong and mellow food.

Spinach, cabbage, peppers, broccoli and dried mushrooms are widely used.

Ginger, spring onion, sugar, salt, soy sauce, rice wine, corn starch and oil are sufficient for most Cantonese cooking. Five spices (prickly ash, star aniseed, cinnamon, clove and fennel), white pepper powder and many other spices are used in Cantonese dishes, but usually very lightly.

With a long culinary history, the Cantonese are also very inventive, and happy to incorporate non-native ingredients in their cooking.

Cantonese cooking also specializes in the quick stir-frying of vegetables, which helps to retain colour, flavour and nutrients, and roasting a wide variety of meats, poultry, and seafood.

The cooking techniques include Shao (boil, then fry in oil), Bao (cooking with a special kind of boiler), gently frying in oil, soft stir-frying and steaming in clear soup.

Roasted and barbecued meats are also popular at restaurants and butchers.

Three cuisines in one

Cantonese cuisine, known as yue cai, one of the main cuisine styles in China, is composed of Guangzhou, Chaozhou and Dongjiang cuisines.

Guangzhou, capital city of the province, is the place of origin of Cantonese cuisine, offering more than 2,000 kinds of dishes.

Prepared with a variety of high-quality ingredients, Guangzhou cuisine is composed of light, delicious, refreshing and nutritious dishes with sour, sweet, bitter, spicy, salty and delicious tastes.

People here believe that many dishes are good for people's health.

Chaozhou cuisine focuses on the seafood dishes since Chaozhou is a coastal city.

Dongjiang cuisine, or Hakka food, is very popular in the cities of Heyuan and Meizhou.

Fatty, salty and well-done, many dishes of Hakka cuisine are believed to help nourish diners' kidneys, reduce temperature, clear the lungs and improve both the eyes and skin.

Dongjiang salted chicken, one of the famous Hakka dishes, is a traditional dish with a golden yellow colour, crisp and tender meat and a fragrant smell.

There are two cooking methods. The traditional one is to wrap the clean chicken in paper then put it into heated salt, the heat from the salt cooks the chicken.

The other way is to soak the chicken in hot soup until it is 80 per cent cooked, then pick it up and chop it into several parts. Following that salt, oil and sesame oil are put in. Stir it to make the ingredients even, and lastly cook it until it is totally ready.

Through a long history, these three Cantonese cuisines have effectively integrated with each other and can be enjoyed at many places in the province.

Delicate dim sum

Guangzhou's most omnipresent speciality is the snack dim sum.

Often eaten at breakfast or lunch, dim sum are savoury dumplings stuffed with prawns, beef and pork.

The region also produces a great variety of snacks with different tastes, such as moon cakes, porridge, chicken cakes, pastries, red sweetened bean paste and double skin milk.

Cantonese snacks have many peculiar ingredients, some sweet and some salty, enjoying the reputation of "100 kinds of snacks having 100 tastes and 100 shapes."

Cantonese people often hound restaurants or coffee shops early in the morning for their daily dose of dim sum.

Trolleys laden with steaming dim sum are wheeled through dining rooms so that people can glimpse and take their pick.

The fun of eating dim sum is when you get to delight yourself with the wonderful colours and smells of the various choices according to your stomach's desire.

While other parts of China also produce dim sum, Guangdong people believe that the Cantonese style transcends all in both variety and delicacy.

Cantonese seafood

Seafood plays an important part in Guangdong cuisine.

The long coastline gives access to the rich fishing grounds of the South China Sea with their enormous variety of fish and seafood.

Prawns, shrimps, scallops, lobster and crab are in plentiful supply.

Locals believe that the best way to cook fresh seafood is by stir-frying or steaming, usually with ginger and onion to offset their "fishiness."

The light seasoning is used only to enhance the natural sweetness of the seafood.

Seafood is also frequently used in meat dishes - giving the food a distinctive savoury quality.

Oyster sauce, shrimp sauce and shrimp paste are widely used. For instance, beef with oyster sauce is a favorite dish in the region.

Soup a must

Last, but certainly not least, is Cantonese soup cooked on a mild fire.

The soup is usually a clear broth prepared by simmering meat and other ingredients for several hours. Chinese herbal medicines are sometimes added to the clay pot, to make the soup nutritious and healthy.

The ingredients of a rather expensive Cantonese slow cooked soup include fresh chicken, dried cod fish bladder, dried sea cucumber and dried abalone.

Another more affordable combination includes pork bones and watercress with two types of almonds.

Other ingredients include ginger, dates and other Chinese herbal medicines.

The method is to put the raw materials in when the water is boiling, then turn down theheat and simmer for two to four hours.

The main attraction is the liquid in the pot, the solids are usually thrown away unless they are expensive ingredients such as abalone or snake.

The solids are usually unpalatable, but the essences are all in the liquid. Local residents believe all soup improves their health.

There are hundreds of recipes for soup. The usual one is the long-hour cooked soup, known as lao huo li tang, which is combined with vegetables and bones, sometimes added with Chinese herbs.

It is a must when people go to restaurants to have Cantonese food.

In addition to the ingredients and methods, Cantonese soup is cooked differently in different seasons, catering to people's varying tastes and needs.

Cantonese people attach great importance to the health-giving properties of soup in different seasons.

For example, local people enjoy the soup, combined with duck and wax gourd, to reduce the temperature in the hot summer days, while in winter, they like the soup with the seed of Job's tears and pig's stomach to warm their stomachs.

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