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Toby

Various Chinese cuisines

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A famous saying in China goes: "A perfect life is possible if one is born in Suzhou (home of the most beautiful women), dressed in Hangzhou (finest silks), dies in Luzhou (best willow wood for coffins), but eats in Guangzhou (Canton, capital city of Guangdong province and home of classical Cantonese cuisine)." Cantonese food was considered the most delicious by the Chinese themselves.

Non-Chinese diners in the U.S., familiar with Cantonese-style restaurants, might disagree with this assertion. Typical Cantonese food in the U.S. has been altered, sometimes beyond recognition, by circumstances; it's Cantonese in concept but not execution. Chinese workers from the districts of Toi San And Sun Tak (near Canton) were among the first Chinese immigrants to the West in the 19th century. U.S. immigration policy at that time seriously limited the number of Chinese women allowed in -- the idea was that when the railroads were built, the Chinese would go home. The laborers cooked for themselves, as best they could, and when the railroads were built, they settled in American cities and some opened restaurants. They cooked the food they knew -- village-style, home cooking -- and were further limited by climate, available ingredients, and distance from tradition, as well as their practical need to please Western palates. And so we got yucky Chinese food -- cloying sweet and sour pork with canned pineapple, awful chow mein and chop suey, eggy sticky shrimp with lobster sauce, tasteless brown sauces thickened with cornstarch, msg headaches.

The 1970s was a golden age for Cantonese cuisine in the U.S. because of changes in immigration policies that allowed many more Chinese from Hong Kong into the U.S. Huge dim sum restaurants opened, and many chefs from Hong Kong arrived. I was lucky to be studying Chinese in New York at the time, and got invited to many Chinese banquets, as well as wonderful family restaurant meals where I ate food much closer to the classic Cantonese repertoire. My best friend's mother often took me on day-long eating and food shopping expeditions in Chinatown. At that time, the meat, seafood and produce were exceptionally fresh, because people demanded it. I was amazed at how so many of the Cantonese people I met were obsessed with food (on an eGullet level). I watched people order what they wanted without even consulting the Chinese menu. They simply wrote down the dishes they wanted on a piece of paper and handed it to the waiter. Everyone seemed to know the best places to go to as soon as they appeared.

Guangdong province is in the south, with a long coastline and several large rivers down which produce can be shipped from the interior. The climate is semi-tropical; two rice crops are harvested a year. More than in many areas of China, there was usually enough food, and a great variety of ingredients. These factors shaped a delicious cuisine whose underlying philosophy is absolute freshness and a concurrent desire to preserve the essential nature and sweet flavor of each ingredient. Various techniques are employed to achieve this.

One method is to cook food for short periods of time, or to use very mild forms of cooking. Food is poached in boiling water and then removed from the fire to finish cooking in the slowly cooling liquid. White cut chicken is an example of this method, as is soy sauce chicken (both are the chickens you see hanging in restaurant windows). For these dishes to work, the chicken has to be absolutely fresh. (The Cantonese prefer chicken slightly undercooked to Western tastes, leaving a little blood near the bone.) The delicate flavor of the white cut chicken is set off by a dipping sauce of soy sauce, chicken broth, ginger, scallions and sesame oil. Shrimp are also cooked with this method -- boiling water is poured over very fresh shrimp in their shells, left to stand for a few minutes and then drained. More boiling water is poured over, drained again, and the shrimp are then eaten with a dip of tangerine juice, minced scallion, soy sauce and shredded ginger root in vinegar. Brief steaming is another method that preserves the fresh, sweet taste. Whole fish such as sea bass, bream or carp are steamed until just cooked and served with a thin sauce of soy, chicken stock, ginger, scallions and wine. A little oil can be heated just before serving and poured over the fish. Greens of all kinds are blanched to preserve the natural flavor.

The Cantonese even have a dish similar to sashimi -- a live carp is pulled from the water, knocked on the head and stunned, split, gutted, scaled and filleted and eaten immediately with a dipping sauce of ginger, soy, boiled peanut oil, scallion and white pepper.

Stir-frying also is designed to retain the pure flavors of ingredients. Only a small amount of oil is used and the food is quickly whisked through the oil under very high heat in a manner described as "flame and air."

The savory quality of Cantonese food is often achieved by combining seafood flavors with meat. Oyster sauce, shrimp sauce and shrimp paste are widely used (similar to the use of fermented fish in Southeast Asian cooking). Shrimp shells and heads are boiled in meat or chicken stock to add depth of flavor to soups and sauces. Sometimes meat is added to seafood dishes to enhance the savoriness. An example is the classic Lobster Cantonese, in which minced or shredded pork is stir-fried with onions, garlic, ginger and soaked, mashed salted black beans together with lobster (or crab). Chicken stock and wine are added at the last minute, creating a little explosion in the wok, and then again in your mouth.

The Cantonese specialize in crispy foods, where the skin of pork and poultry is crisp and crackling, such as Crispy Skin Roast Pork (belly pork). Here the crunchiness of the skin is set off by the plain white rice served with it. Chicken is prepared as Crispy Deep-Fried Steamed Stuffed Chicken or Twice-Marinated Crispy Skin Splash-Fried Chicken. Pigeon is also deep-fried. A Cantonese specialty comparable to Peking Duck is Suckling Pig, served with the deep brown, crisp skin (that's brushed with a marinade before roasting) peeled off, cut into squares and served, with the tender meat, with small steamed Lotus Leaf Buns, scallions and hoisin sauce. Cantonese- (or Hong Kong) style Chow Mein is cooked using more frying oil than in other regions. The noodles are pressed down into the pan to make them crisper, and then turned and fried on the other side, to create a sandwich of crisp outer noodles with tender noodles inside.

Home cooking features slow-cooked dishes in earthenware casseroles, among them beef stew braised with daikon radish and star anise (the beef cut is similar to flanken), fish head in casserole, and red braised pork knuckle or belly. Congee is also a common snack food in Canton.

For spiciness, fermented black beans and small amounts of chiles are used. Subtle scents and flavors are introduced by adding drops of sesame oil or by wrapping food in lotus or bamboo leaves, such as lotus leaf sticky rice with duck, roast pork, dried mushrooms and chestnuts, and aromatics. I've always been fascinated by the array of dried foods and preserved meats in Chinese stores -- pork sausage, duck liver sausage, bacon, dried fish maw (air bladder), dried scallops and squid and shrimp, all the different dried mushrooms, deep-fried and then dried squares of bean curd which are stuffed with savory meat or seafood minces and then steamed, and the salted preserved vegetables in earthenware jugs, and fermented bean curd (the latter often added to quickly wilted greens such as watercress).

Textural foods, such as bird's nest, tree fungus, beche-de-mer, fish maw, and shark's fin, are Cantonese in origin, and are mostly found in banquet cooking. Great Assembly of Chicken, Abalone and Shark's Fin is an extravagant banquet dish, in which the shark's fins are cooked separately for over 7 hours and then gently cooked together with lean pork meat, pig's feet, ham, onions and a hen for another 4 hours. The pork, feet, ham, onion and chicken are then removed and put aside for other uses. A young chicken is then quartered, parboiled and left to simmer with the shark fins for another half hour. Abalone and soy sauce are briefly added. The chicken and abalone are cut into thin slices and arranged at the bottom of a deep, ceramic cooking dish. The liquid in the pot is strained and returned to simmer with the fins for another 30 minutes. The fin pieces are then arranged on top of the chicken and abalone. Some of the sauce, now thickened, is poured over to moisten and the pot is steamed for 5 minutes and then served. The shark fins are there primarily for their texture, but that's the point of the whole time-consuming process.

My friend's mother used to make a medicinal soup using the double pot method of cooking. She put blanched squabs inside a pot with chicken stock, ginger, scallions, ginseng root, and rice wine. The pot was then covered and placed inside a bigger pot filled with water, which was then covered and cooked for a long time.

And then there's dim sum, which epitomizes all of the savory deliciousness and love of eating found in Cantonese cooking and among Cantonese people.

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The last Chinese banquet I attended was in 1985 when my aunt Dorothy married her husband. Classic banquet with 12+ courses. That post brought back memories...

SA

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And then there's dim sum, which epitomizes all of the savory deliciousness and love of eating found in Cantonese cooking and among Cantonese people.

That's a setup for the sequel, I hope. Superb post, Toby - thanks.

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Thank you, Toby. I've always heard that Cantonese food was considered to be the best by Chinese people, but nobody would believe me when I passed on the factoid. Now, you have backed it up with some solid information. I hope you post more about Chinese cooking.

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Toby, in the future please refrain from such posts unless you're prepared to serve all of us actual food to back them up.

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Toby, in the future please refrain from such posts unless you're prepared to serve all of us actual food to back them up.

Please do refrain!

Seriously, WOW!

Thanks Toby.

I can well imagine how much effort you put into it. Not what you did with your knowledge, but also of your time and patience.

You are very kind. :biggrin:

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Thank you Toby!

"If it flies but it is not an airplane, swims in the water but is not a boat, has four legs but is not a table, the cantonese will eat it"

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Well, the original statement was about Wilfrid, but yes it's true of the Cantonese too.

I wish we had the expanded menu from Grand Sichuan International Midtown in New York City. It has some uproarious discussions of regional Chinese cuisine. Has anybody stolen a copy? If so let's post some quotes.

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Great post Toby. I will now trash all my Chinese cookbooks--except the one by Virginia Lee.

PJ

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Nice post. It's always been my understanding that Cantonese food, at it's best, offers a cuisine that is arguable the finest of all Chinese foods in terms of finesse and range. I'd take issue only with what you say about western food, when you said "The Cantonese prefer chicken slightly undercooked to Western tastes, leaving a little blood near the bone." Traditionally the French have liked their roast chicken a little bloddy near the bones. It's Americans who like it well done.

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Very wow. Thanks for the post Toby. And best of all, being a 2.5 generation descendant from a small village outside Toi San (keywords: VERY SMALL VILLAGE), I can affirm what Toby's posted as being the truth with good translations too :)

No, I didn't have a 12+ course chinese banquet at my wedding. We had a buffet at a Golf and Country Club with dancing afterwards... after all, it's supposed to be a party, not a damned stuff your face and complain that the chinese dishes weren't done right / not high quality enough for a Wedding.... but that's another story. :)

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Great Assembly of Chicken, Abalone and Shark's Fin is an extravagant banquet dish, in which the shark's fins are cooked separately for over 7 hours and then gently cooked together with lean pork meat, pig's feet, ham, onions and a hen for another 4 hours. The pork, feet, ham, onion and chicken are then removed and put aside for other uses. A young chicken is then quartered, parboiled and left to simmer with the shark fins for another half hour. Abalone and soy sauce are briefly added. The chicken and abalone are cut into thin slices and arranged at the bottom of a deep, ceramic cooking dish. The liquid in the pot is strained and returned to simmer with the fins for another 30 minutes. The fin pieces are then arranged on top of the chicken and abalone. Some of the sauce, now thickened, is poured over to moisten and the pot is steamed for 5 minutes and then served. The shark fins are there primarily for their texture, but that's the point of the whole time-consuming process

A soup with half the complexity of the one described above, in SIN,HKG or even YVR can set you back approx USD130/head with a minimum of two persons needed for the restaurant to consider such an order. We have had

ChuiChow (sp?) redition of Abalone & Chicken Soup, which I must say was very good and quite expensive. The problem is that in NYC (and many other cities in the US --- I'd presume) many non-orientals are unwilling to accept let alone pay top dollars for a complex and delicately prepared oriental dishes {chinese, malay,thai,vietnamese}

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We have had ChuiChow (sp?) redition of Abalone & Chicken Soup, which I must say was very good and quite expensive.

In Chinese Kitchen, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo says, "Though they are referred to as Chiu Chau, Ch'ao Chou, Chaozhou, Teochiu, or Teochew, depending on where they are, they refer to themselves as Chiu Chow, at home and in Hong Kong, where they live by the millions."

I've been eating noodle soup and Chiu Chow duck at a Chiu Chow place in NY for 25 years. (I think they refer to themselves as Chaozhou.) There was a Chiu Chow restaurant upstairs in a corner builidng on Stockton (I think) in San Francisco where I once ate their goose preparation. But I don't know of any places that do such elaborate dishes in the U.S.

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No, I didn't have a 12+ course chinese banquet at my wedding. We had a buffet at a Golf and Country Club with dancing afterwards... after all, it's supposed to be a party, not a damned stuff your face and complain that the chinese dishes weren't done right / not high quality enough for a Wedding.... but that's another story. :)

It wasn't a "stuff-your-face-and-complain-that-the-chinese-dishes-weren't-done-right" affair. Au contraire, my aunt married into a Cantonese family, and so had to learn Cantonese (she speaks Mandarin, Tagalog and English -- her in-laws prefer Cantonese), and as I said, it was a classic banquet with the usual cold plates, soup courses, palate cleansers, certain suspects like shark's fin soup, bird nest's soup, red bean soup, steamed fish, noodles, etc.

And it was rather high quality, given the size of the dinner party, the number of guests and where it was held (some place in Chinatown that I can't remember).

*shrug*

SA

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I apologize in advance for the off topic remark, but I can't think of a better way to party than with a really great sit down dinner. Fortunately I had the pleasure of a daughter (and future son-in-law) who agreed.

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Hi everyone, I'm Skie's wife. I'm more of a lurker than a poster on the message boards, since I'm fairly new to the intricacies of the culinary world (I can cook, but the range is not too varied).:) I'm picking up a lot of things from my fellow members here.

I wanted to clear up any confusion about Skie's statement about the Chinese banquet. It was mainly meant as a joking statement, and not a commentary on banquets in general. The reason we chose not to have one at our wedding is that our guests were a fairly diverse group (I'm half Puerto Rican and American Mutt, mainly South Georgian - and we have friends from other backgrounds), and not all of them would be happy with traditional Cantonese fare (especially my Maid of Honor, who has an aversion to nearly everything seafood, and some of the Georgia folks, who aren't used to non-Americanized Chinese food). Therefore, we consulted my in-laws about the best selection to please all the various palates, and it was decided that a buffet (chosen from several different menus the Country Club offered) would be the best option.

Neither of us has an aversion to the banquet, though. :smile: A nice, sit-down dinner is indeed an excellent way to celebrate, and many members of my husband's family (some of whom were born in China) have had the Cantonese Chinese wedding banquet. It just wasn't suited for what we wanted to do.

Hope this clears up any confusion. Now, back to lurking and enjoying everyone's informative (and often very amusing!) posts. :biggrin:

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What a wonderful post. It brought back a lot of great memories for me...I spnet 10 days in Guanzhou in July of 2000. The food was spectacular, especially the fish selections and hard shelled crabs. In Guanzhou, I was wiht large groups of Americans who were finalizing their adoptions, having just come from the province of their daughter's birth...but all agreed that the Cantonese food was the freshest tasting, most diverse, and skillyfully prepared than soem of the other cuisines. Plus, since Guanzhou is a larger city, there are wonderful Sechuan and Mandarin rests. if you seek them out.

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I wanted to clear up any confusion about Skie's statement about the Chinese banquet.  It was mainly meant as a joking statement, and not a commentary on banquets in general.  The reason we chose not to have one at our wedding is that our guests were a fairly diverse group (I'm half Puerto Rican and American Mutt, mainly South Georgian - and we have friends from other backgrounds), and not all of them would be happy with traditional Cantonese fare (especially my Maid of Honor, who has an aversion to nearly everything seafood, and some of the Georgia folks, who aren't used to non-Americanized Chinese food).  Therefore, we consulted my in-laws about the best selection to please all the various palates, and it was decided that a buffet (chosen from several different menus the Country Club offered) would be the best option.

Thanks for the note. Sorry about my reaction...everything's clear in that context.

I was speaking about MY personal experience at such an occasion, having had the honor of attending only one banquet in the past. Sorry for the confusion. (And if anything, there wouldn't have been any criticism of the dishes...well maybe perhaps, but only in private. I am of Chinese/Filipino ancestry...)

I remember the occasion vividly enough, but not the details. Among other things, it was an occasion of firsts for me: having more food to eat than your typical restaurant meal; eating jellyfish for the first time and remarking on the texture and near blandness; red bean soup (!)/soup as dessert. My eyes were certainly opened that day.

:blink::blink:

SA

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Toby, I'm sorely remiss in being so tardy with this, but I enjoyed what you wrote so much, and look forward to subsequent chapters.

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For the record, my daughter is also half Puerto Rican and I'd rather eat than dance.

:biggrin:

Come to think of it, there were quite a few cooks and very few family. No wonder I had a good time.

:laugh:

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Thank you, everyone, for your nice comments. I'd be glad to write up some other regions; Cantonese food is what I actually know most about, but I could do some research on other regions and write them up. Or other people who know about other regions could do it.

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I've been eating noodle soup and Chiu Chow duck at a Chiu Chow place in NY for 25 years.  (I think they refer to themselves as Chaozhou.)

Where, Toby, Where?????!? (A real pleasure to read you, Toby).

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