“If it has four legs and its back faces the sky, you can eat it, as long as it’s not a table. If it can fly, you can eat it, as long as it’s not an aeroplane.”
You’ve probably heard something like this before: this colloquial proverb is often told as a joke to describe how Cantonese people eat, as opposed to the rest of China. As a vast country with myriad geographic variations, from ice-capped mountains to lush tropical forests, Chinese cuisine is seen as not one but eight cuisines – Chuan (Sichuan), Hui (Anhui), Lu (Shandong), Min (Fujian), Su (Jiangsu), Xiang (Hunan), Zhe (Zhejiang) and Yue (Cantonese).
In the early days of international relations, the city we now know as Guangzhou was known to Europeans as Canton, and “Cantonese” came to describe everything from the wider province of Guangdong – from the local dialect to the people and their cuisine. Some of the earliest Chinese émigrés were Cantonese, such as those who reached San Francisco in the 1800s, and as a result, the Cantonese offerings of dim sum, barbecued pork, wonton soup noodles, and sweet and sour pork have become synonymous with “Chinese food” for many non-Chinese people.
As a historically significant trading port with a mild subtropical climate, an abundance of arable land and a rich network of fresh and sea water fisheries producing seafood, rice, fruits, vegetables year-round, Guangzhou and the Cantonese people have always been known for their almost competitive pursuit to live and eat well. Cantonese cuisine fully reflects this hedonistic attitude – a Cantonese gourmet prides him or herself on having eaten a staggering variety of top-quality ingredients made with sophisticated, studied techniques, and is a collector of fine food experiences, the way a watch connoisseur accumulates timepieces, with rare and esoteric being the name of the game. It is quite possible that it was this philosophy that led to the likes of sea cucumber, shark’s fin and abalone being recognised as delicacies in the days before commercial diving and fishing became the norm. Aside from exoticism of ingredients, freshness — the need to eat a food at its peak and to retain its original flavours — is a particular point of pride for chefs in the region, as is finding foods that will improve health and prolong life, so much so that there is a sub-cuisine of healing dishes for specific ailments and for balancing the body’s condition.
Until around 170 years ago, however, this culture of advanced gastronomy didn’t apply to the people of Hong Kong. Although the city shares the Pearl River Delta with Guangdong Province, before the British arrived, Hong Kong was little more than a series of small fishing villages, unlike the big city of Guangzhou, which was the region’s centre for commerce. In 1842, the Treaty of Nanking was signed as a result of the First Opium War, and Hong Kong came under the control of the British, who went to work immediately on creating their new international port. Economic migration ensued, and Hong Kong’s population grew tremendously, consisting mostly of Cantonese people from Guangdong.
As with any story of mass emigration throughout modern history, the people brought with them their cuisine, and with virtually the same climactic conditions, there was little difference between Cantonese food from Guangdong and that in Hong Kong. “The Cantonese cuisines of Guangdong and Hong Kong are basically very similar,” says Dr. Sidney Cheung, professor of anthropology at Chinese University Hong Kong. “In Hong Kong, it started having more varieties of ingredients with other countries in the 1980s, and the emergence of nouvelle Cantonese cuisine might be a good example for the difference in development”.
Most of Hong Kong was working class well into the 1970s, and an economic boom began in the 1980s, inevitably leading to an increased need to display one’s wealth. A new era of Hong Kong cuisine was born. XO sauce is a prime example of this – it was invented at the Peninsula Hotel in 1986 for the opening of the hotel’s first Chinese restaurant, Spring Moon. Rather than offering unoriginal concoctions like abalone and shark’s fin as their signature dish, they decided to create a dipping sauce using equally prestigious ingredients, including dried scallops, dried shrimps and Yunnan ham. The sauce was called XO to emphasise its luxuriousness, as XO cognac was the drink of choice among the well-to-do back then. This was also a time when Hongkongers’ interest and financial ability in getting their hands on foreign foods like the aforementioned cognac, as well as cheese, balsamic vinegar, caviar and lobster increased.
Those taking a closer look at Cantonese cuisine will find three main styles, from Guangzhou, Chaozhou and Dongjiang respectively. Food from Guangzhou, the capital and largest city of Guangdong, is the main representative of Cantonese cuisine, with dishes that showcase the freshness of ingredients without any thick or overly powerful sauces that might take attention away from the original flavours of the meat and vegetables. Dim sum is perhaps the best known meal from Guangzhou, a typical breakfast of tea and steamed baskets of meats, dumplings and buns that is now enjoyed all over the world.
The evolution of the humble barbecued pork bun, a dim sum staple, traces the trajectory of Cantonese food in Hong Kong. The bun, in its original form, consisted of a wheat-flour dough filled with barbecued pork and steamed. With the introduction of Western baking techniques, thanks to increased international trade and cultural exposure, a soft, slightly sweetened dough, glazed and baked in an oven but again filled with barbecued pork, the caa1 siu1 caan1 baau1 (叉燒餐包) was introduced. Currently, the newest and arguably most popular forms of the barbecued pork bun are the syut3 saan1 caa1 siu1 baau1 (雪山叉燒包) and bo4 lo1 caa1 siu1 baau1 (菠蘿叉燒包), with the first two words meaning snow and pineapple respectively, to describe the crunchy, sweet topping added to a western-inspired bread dough. These breads are baked in a western oven using techniques typical to Hong Kong-style bakeries that are part of a bakery and caa4 caan1 teng1 (茶餐廳 – café or diner) culture that essentially took Western culinary techniques and ingredients and adapted them to local tastes. With these dim sum, Chinese chefs go a step further and fill these breads with a completely Cantonese pork filling.
“Hong Kong people identify ourselves living with cultures of both East and West, so the highlight of food with [these] characters shapes what people consider [Hong Kong] food,” says Dr. Cheung.
Poached whole chicken served with minced ginger and scallions in oil, baak6 cit3 gai1 (白切雞) is also a typical Guangzhou-style dish. An entire chicken is expertly poached in plain water, with the heat turned off so that the flesh is just cooked through and perfectly tender. The dish requires exact timing so that the meat retains its juices and tenderness. The minced ginger and scallion is a condiment to highlight and heighten the chicken’s own flavours. These days, don’t be surprised to find the chicken cooked sous vide, and served with a ginger and scallion sauce made with extra virgin olive oil.
Chaozhou cuisine is known for its seafood dishes, its spiced soy sauce marinades, as well as for the habit of late-night eating. Chaozhou, also written as Chiuchow, or Teochew, is an eastern coastal city of Guangdong with abundant marine produce. The custom of daa1 laang5 (打冷), a phrase in the Chiuchow dialect that means late-night eating, is to feast on spiced soy sauce-braised tofu, noodle soups such as ngau4 zaap6 min6 (牛雜麵), beef innards with noodles in broth, seafood congee such as haai5 zuk1 (蟹粥) whole crab congee, and more, at a time close to midnight. Known for their ability in bringing out the best of marine delicacies, Chiuchow is home to ciu4 zau1 dung1 haai5, cold crab Chiuchow-style (潮州凍蟹), as well as jyu4 pin3 (魚片), sliced deep-fried fishcake, jyu4 gaau2 (魚餃) fish dumplings, and jyu4 daan2 (魚蛋), the fishballs ubiquitous on Hong Kong streets, commonly found on skewers slathered in curry sauce at hawker stalls, or in soup with flat rice noodles, known as jyu4 daan2 ho4 (魚蛋河). Despite its name, Chiuchow style fishballs are usually made with eel, famed for its al dente texture and an intense sweetness of the sea brought out by continuous whisking of minced fresh eel.
Say “Dongjiang food”, and it’s unlikely Hongkonger will know what you’re talking about, but call it by its ethnicity, Hakka, and immediately you’ll hear diners waxing lyrical about rib-sticking dishes like mui4 coi3 kau3 juk6 (梅菜扣肉), pork belly braised with pickled mustard greens and zyu1 jau4 lou4 faan6 (豬油撈飯), rice dressed with the drippings of roast pork. It’s not surprisingly that with a rise in health consciousness, Hakka food has fallen out of favour slightly, although most people who grew up in Hong Kong will have fond memories of eating the dish as a child, and would still consider eating these dishes once every so often.
Located in the eastern tributary of the Pearl River, Dongjiang is where a large portion of Guangdong’s Hakka population is based. The cuisine of Hakka people features dishes that are hearty, rustic, and cooked until well-done, with a high caloric value. Dung1 gong1 jim4 guk6 gai1 (東江鹽焗雞), Dongjiang salted chicken, is one of the most loved traditional Hakka dishes that has stood the test of time. The chicken is wrapped in thin paper (traditionalists prefer the thin crepe-like paper used for Chinese calligraphy), baked under a heap of hot salt, which is heated by tossing the heap in an extremely hot wok. The result is a juicy chicken with perfectly golden skin.
There has arguably been much less experimentation with the more rustic cuisines of Chaozhou and Dongjiang, and with a renewed interest in all things old, many of these dishes are now making a comeback, so look out for them on your next culinary adventure.
Where to Eat
The Chairman, 18 Kau U Fong, Central, Hong Kong, (+852) 2555 2202.
Lung King Heen, Podium 4, Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong, 8 Finance Street, Central, Hong Kong. (+852) 3196 8880.
Seventh Son, 5-6/F., Kwan Chart Tower, 6 Tonnochy Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong. (+852) 2892 2888.
Yan Toh Heen, G/F, InterContinental Hong Kong, 18 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong, (+852) 2313 2323.
Chan Kan Kee Chiu Chow Restaurant, 11 Queen’s Road West, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong, (+852) 2858 0033.
Tak Kee Chiu Chou Restaurant, 3 Belcher’s Street, Kennedy Town, Hong Kong, (+852) 2819 5568.
Chuen Cheung Kui, 7-8/F, Phase 1, Causeway Bay Plaza 1, 489 Hennessy Road, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, (+852) 2577 3833.
Tai Wing Wah Restaurant, 2/F, Koon Wong Mansion, 2-6 On Ning Road, Yuen Long, N.T., Hong Kong, (+852) 2476 9888.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.