Cantonese cooking is one of China’s four major regional styles and is unmatched in the clarity of its flavours and its appealing presentation. Spoiled by good soil and a year-round growing season, the Cantonese demand absolutely fresh ingredients, kept alive and kicking in cages, tanks or buckets at the front of the restaurant for diners to select themselves. Westerners can be repulsed by this collection of wildlife, and even other Chinese comment that the Cantonese will eat anything with legs that isn’t a piece of furniture, and anything with wings that isn’t an aeroplane. The cooking itself is designed to keep textures distinct and flavours as close to the original as possible, using a minimum amount of mild and complementary seasoning to prevent dishes from being bland.
No full meal is really complete without a simple plate of rich green and bitter choi sam (cai xin in Mandarin), Chinese broccoli, blanched and dressed with oyster sauce. Also famous is fish and seafood, often simply steamed with ginger and spring onions; and nobody cooks fowl better than the Cantonese, always juicy and flavoursome, whether served crisp-skinned and roasted or fragrantly casseroled. Guangzhou’s citizens are also compulsive snackers, and outside canteens you’ll see roast meats, such as whole goose or strips of barbecued pork, waiting to be cut up and served with rice for a light lunch, or burners stacked with sandpots, a one-person dish of steamed rice served in the cooking vessel with vegetables and slices of sweet lap cheung sausage. Cake shops selling heavy Chinese pastries and filled buns are found everywhere across the region – make sure you try roast-pork buns and flaky-skinned mooncakes stuffed with sweet lotus seed paste.
Perhaps it’s this delight in little delicacies that led the tradition of dim sum (dian xin in Mandarin) to blossom in Guangdong, where it’s become an elaborate form of breakfast most popular on Sundays, when entire households pack out restaurants. Also known in Cantonese as yum cha – literally, “drink tea” – dim sum involves little dishes of fried, boiled and steamed snacks being stuffed inside bamboo steamers or displayed on plates, then wheeled around the restaurant on trolleys, which you stop for inspection as they pass your table. On being seated, you’re given a pot of tea, which is constantly topped up, and a card, which is marked for each dish you select and which is later surrendered to the cashier. Try juk (rice porridge), spring rolls, buns, cakes and plates of thinly sliced roast meats, and small servings of restaurant dishes like spare ribs, stuffed capsicum, or squid with black beans. Save most room, however, for the myriad types of little fried and steamed dumplings which are the hallmark of a dim sum meal, such as har gau, juicy minced prawns wrapped in transparent rice-flour skins, and siu mai, a generic name for a host of delicately flavoured, open-topped packets.