We are continuing our journey of the Eight Great Traditions of Chinese Cuisine next with the Cantonese Cuisine.
This is the third in the series of eight dinners organized by the 8GTCC Team as we explore the rich traditions of Chinese cuisines. A few months ago, we had two very successful dinners. The first was the dinner in Alvin Garden on the Hunan Cuisine which was attended by 52 people. This was followed by a dinner focused on the Jiangsu Cuisine. That event attracted an even bigger response where almost 70 people attended the monstrous 17-course dinner in Shanghai Village.
We are now ready to take the wraps off the 8GTCC Cantonese dinner. For that past few weeks, LotusRapper and Joe had been working hard in putting together this event. I can tell you that between the two of them, they had been visiting quite a few restaurants (all on their own time and expenses too!) and doing a lot of research in the effort to learn about the Cantonese culture and cuisine.
Being the cuisine leads, LotusRapper and Joe was just the people we needed to spearhead the Cantonese Cuisine. After all, both of them are Canto-Boys. So they will be taking us on a journey from the rustic farm house of Hunan and the ancient Chinese capital in the Jiangsu province to the riches and luxurious abundance of the Guangdong province.
The past few days were particularly frantic as LotusRapper and Joe were busy negotiating with the restaurant in the effort to finalize a fine menu with some of the best delicacies that the Cantonese has to offer. It took a while but they managed to finalize that late yesterday. Location wise, it is better than we expected as we get a private room for this. Not only will this be chance you will savour good quality delicacies but it will also be visually interesting. And to top it all, the restaurant had given us a special price too!
Because of the vastness of the Cantonese cuisine, at one point we were seriously toying with the idea of doing two dinners … one homestyle simple dinner and the other on the high-end luxurious one. While it would be easy to do a homestyle dinner, we thought we cannot make it unique and special as we wanted. I mean, for all the Chinese cuisines in Vancouver, the Cantonese cuisine is the one that everyone is most familiar with already. We even talked about doing the so-called sub-Cantonese cuisine like Chiu Chow and Hakka. We also seriously approached the thought of doing a Contemporary Chinese Cuisine, the likes of Bo Innovation and Susur Lee.
Long story short, we will now do what we felt best reflect the unique nature of the Cantonese. Their riches, extravagance and abundance are best reflected in their cuisine like no other Chinese cuisines … done in the style of a banquet.
The details of the 8GTCC Cantonese dinner is at the bottom of this post. I hope you will take the time to join us in this next exploration of Chinese Cuisine … and of the riches, extravagance and abundance of the Cantonese Cuisine.
Here … let’s start off learning a bit about Guangdong (Canton), the people and the cuisine … as presented by Joe and LotusRapper … and accompanied by a 1970s Canto-Pop song.
Take it away, Canto-Boys![audio:http://chowtimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/Last-Message-Crazy-Song-Sam-Hui.mp3|titles=Last Message Crazy Song (Sam Hui)]
Let’s face facts: Cantonese cuisine is the fat, bloated rock star of all regional Chinese cuisines, cruising on excess and ripe for young punks to pick off. Largely credited both in and out of China as being the “best” of the regional fares, the region has an inflated reputation to live up to, the ego to do so, and – with all caution thrown to the subjective winds – the chops to back it up.
Geography of Guangdong
The actual physical region from which Cantonese cuisine derives will vary depending on who you ask. At times it’s synonymous with the Pearl River Delta; at other times takes the whole Guangdong province into consideration; at its broadest, the term includes Hong Kong, neighbouring Guanxi, and even Cantonese immigrant fare from outside the country. As Jakob Klein puts it, “the English term ‘Cantonese cuisine’ actually conveys some of this ambiguity quite nicely.”
The province has primarily been a wealthy one, relative to other Chinese regions. This, to a large extent, is due to its physical location, tucked away at the sub-tropical southeast corner of the country, beneficially far from the cold, clammy hands of the Mongolian north, and the last home of the Song Dynasty before it fell to Kublai Khan’s Yuan Dynasty in 1279.
Guangdong also has 4,300km of coastline facing the South China Sea. The Pearl River Delta, where three rivers converge and surround hundreds of small islands, feeds into this sea; the region is also home to and a term for its major cities, including Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and the SARs of Hong Kong and Macau. European merchants sailing through the waters – particularly the Portuguese and British – traded extensively through Guangzhou. In an effort to contain foreign merchants and influence to confined quarters, the Qing Dynasty restricted all foreign trade to Guangzhou’s 13 Factories (the so-called “Canton System,” running from approx. 1757 to 1842), where European and American merchants established trading companies to transact with the Cohong, a Chinese merchant association, due to a restriction on foreigners from dealing directly with Chinese civilians. The European demand for silk and tea soon created a large trading deficit until the British decided to import opium. The complex story, of course, continues further from there.
The limited seclusion from the Mongols, the proximity to water (and its bounties), the import of foreign goods (and ingredients), and the sub-tropical weather does well for Guangdong, and created a sequestered environment wherein its people could develop a cuisine based on an endless supply of fresh ingredients, flora and fauna.
Restaurants began to flourish in Guangdong throughout the times of … the Canton System. A culinary industry developed amidst the region’s growing prosperity, particularly with the emergence of a large upper class, and also out of a necessity for venues wherein commerce and trade could be fleshed out. Guangzhou’s role as a hub of both intra and international trade generated the prosperity and activity necessary to foster a growing culinary industry, and also helped to shape the growth of Cantonese cuisine. Migrants from other parts of China and from abroad brought their own local flavours and ingredients to Guangdong, and chefs would pick up additional colour through rotating shifts in the province, Macau and Hong Kong, all of which was subsumed and assimilated into the Cantonese palate. When asked about the defining characteristics of Cantonese cuisine, many Guangzhou inhabitants were quick to refer to restaurant fare in addition to home-cooking, “recognizing commercial cooking as playing a central role in defining [the] cuisine,” perhaps a trait unique among all other Chinese regional traditions.
This, as with all traditional Chinese arts, fell victim to the Mao years. It’s estimated that Guangzhou had approximately 12,000 restaurants in 1948, decimated to 512 restaurants by 1972 to service Guangzhou’s two million inhabitants. The disastrous effects of Mao and the Cultural Revolution on all Chinese cuisine cannot be overemphasized (think of that the next time you see his kitschy likeness decorating a restaurant). Fuschia Dunlop provided the following timeline:
Gastronomy, like most aspects of Chinese culture, suffered in the Maoist years. Early Communists associated fine dining with the corrupt excesses of the old regime. In 1927, Mao Zedong witnessed peasant associations in Hunan ban the recreational activities of the wealthy, including banqueting…The nationalization of private business, largely completed by 1956, is remembered as the start of a long decline for China’s restaurants. Later, the Cultural Revolution led to a general assault on bourgeois pastimes, including fine dining. Elderly chefs were taunted by their apprentices, and elegant restaurants were instructed to serve “cheap and substantial food” for the masses.
Through that period of time, it’s perhaps no exaggeration to say that the development of Cantonese cuisine took place outside of Guangdong, particularly in Hong Kong. Since the 19th century, a high proportion of all Chinese emigrants had roots in the province. Until the recent wave of mainland emigration in the last ten years, most Chinese restaurants overseas served Cantonese fare, mutating and developing subject to local tastes and availability of ingredients. (To give a common example, ginger beef is largely thought to have originated in Calgary.)
[Some of the biggest and riches cities in China are located in Guangdong. Clockwise from top are Hongkong, Shenzen and Guangzhou.]
Things have rebounded in the province since the not-so-recent economic reforms. Since 1989, Guangdong has had the highest GDP of all the Chinese provinces, with an economy roughly the size of Turkey’s or Indonesia’s. Apart from Hong Kong and Macau, the region is also home to half of the country’s special economic zones, where economic restrictions found in other parts of the country are waived in whole or in part. Shenzhen, one such special economic zone, was a “local, Cantonese city” prior to 1992; after 1992, migrants from all over the country poured into the city for its opportunities, and “within several years, Shenzhen was the only Mandarin-speaking city in Guangdong, and the only city in China where the majority of the population came from elsewhere.”
The province has also traditionally been home for large populations of Chaozhao (Chiu Chow) and Hakka, and food scholars thus further divide Guangdong’s cuisine into those two further culinary groups. Exploring the scope of Chaozhao and Hakka cuisine is beyond the scope of our aim; it’s perhaps due to Guangdong’s wide breadth that makes it difficult to summarize Cantonese cuisine easily. One consensus is that the Cantonese are food-obsessed: one friend of Jakob Klein’s, from Inner Mongolia, complained that “they don’t talk about anything, all they talk about is food!”
Apart from that slight (or compliment, depending on your own preferences and obsessions), another consensus is that Cantonese cuisine has a certain essence to it, “expressed in ideas of lightness and freshness” and seeking “original” or “natural” flavours of an ingredient: “to change countless times while remaining true to its principles.”
Cantonese fare is generally perceived to be mild or light relative to the other regional fare, perhaps reflective of the abundance and variety of fresh ingredients available to it. This, in turn, could be reflective of the relative affluence to afford them: Cantonese haute cuisine is well known for its expensive ingredients, such as shark fin, swallow’s nest, abalone and sea cucumber. Boasting about the superiority of Cantonese cuisine of the other traditions may be just as much of a classist statement as a judgmental one.
In addition to the staples of pork, beef, chicken and treasures of the sea, snakes, snails, insects, worms, chicken feet, duck tongues, and entrails are not uncommonly used as basic ingredients, or as embellishments, to Cantonese fare, an exotic-ness that some say is unique relative to the other traditions. As Klein puts it, “for many people an interest in novelty was itself a defining characteristic of Cantonese cuisine.”
Despite the countless Cantonese cooking methods, steaming, stir frying and deep frying are the most popular cooking methods in restaurants due to the short cooking time, and philosophy of bringing out the flavor of the freshest ingredients.
Stir frying’s “wok-hei” (breath of the wok) is strictly a Cantonese-origin concept, whereby extreme high temperatures utilized for wokking minimizes cooking times and which literally seals in the moisture and tenderness of meats and their connective tissues while ensuring more delicate ingredients such as vegetables and tofus are cooked to perfection while maintaining their textures.
Spicy hot dishes are extremely rare in Cantonese cuisine. Spicy hot food is more common in very hot climates, such as those of Szechuan, Thailand, etc. where food spoils easily. Guangdong has the richest food resources in China in terms of agriculture and aquaculture. The copious amount of fresh food and mild weather allows Cantonese cuisine the bring out, rather than drown out, natural flavors.
As an example of the high standard for freshness in Cantonese meals, cows and pigs used for meat are usually killed earlier the same day. Chickens are often killed just hours beforehand, and fish are displayed in tanks for customers to choose for immediate preparation. It is not unusual for a waiter at a Cantonese restaurant to bring the live flipping fish or the crawling lobster to the table to show the patron as proof of freshness before cooking.
The Cantonese Cuisine is the Chinese cuisine that has the widest range and variety. We would not even attempt to list every single dishes but we can point you to a very comprehensive and detail write-up on the Cantonese Cuisine on Wikipedia. It is worth the read for those of you interested to learn more about it.
Red Star Seafood Restaurant
8298 Granville Street
The Red Star is one of the best Cantonese restaurants in Metro Vancouver. Walking into the restaurant in the waiting area, you will be greeted with multiple awards that they had won over the years. The restaurant prides itself as serving only the best they can offer and caters to the sophisticated Cantonese customers. While they are not affiliated with the illustrious Red Star restaurant in Hongkong, their cooking is influenced by Hongkong style cooking.
Red Star believes in making their own food from scratch. For instance, they barbeque their own ducks and suckling pig to ensure that it is done in the way it is meant to be.
The menu was carefully put together with the restaurant over three separate sessions. We had a lot of detailed discussion over the specific ingredients used but at the same time, we were trying to balance the costs of the dinner. While the Rolls-Royce of Red Star’s banquet dinner is $1288 for a table of 10, we know that is simply out of reach for most.
So we opted for something much cheaper but at the same time had a few really great and expensive dishes. This will be a 10 course banquet.
Here they are:
(1) Roast Suckling Pig: There will be 1/2 a suckling pig per table. This is not the cheaper suckling pig platter (with jelly fish and stuff) but the real deal. Red Star personally choose the suckling pig and roast it in the restaurant on the day of the dinner. They will show us the entire pig. Each pig costs $280.
(2) Steamed Scallops with Fuzzy Melon: Each diner will get their own individual serving. The Fuzzy Melon is hollowed and stuffed with a whole scallop. From the explanation, this seems like an elaborate preparation.
(3) Cantonese Style Specialty Soup with Chicken, Whelk and JinHua Ham: It takes 10 hours to boil this soup. This is a notable Cantonese specialty and slow-cooked by simmering meat for hours. The Cantonese believes in the soups ability to heal and strengthens one’s health. The JinHua Ham is taken from the choice part of the pig.
(4) Hongkong Style Spicy Crabs: We will have two whole crabs per table. This is popularly known as the Typhoon Shelter crab.
(5) Sea Cucumber Braised with Mushrooms: A whole sea cucumber will cost $98. We will have roughly 3/4 of a sea cucumber per table. And why is this considered a delicacies? Well, the Chinese believe it has male sexual health and aphrodisiac properties. Because this is a family oriented website, I will only describe the juicy details of this dish during the dinner.
(6) Barbeque Duck: This is their award winning duck dish. Each table will get one full duck. They BBQ the duck in the restaurant and they serve only the parts that has the most meat. You will be amazed with this.
(7) Steamed Fish: No Cantonese banquet is ever complete without steamed fish. We will have a whole rock cod per table. In the rare event that the restaurant can’t source the freshest rock cod they will substitute the fish and adjust the price accordingly.
(8) Siu Gao Dumpling with Noodles in Supreme Soup: Each diner will have a bowl of their own.
(9) Red Star’s Specialty Rice in Lotus Leaf: This is Red Star’s own style of fried rice and then steamed in lotus leaf.
(10) Baked Tapioca Pudding with Lotus Seed Paste: The dessert.
The cost of the dinner will be $560 for a table of 10. This does not include HST and tips (10%). So we are looking at $68-$69, all inclusive. While each table is meant to fit 10 people, it might not be possible to get a perfect 10 a table. However, we will cap the number of people to 12 a table maximum.
In the event that the table has more than 10 people, the average cost per person will be less than $56 (it’s complex, to be worked out later on this week). Nevertheless, for the individual servings (eg. the steam scallops with fuzzy melon, etc), everyone on the table will get a full serving. The shared items are those that will be evenly split between all in the table (eg. the 1/2 pig, or the whole duck, or the rice, etc). I hope you understand what I mean! 🙂
This menu is individually picked by LotusRapper and Joe. Normally, this will be over $600 a table but the restaurant will not only price this at $560, they will enhance the dishes a bit too knowing that the attendees are going to be largely serious foodies.
All chowtimes readers are invited to join us in this discovery of the Cantonese cuisine.
The dinner will be held on August 15th (Sunday) at 6:30 PM.
We had made an initial reservation for four tables with a possibility to extend to five tables. Depending on the response, unfortunately we might need to cap the number of people for this dinner like we were forced to during the last two dinners.
Reservation is on a first come first serve basis. If you are interested to join us in this dinner, could you please send your request to email@example.com with (1) your name, (2) the number of people in your party and (3) any dietary allergy concerns?
Please send in your request by Thursday, August 12th.