Cantonese Cuisine (粤菜) is the dominant Chinese cooking style in Hong Kong and Macau. It is also what is usually served at Chinese restaurants in Western countries such as Australia, Britain, Canada, and the United States.
Cantonese cuisine is considered by many foodies to be China’s premier cooking style because of the emphasis on using fresh ingredients and the enhancement rather than the masking of natural flavours.
Cantonese cuisine can be interpreted two ways. Either it is the cooking style of Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, which was formerly known in English as Canton – thus Cantonese. Or it is a catch all phrase for the many and varied cooking styles found across Guangdong Province.
Since there are three other distinct provincial cooking styles of merit – Chiu Chow, Hakka, and Shun Tak – I prefer the former interpretation.
Guangzhou was once thought of as the culinary capital of China. According to an old Chinese saying, it was best to be born in Suzhou, live in Hangzhou, eat in Guangzhou and die in Guizhou.
Why? The people in Suzhou were the best looking so it was the best place in which to be born.
Hangzhou had the most beautiful scenery so it was the best place in which to live.
Guangzhou had the best food so it was the best place in which to eat. And Guizhou had the best wood for making coffins so it was the best place in which to die.
Guangzhou’s stature as a culinary super star started to fade following the communist conquest of mainland China in 1949, which sent waves of refugees – including many of Guangdong Province’s top chefs – fleeing to Hong Kong.
More followed during the Anti-Rightest Campaign in the mid-50s, the Great Leap Forward in the late 50s, and the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976.
By the 1970s, Hong Kong had replaced Guangzhou as China’s culinary capital.
In Hong Kong, Cantonese cuisine has continued to evolve, and a new cooking style – influenced by Japanese, Southeast Asian and Western cuisines – has emerged in recent years. I like to refer to this as Nouvelle Cantonese.
With China’s newfound wealth, diners in the mainland are now becoming more discerning.
To meet their rising expectations, restaurants – especially those located within five-star hotels – are offering hefty salaries to attract Hong Kong’s best chefs to oversee their kitchens.
In the mainland, they have access to a wider variety of ingredients, and the ingredients also tend to be fresher because they are closer to the source. In Hong Kong nearly everything has to be imported.
After interviewing chefs and sampling food in both cities, I would have to say that overall the standards in Hong Kong tend to be higher, and the chefs there tend to be a bit more innovative than their counterparts in Guangzhou.
Eight Great Cuisines of China
China is a vast country with significant linguistic, cultural, and culinary differences that vary from region to region, province to province, city to city, and town to town.
While the number of Chinese cooking styles is innumerable, there are eight provincial standouts, which I like to think of as the Eight Great Cuisines of China (中国8大菜系). Listed in alphabetical order, they are …
- Anhui (徽菜) – noted for the liberal use of rock sugar and sugar-cured hams.
- Cantonese (粤菜) – considered by many foodies to be China’s premier cooking style because of the emphasis on using fresh ingredients and the enhancing rather than the masking of natural flavours.
- Fukienese (闽菜) – seafood is the star of the show.
- Hunanese (湘菜) – noted for the liberal use of chili peppers.
- Jiangsu (蘇菜) – often grouped together with Zhejiang food and called Hwaiyang cuisine, which overseas is often referred to as Shanghainese cuisine because Shanghai is the nearest internationally recognized city.
- Shandong (魯菜)– famous for stews, and the origin of Peking Duck.
- Sichuanese (川菜) – noted for the liberal use of numbing peppers.
- Zhejiang (浙菜) – often grouped together with Jiangsu food and called Hwaiyang cuisine, which overseas is thought of as Shanghainese cuisine because Shanghai is the nearest internationally recognized city.