In Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province (Canton) in the south, rice, vegetables, and fresh fish from its lengthy shoreline are steamed, blanched, or poached and frequently served with the simple addition of vinegar, ginger, scallions, and Chinese parsley.
Soy, hoisin, and oyster sauces are among the traditional ones used. There are also many forms of barbecue or lacquer-roasted poultry and meat. Steamed, backed, or fried dumplings, dim sum made of pork, beef, sausage, vegetables, sweet lotus, or bean paste, and spring rolls are sold everywhere, from street vendors to elegant tea houses.
In large hotels and restaurants, elaborate food design results in sculpted presentations of a variety of foods to form a large butterfly or peacock. By contrast, desserts are often simple sweet puddings, soups, or fruit.
Guangzhou, known better in English as Canton, is one of the largest and oldest cities in China and is located on the Pearl River, which flows through it. Though pu tung hua (Mandarin) is the official language throughout all of modern China, unspecified millions speak Cantonese in Southern China and the rest of the world.
Guangzhou is sometimes called the “Goat City” because five ephemeral figures riding five goats entered Guangzhou in 1256 B.C.E. From the mouths of these five goats the five persons drew the first rice seeds. Guangdong province is still referred to as “the rice bowl of China”. It is said, «Dress in Hangzhou, marry in Suzhou, die in Liuzhou, but eat in Guangdong”.
For a short period before the Han Dynasty, Guangzhou was the capital of the state of Nanue. It has been an international trading city since before the Tang Dynasty. As early as 1,000 C.E. Guangzhou was an international port and ships from all of Asia and Europe traded there.
By the nineteenth century, after the opium wars had closed other ports, Guangzhou remained open, and it was from there that large numbers emigrated to growing young countries like the United States.
Because of neutral and man-made disasters, the area’s food supply is on the mind of everyone who lives there. No food is taboo, and locals joke that the only thing with four legs they will not eat is a table. It has long been said that anything that flies, swims, or crawls is eaten, as long as it is fresh and prepared in a tasty way.
In Guangdong province Guangzhou and Chiu Chow (at the port of Shantou) have a rich and distinct history that is famous the world over. In traditional households, two trips a day to the market continue to be the norm, ensuring that all food is at its freshest.
Though chicken, pork, and other poultry are eaten, fish and vegetables are the sustaining ingredients of the cuisine, which is encouraged by Taoist and Buddhist tradition. It is from Guangzhou that many of the most familiar Chinese table sauces originate: chilli sauce, mustard sauce, oyster sauce, and soy sauce.
The chefs of Chiu Chow believe that “You are what you eat”. It is in Chiu Chow that the preparation and eating of bird’s nests took on a mythic proportion, because the purified swallow saliva was thought to heal. The dish is on its way to extinction because of pollution and the precarious climb necessary to procure the nests from high cliffs.
When the nests are combined with winter melon, ham, or chicken (or all three) they make for a savoury soup; with sweetened almond paste, coconut, or other fruit they make an exceptional dessert. Another specialty, shark’s fin soup, is the prize of a seafaring people with strong sense of braving the ocean. A lesser-known specialty is pomfret smoked in Iron Buddha tea leaves, an elegant dish.
Steamed dishes and quick wok cooking in peanut oil are prevalent, with the use of lots of vegetables and oyster and fish sauces. The regional specialties include the more familiar dishes of fried oysters, shrimp and crab balls, cuttlefish, clams, frogs, eels, carp, and whelk.
Chiu Chow sauces include the traditional ginger, but are also flavoured with mixtures of fruit juices and spicy chillies that are mixed with oil and vinegar. Tangerines are used for sauces and also for jam, which is served with savoury dishes. The tastes of special dishes tend to be very intense and therefore quite memorable. Oddities such as dog, monkey, snake, and pangolin are used more for medicinal benefits than as daily food. Southern Chinese cooking has strongly influenced the rest of China.
For three out of live people in the world, rice is the primary element in daily eating. In China the average consumption is close to 300 pounds per person per year in the areas where it is grown and almost that much throughout the rest of the country.
The reason for this is that where rice is the dominant grain, few others are eaten; where is not, rice is still included in the diet. One of its advantages over other grains is that it doesn’t need processing. Of course it is often processed and eaten in different forms.
By 2,800 B.C.E. it was one of the “five sacred crops”: barley, millet, rice, soybeans, and wheat. At that time there was also an eight treasure rice: eggs, ham, mushrooms, oil, onions, pork, rice, and soy sauce. There was also a “wild rice” (cao son) that is not a true rice, but closely resembles the grain cultivated by Native Americans.
The tree basic types of rice used in China and elsewhere are: long-grain (indica) rice that tends to be light and fluffy when cooked or steamed; the short-grain (japonica) rice, stickier and starchier and used more frequently in Japan; and the short-grain glutinous or “sweet” rice which becomes very sticky when cooked and is opaque. Glutinous rice is used for sushi, stuffing, and desserts.
Often all three kind of rice are combined to make rice porridge or congee. This is a favourite breakfast food, but is eaten as lunch, and dinner, or as an afternoon or late-night snack. This soupy dish varies in texture from a thick oatmeal-like consistency to a watery broth.
Usually congee is cooked in water, but can also be boiled with the bones of cooked chicken, duck, or pork. In Canton the congee tends to be cooked longer and becomes thinner than in other parts of China. It serves as a nutritious background for a wide range of savoury tidbits that accompany it.
The stress is on lightness accented with pickles, dried shrimp, conpoy, smoked fish, or squid. Garnishes such as scallions, peanuts, cilantro, ginger, pickles, and croutons made of fried dough sticks are toppings used in many places. These are usually added after the congee is cooked, but sometimes dried dofu skins are cooked along with it. This is also a good dish for leftovers. Spicy beef of lamb, cut into dice, or dofu, sprinkled with chopped cilantro, is a filling midnight snack.
In China you can find congee at any price, and it is generally a delicious breakfast eaten street side or in the armchair of a hotel dining room. “Sik fan” or “Eat rice” is the “bon appétit” of Guangzhou.
Congee (Yu Jook)
1 C. short-grain rice
1 T. peanut oil
10 C. chicken stock
2 C. water, if needed
2 t. fresh ginger, minced
Rinse the rice in running water and drain. Mix the oil into the rice and set aside. Bring the broth to a gentle boil and stir in the rice and ginger. Stir and keep the liquid boiling for 10 minutes. Cover, lower heat, and simmer for 2 hours. Stir occasionally. If the mixture seems thicker than you like, gradually add up to 2 cups of water. Serve in warm bowls. Set out small plates with any or all of the following:
½ 1b. cooked chicken breast, cut in julienne
¼ C. chopped spring onions
¼ C. chopped fresh cilantro
½ C. roasted peanuts
¼ C. Chinese pickles
1 fried dough stick (available in Chinese specialty stores)
The diner chooses the garnishes and places them on top of the congee.