Guangdong dishes are fresh, tender, and lightly seasoned. The raw material for Guangdong cuisine is very rich, which includes snake, cat and pangolin
Guangdong Cuisine, sometimes referred to as Cantonese Cuisine, though referred to more often as Yue Cai ("Yue Cuisine"), in recognition of the "flavor" - both literally and figuratively - imparted to Guangdong Cuisine by its various ethnic minorities, most notably, by the Baiyue, or Yue, people, has been recognized as a distinctive cooking style, or what one today would call a cuisine "school", since ancient times. For example, official records from the Western Han (BCE 206 - CE 009) Dynasty refer to the Guangdong cooking style. Much, much later, during the Southern Song (CE 1127-1279) Dynasty, Guangdong had become known as "lamb city" among chefs and their clientele. So important was Guangdong's cooking style to the nation that Imperial chefs were required to spend time in Guangdong Province in order to acquire the art of "Guangdong cooking".
Yue Cuisine, as "Guangdong cooking" became known, continued to expand its influence during the Ming (CE 1368-1644) and Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasties. Due to international trade as well as due to mass migration during the early part of the 20th century, Yue Cuisine, which in the meantime had assimilated certain international influences, was spread to practically every world capital and to every major urban area the world over. In New York city alone, Cantonese kitchens and restaurants sprang up not by the dozens, but by the hundreds, and the same phenomenon was repeated in other major U.S. and European cities. (The Chinese butcher, Mr. Wu (Keone Young), of the frontier town of Deadwood in the American TV series of the same name might well have operated a Cantonese kitchen… Swearingen (Ian McShane) once tasted Wu's chicken, and in his typically understated British manner pronounced it "not bad".)
Like most of the other cuisine schools of China, the Yue Cuisine school consists of a number of regional styles, or branches, each of which may in turn involve local nuances. Thus, Yue Cuisine is said to be composed of the dishes of the major cities of Chaozhou, Dongjiang and Guangzhou, with the dishes of Guangzhou serving as its flagship. Some consider "Chaozhou Cooking" to more properly belong to the Fujian school of Chinese Cuisine, while others suggest that although the Chaozhou branch may reflect certain cuisine strains from the Fujian school (it should be noted that the city of Chaozhou formerly belonged to Fujian Province), it also reflects definite cuisine strains from the Yue school. We will here take the latter approach, while conceding that there may be elements of "Chaozhou Cooking" that do not belong to the Yue Cuisine heritage (and in any case, no cuisine school's strains and influences are etched in stone - in fact, as regards Yue Cuisine, the opposite, as we have seen, applies).
The following general characteristics define the three branches, taken collectively, which make up the Yue Cuisine school:
1) Yue Cuisine makes extensive use of spices, yet with restraint, i.e., Cantonese dishes are spicy but delicately so. In addition, many of the spices favored by a Cantonese chef are in themselves mild. The following common "spices" (some are not spices per se, but are added, typically in the form of dried flakes, for flavor) are widely, but sparsely, used in Cantonese dishes: ginger, cinnamon, clove, star aniseed, prickly ash, fennel, spring onion, salt, and white and black pepper. Sugar is also used extensively in Cantonese dishes, as are a number of other spices, albeit, sparingly. Corn starch, soy sauce, rice wine and vegetable oils (especially peanut oil, as it tolerates high heat) are also widely used in Yue Cuisine, more prominently in some localities than in others.
2) Yue Cuisine rests solidly on serving locally-grown, seasonal produce. This in turn makes it possible to serve more robust dishes during the colder months and lighter dishes during the hotter months, a practice which a Cantonese chef takes great pride in following.
3) Yue Cuisine staples are poultry, livestock, rice, fruit and vegetables, and - since Guangdong is a coastal province - also seafood (seafood dishes are especially widespread in the restaurants of Chaozhou, something which also links "Chaozhou Cooking" to Fujian Cuisine). Thanks to its subtropical climate, Guangdong Province abounds in rice, fruit and vegetables (spinach, cabbage, bell peppers, broccoli and mushrooms are common in season), providing Cantonese chefs the fresh ingredients which they demand. In addition, since the province also grows the grains and fodder needed in the production of poultry and livestock, the latter are not only readily locally available, but affordable.
4) Yue Cuisine has a preference for quick-fry methods, though its soups are not to be scoffed at (like the chefs of all of the other cuisine schools of China, Cantonese chefs are also masters at deep-frying, braising, stewing and more classical sautéeing methods as well as being masters at making soup, especially soup based on fish stocks). Stir-fry is very popular in the province, especially as regards vegetables, as the stir-fry method preserves the color, flavor, and nutritional value of vegetables, while quick-frying methods also make it possible to quickly serve properly prepared meat dishes (meat either cut in thin strips or thicker portions that are partially pre-cooked).
Stir-fry is a general term that glosses over the mutually distinct Chao and Bao methods of stir-fry. Chao is a method to sauté meat and vegetables in hot oil in a wok. The vegetables are usually sautéed after the meat has been quickly fried, then removed, since the vegetables give off liquids during the sautéing process. A lid may be placed over the wok during the vegetable sautéing phase in order to more quickly bring out the liquids in the vegetables. Once the liquid has been reduced to a minimum, the fried meat is returned to the wok for a brief reheating, where flavored oils may be added as a finishing touch.
In the Bao stir-fry method, the wok is heated to a reddish glow. Once hot, the oil, dry seasonings and meat strips/ cubes are added in quick succession, and once all of these ingredients are inside it, the wok is contiually agitated. When the meat is nicely browned, diced vegetables and a small quantity of thin sauce or soup is added, and the wok is again agitated, the idea being to cook the vegetables lightly (al dente) and quickly. Additional spices, rice wine, soy sauce, etc., may be added at this time. Once the dish is deemed cooked, it is quickly emptied into a large bowl and the wok is immediately washed in order to remove any residues, otherwise they would burn to the surface of the hot wok.
If Chao is a somewhat oily dish, then Bao is a somewhat steamy dish. In addition, Bao lends itself to the use of thicker pieces of meat - or even partially cooked meat cubes - where the absorption of liquids from the vegetables and sauce/ soup would not only not ruin the taste of the meat, but enhance it.
At the time of this writing, many Chinese restaurants, including the restaurants of Guangdong Province, serve dishes based on animals that a Westerner would not dream of eating, as well as animals that are even on the world's threatened species lists. As tourism increases in China, these unusual food traditions will surely have to give way to the sensibilities of foreign visitors if tourism in China is not to suffer. We have in the above (and below) carefully avoided all mention of the animals/ dishes in question.
Representative Cantonese dishes include: Fried Eggplant (sliced and fried), Fish-Flavored Bean Curd (Tofu), Fried Prawns with Sesame, Sautéed Conch (sliced and fried), Crispy Chicken in Hot Sauce, Fried Shrimp with Scrambled Eggs, Stir-Fried Meat Strips with Pear, and, although Guangdong Province is no longer known as "lamb city", it has become just as famous for its Roasted Suckling Pig, with its crispy golden exterior and its juicy, tender interior that tastes and smells like a little bit of heaven on earth.
Besides these representative dishes, Guangdong Province is renowned for its many snacks. There is an old saying about the province: "Guangdong serves the best food in the country". The new version goes: "Guangdong offers delicacies from all over the world, including 100 kinds of snacks with 100 tastes and in 100 shapes."