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Chinese Southern Cooking - Guangdong, Guangxi, Fujian and Taiwan


Map of China

For many people the image of south Cantonese cooking is stir-fry cooking in a wok — and to a certain extent this image is valid, particularly in Hong Kong. But it is only part of the picture. Stir-fries should not be regarded as the only kind of southern cooking. Other triumphs of this region include steamed dishes, such as freshly killed crabs steamed with ginger, and shrimp dumplings in trans¬lucent pastry cases, roast meats such as ‘chahsiu’ with its enticing aroma, chickens cooked to a pearly whiteness by being gently dipped in boiling water, and the brilliant green of bundles of fresh ‘choisam’ served as a hot salad.

All cooking is governed by the availability of ingredients, and southern China is no exception. This is very rich land, though so densely populated, with mild winters and little danger of famine. Rice is the main staple, but the farmers can grow a profusion of fruit and green vegetables throughout the year. This has contributed much to the shaping of the regional cooking style. Since 1978 there have been countless ducks on the ponds in the region, and pigs are kept everywhere. The long shoreline provides access to the rich fishing grounds of the South China seas with their enormous variety of fish and seafood - another distinctive feature of southern cooking.

Cooking styles are not limited by geographic boundaries. In Guangxi, a subtropical province which lies along the frontier with Vietnam, the cooking is a mixture of Cantonese richness and the fiery heat of Hunan, while further north the coastal province of Fujian has a tradition of slow-cooked colorless soups and fish, a cuisine similar to that found in Shanghai and eastern China.

Historical experience is often reflected in domestic tradition, and also influences regional cookery. Buddhism, which was once the official religion in China, still has a strong following in Fujian, and Buddhist beliefs are reflected in the emphasis on natural flavors and little seasoning, characteristics of the cooking in the region. Many Fujian dishes have Buddhist names, although they contain meat and fish. The great migrations of the Chinese people during the nine¬teenth century began largely in Fujian, and it is from these people that the Chinese communities in America and South East Asia are partly descended. They took with them their domestic cooking styles, laying the foundations for Chinese food in Malaysia and Singapore, and brought back new dishes and skills. Taiwan was colonized by Fujian people during that time, and these roots are still reflected in the cooking of rural Taiwan, where in the course of a dinner every alternate dish would probably be a soup.

The Cantonese style of cooking, centred in Guangdong, is prob¬ably the most adventurous in China. Influenced and encouraged by a stream of outside contacts, the Cantonese up to 1949 absorbed into their cooking all manner of foreign ingredients. During Maoist times, however, they were much circumscribed by politically con¬trived scarcities of basic foods.

Hong Kong has of course been an exception. Though a Cantonese city and one of the great metropolitan centres of China, it has been able to continue the tradition of enrichment over the last 30 years, much fortified by an unhindered association with the non-Chinese world. The development of cooking in Hong Kong, and earlier in Canton, has not really been a matter of inventing dishes, for when dishes are invented they seem unnecessarily complicated and self-conscious, but of refining and revising the traditional dishes in the light of new experiences and ingredients. Hong Kong cooks in recent years have, on the one hand, had a growing market of in¬creasingly prosperous Chinese diners, particularly among the work¬ing people, and on the other they have not had to contend with ideological tensions. If only for these reasons, Hong Kong has put its mark on Chinese food and cannot be ignored.

There, are in Guangdong in addition to the Cantonese two other major ethnic groups - the Chaozhou and the Hakka, each with their own dialect and customs. Both groups are represented in Hong Kong and both have contributed considerably to the prestige and style of southern cooking. The Chaozhou are centred mainly in the Swatow region close to Fujian. Most are farmers but some are fishermen, who spend their lives with their families at sea aboard the big deep-sea junks. Naturally fish and seafood play a major part in their cooking, together with preserved and salted foods. The Chaozhou like highly decorated dishes; they mix fruit with their vegetables and their food is often sweeter and cooked for a longer time than is usual in the mainstream of Cantonese cooking.

The Hakka people live mostly on the East River. They are a relatively poor and isolated people whose origins are uncertain. Seen sometimes as the gypsies of China, they speak a northern dialect and are thought to have arrived in the south about a thousand years ago as migrants from the north. Among the Hakka, Cantonese and Chaozhou communities there is a deep mutual suspicion. Each com¬munity has a great cooking tradition of its own. Hakka food is generally stronger in flavor, oilier, and more slowly cooked than Cantonese food. Many Hakka dishes are steamed, which is possibly a reflection of their northern origins.

The skilful use of regional products provides the south of China with several unique flavors. Oyster sauce - made from a distillation of the oysters grown in the shallow waters of the Pearl River and with a very appetizing flavor - is combined with vegetables such as choisam and used in slow-cooked dishes such as the Hakka recipe for ducks' webs. Hoisin sauce, a southern version of the ubiquitous bean sauce, is a sweet and sour version, with vinegar added to the beans and sugar. Peanut oil, with its distinctive nutty flavor, is the cooking oil particularly associated with the region, but rape-seed oil and other vegetable oils are also used, except in Fujian where pork dripping is preferred.

Chinese Regional Cookery - Margaret Leeming & May Huang Man-hui

Here are a few Chinese Eastern Cooking Recipes:
Beef with Green Pepper and Black Bean Sauce
Braised Chinese Sausage with Winter Melon
Barbecued Pork
Stir Fried Pork with Bean Sprouts
Red-Cooked Duck's Web
Stir Fried Lettuce with Oyster Sauce
Curry Chicken with Coconut Juice
Steamed Fish with Black Beans
Onion and Ginger Crab with Egg
Deep Fried Bean Curd with Mushrooms
Oyster Sauce Abalone with Lettuce
Barbecued Meat Buns

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Last Modified: 11/28/11.