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Cantonese Cuisine: North America’s First Chinese Food
Expand your horizons with Groupon’s guide to Southern China’s tastiest delicacies.
Chow mein. Sweet-and-sour pork. Beef chow fun. These may instantly spring to mind when we think of Chinese food or one-of-a-kind baby names, but they have more to do with the demands of Western palates than to ancient Asian traditions. When immigrants from Guangdong province first brought Chinese cuisine to the West, they frequently altered their recipes to suit the tastes of their newfound diners. Flavors got sweeter; sauces got thicker. But under these changes lie the techniques of one of China's eight great regional cuisines. Still known in English by the former name of Guangdong's capital city, Cantonese cooking grew as a natural extension of life in Southern China, where abundant vegetables and the seafood-rich shores of the South China Sea inspired a taste for light, subtle preparations that let the freshness of the ingredients shine through. Here, you're unlikely to find the sizzling oils or searing peppers that categorize many Sichuan or Hunan dishes. Instead, meats and vegetables are steamed or given a quick toss in the wok, then mixed with easy-going condiments such as hoisin and oyster sauce.
As Western palates have matured and the FDA has eliminated the "things in cans" tier of the food pyramid, Cantonese chefs working elsewhere have opened up their playbook to include the dishes that best show off their star techniques. Today, a stroll through Chinatown might turn up spit-roasted pork and sautéed chicken with spring onions alongside less familiar ingredients—abalone, pigeon, taro, or lotus root. The Cantonese taste for celebrating the flavors of individual ingredients gave rise to the tradition of dim sum: tapas-like small plates served from breakfast until teatime. Traditionally ferried about dining rooms on pushcarts, these morsels might include everything from spring rolls, dumplings, and meat buns to more-adventurous bites such as chicken feet and cuttlefish.