By staff reporter ZHANG XUEYING
By staff reporter ZHANG XUEYING
CHINESE cuisine is renowned for its eight major distinctive styles: the cuisines of Shandong, Zhejiang and Jiangsu in eastern China; Anhui and Hunan in central China; Sichuan in western China; and Fujian and Cantonese cooking in southern China. Each style has anything from dozens to hundreds of delicacies developed over many centuries.
Differences in climate, environment and ingredients mean each city makes distinctive dishes based on a traditional menu, ranging from West Lake fish in vinegar gravy and fried shrimps with Longjing tea in Zhejiang, to wontons and Chongqing hot pot in Sichuan. Moreover, each family develops special recipes according to individual tastes. It is no exaggeration to describe the variety of Chinese food as almost infinite.
In recent years, thanks to a more stable and affluent lifestyle, people's desire to explore China's various cuisines has grown, and there are now more than 4 million restaurants across the nation. Cooks are devoted to the study of culinary art, and search through the old to bring forth the new.
However, behind the prosperous Chinese food industry, gastronomists worry that the distinctive characteristics of various cuisines are being obscured and regional differences are slowly fading.
Delicious Cantonese Cuisine
Cantonese and Sichuanese cuisines are the only two styles that still retain their authentic tastes. To have real Cantonese cuisine, you must go to Guangdong or Hong Kong.
Located in south China and facing the South China Sea, the subtropical climate makes Guangdong ample in rainfall, evergreen in seasons and abundant in food products. The freshness of ingredients in Cantonese cooking is an absolute priority.
If you want to eat like the Cantonese, a Guangdong-style breakfast is a must. In recent years it has expanded to more than 1,000 varieties, though each restaurant commonly provides a choice of not more than 20 dishes. These usually include shrimp dumplings, chicken feet, barbequed pork buns, starch sausages, and various forms of congee and noodles.
Shrimp dumplings and chicken feet are particularly noteworthy specialties that are not only popular, but are considered indicative of a restaurant's overall quality.
According to historical information, shrimp dumplings originated in the 1920s in Wufeng Village on the outskirts of Guangzhou. The area was rich in seafood products, so the boss of a local family teahouse made use of these readily available ingredients. He took fresh shrimp meat as stuffing and high-quality glutinous rice flour as a wrapper, and made delicious shrimp dumplings. The dish was so popular he couldn't meet demand. Over time shrimp dumplings have become one of the most representative snacks in Guangzhou teahouses.
While fresh shrimp meat is undoubtedly the major selling point of this dish, the quality of the wrapper should not be overlooked. Unlike dumplings in northern China that use flour, the outside of shrimp dumplings are made with the material obtained from scouring off wheat gluten. Consequently the wrapper is white and fine, and slightly transparent after steaming. If the wrapper is thin enough, the pink stuffing will be partly visible, making one's mouth water.
Although shrimp dumplings are the basic refreshment for every Guangdong teahouse, their making demands quite challenging workmanship. First, the materials must be of superior quality. Authentic stuffing consists of both raw and cooked shrimp meat, fat and shredded bamboo shoots. Processed flour with lard, salt and water also feature in the mix. As mentioned above, the wrapper should be thin and transparent, and the finished dumpling wonderfully juicy in texture.
To please hungry diners, today's cooks stress the size and integrity of the shrimps, but tend to ignore the other ingredients. To suit modern healthy diets, the indispensable lard has been greatly reduced, or in some cases is no longer added. As a result, the texture often becomes dry and dull.
The shrimp dumplings in Guangzhou's Flory City Restaurant are generally recommended by connoisseurs. Although the price of RMB 30 for six dumplings, or RMB 18 for three, is a tad expensive compared to average prices in Guangzhou, the dumplings are of superior quality.
Much like Guangdong's dumplings, the texture of chicken feet is unique. There's not much more to them than bone and marrow, and people generally don't regard the feet as a dainty dish.
Throughout its 2,000-year history, Guangdong food has been based on maintaining the taste of the primary ingredients, so supplementary materials that cover the central flavor are usually avoided. Chicken feet are an exception. They are usually deep fried and pickled with fermented soybeans, oyster sauce, soy sauce and other strong spices before being steamed. The resulting soft texture and dense flavor means people can't help salivating.
Fine materials, excellent skills and fresh tastes are the cornerstones of Cantonese cuisine. Since there are more than 4,000 famous dishes from this southern province, it's hard to really give a summary of the wealth of delicacies on offer.
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