A Tale of Two Cities

Nay-ho! That's Cantonese for "Good Day!" (The Mandarin is "nee-how")

Recently, I had the pleasure of traveling abroad. For two weeks, I engaged in feeding myself with tempting and yet simple cuisine. Where was I? Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland province of Guangdong. Home to classic Cantonese Chinese cooking- the art of the stir-fry.

And what tempted my palate for two weeks? What fruits, vegetables, and meats did I fancy?

The Cantonese diet is diverse, yet well rounded, with a common simplicity that makes it so much more enjoyable to eat. But I must start with this note: American-style Chinese restaurants often do not, nor can they, prepare and serve traditional Chinese foods. Here in the United States, we simple lack the true ingredients that are needed. Having said that, let me begin with food and meal preparation.

I took my meals, while in Hong Kong, in local "fast food" joints. That is, small restaurants with a standardized menu, with the food prepared in a short period of time. One can often watch the cooks prepare the meal and see the use of prepared meats and the stir-frying taking place. One specialty is roasted duck. Other ingredients include pork and beef, as well as a myriad of greens and other common vegetables. One thing that caught my attention is the efficiency of how food is eaten. Nothing is put to waste. This means that soups might contain the stomach and intestines. Meat is left on the bones. And, in the case of fish, heads are eaten whole. (I declined, politely, from some of these.) The result is a more complete and fuller taste.

The meals in Hong Kong were often served over rice, though I enjoyed going to noodle-shops instead.

While in the mainland, I partook my meals with co-workers, at their office/living rooms. The kitchen was small, and the various dishes were placed in the centre of the table. This is great because you have the chance to sample from all of the plates, thus expanding your taste sensations for the meal. And it must be said that there is no use for forks or knives. For soups, a simple ladle-like spoon is used and chopsticks are a must. They help when reaching over the length of the table for that last piece of BBQ'd pork.

Table manners are also different -- much more relaxed. It's expected that the bowl that your noodles or rice is served in (the only piece of dishware you have) is lifted to your mouth and the food is then "shoveled" out of the bowl into your mouth. This makes for interesting noises at times!

Having put the fear of poor hygiene behind me, I found that I much more enjoyed the overall meal experience.

Stir-Fry: an art.
To stir-fry, one simply puts a flame to a large shallow, metal bowl, adds some vegetable oil, sauces, spices, and throws in the food to be cooked. The stirring is done with a spatula or larger chopsticks. It is important that vegetables, for example, be thoroughly cooked. Because of the uncertainty of the food's safety, even raw vegetables had to be cooked. This took some getting used too as -- like many Americans -- I love my raw Caesar Salad. But, health first.

Meats were sometimes stir-fried ahead of time, then tried, seasoned, and stirred again before finally serving. Vegetables were quickly fried, then a cover was added so that they would steam in their own water. This was done for only a few moments, as you don't care to discolor or destroy the texture of the vegetables.

Some Specialties of the House.
I mentioned duck above. Roasted duck is very popular both in Hong Kong and in Guangdong. The duck is roasted, then hacked and slashed apart, bones and all, then stir-fried. We also had freshwater fish, prawns (shrimp), pork, beef, and chicken, each with its own sauce. Lighter, sweeter sauces accompanied the lighter meats and heavy, thicker sauces accompanied the more heavy meats.

One particular vegetable I enjoyed was Chinese broccoli. It remained crunchy while still being able to absorb the soy-based sauce it was served with. I found that it was important to first let whatever food you were eating at the time sit atop your bowl of rice. This helps absorb excess sauce and lightly flavors the rice.

Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner.
Unlike my American palate, these three meals differ very slightly in menu -- rice, a meat, and a vegetable along with sauces and seasonings. The Chinese, while they enjoy a sweet sauce, don't add sweetness in the form of one particular food for any meal. The exception, a fruit, might serve as a type of dessert.

And what of fruit? Tropical fruits, such as bananas and seasonal melons, such as watermelons, abound. However, I had a rather fun experience -- the lychee. It's a pear-like fruit, but has a tough outer shell. One simply needs to get a finger nail into the shell, at its topmost, and peel. Once a substantial piece of shell is removed, all one needs to do is open his/her mouth and give the fruit a gentle squeeze. Out plops the fruit. It is immediately sweet and juicy, like that of a citrus fruit, but with the flat and non-acidic taste of a pear. And that was my diet while in China's Communistic mainland.

I entered Hong Kong on my way out of this particular trip. And I was treated to a wonderful Sunday brunch which I feel clearly epitomizes the essence of Cantonese cuisine. On Sunday, families all gather and enjoy a large, late-morning brunch at a restaurant. What follows is simply a food fair. Waitresses walk around pushing carts and carts of food. Dim-sum! Steaming baskets used to cook and hold food in. Steamed vegetables wrapped in a rice paper; steamed seafood served in a soft, fried rice dough; cooked pork in sauce; and my personal favourite - a rice flour bread roll hiding shredded, sweet, BBQ'd pork! To say the least, we studded ourselves silly. And to wash it all down... Cha. Tea.
Chinese tea comes in a few varieties. But the important thing is to note that unlike English-style tea -- which many dry out your mouth instead of quenching your thirst -- Chinese tea leaves the mouth refreshed. Since water quality is often questionable (more times than not), it is important to boil the water. Well, sounds like perfect conditions to me for making tea! The Chinese drink green tea and flavored jasmine or magnolia green tea. And it's taken straight -- no milk, no sugar. Other teas include the fermented black tea and the slightly fermented oolong tea. Indian/red tea is not widely found but can be purchased from specialty retailers.

All in all, it was a pleasurable cuisine experience. I was careful, as should you be, of what I ate and of how much (except for the dim-sum incident). I hadn't gotten sick due to the food or its preparation. But it must be said that in places like China, it is important to be well-aware of what you're eating. With that said, I encourage anyone who has the chance, to visit and enjoy the flavors and aromas that the Cantonese have to provide. One last note: while some major urban areas of the United States have Chinese districts, they too can't always replicate the food of their homeland. But what the heck... it's worth it anyhow!

Gan-bay! (Cheers!)