Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Cantonese (Chinese) Cuisine

Culture Tuesday is a weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores different cultures’ cuisines across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. Before you start exploring vegan Cantonese cuisine with her today, you might want to click here to read her column about Singaporean cuisinehere to read her column about Indian cuisine, and here to read her column about Japanese cuisine.

Culture Tuesday – Cantonese (Chinese) Cuisine

The Cantonese, or Yue, cuisine is the cuisine of the people who live in the Canton/south-eastern region of China as well as neighboring parts of Hong Kong. It is also the cuisine often labeled as, “Chinese food,” in most countries despite China having several regional cuisines which are very different. This is due to the historical and more recent immigration of people from Guangdong to countries such as England, the United States of America, and Nigeria where they set up restaurants with their families and introduce people to their cultural cuisine. However, nowadays, the Cantonese cuisine found outside China (especially in non-Chinese-owned food establishments) is not true to the culture, but rather, a fusion of the various regional cuisines found in China as well as those from other East Asian nations.

Five-spice mix. Image credit: @maneatingplantla. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Flavors

The integrity of flavors is of great importance in Cantonese cooking. Foods are lightly seasoned and cooked using relatively gentle methods, such as braising, sautéing, steaming, stewing, and stir-frying, in order to preserve and highlight their true natural flavors. The herbs and spices used include fresh coriander, fresh garlic chives, spring onions (green onions, scallions,) black pepper, ginger, chillies, five-spice mixes, and star anise. However, only little amounts of them are used to prevent their flavors overpowering that of the main ingredient(s) in the dish as the purpose of the herbs and spices are to enhance the original flavor (s) of the main ingredient(s) rather than to create the flavor of the dish. The main ingredient(s) are also used at peak freshness for optimal levels of their natural flavor.

Modern Cantonese cuisine found outside China is a fusion of the various regional cuisines found in China as well as those from other East Asian nations.

Despite spices being used sparingly, condiments are used to enhance the flavors of dishes. These include salt, sugar, Shaoxing (rice wine), rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, black bean sauce, hoisin sauce, and plum sauce.

Preservation

Despite the freshness of ingredients being of significance in vegan Cantonese cuisine, preserved ingredients are occasionally used to deepen the flavors of dishes or add a contrasting flavor. Some foods are also preserved to keep them as fresh or nutritious as possible for longer periods of time. In the cuisine, preservation is often carried out through fermentation, drying, brining, or pickling.

In Cantonese cuisine, preservation is often carried out through fermentation, drying, brining, or pickling.

Common preserved foods include dried beancurd sticks, tofu skins, fermented tofu, fermented soybeans, fermented black beans, pickled cabbage, pickled radish, pickled cucumbers, dried mushrooms, and dried cabbage. To cook with these ingredients, they are either used straight out of their preservation container or they are rehydrated (if dried) by soaking prior to being cooked with or used as a topping.

Oyster mushrooms. Image credit: @maneatingplantla. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Dim Sum

Dim sum is often incorrectly identified in non-Asian communities. Most of the time, it is solely used to refer to a particular dumpling dish. However, dim sum is actually the name given to a variety of small dishes served and/or eaten by Cantonese people during breakfast and lunch hours. Some of the dishes served as dim sum include chéungfán, congee, dauh fuh fā, jaléung, jīndēui, and sīumáai.

Dim sum is actually the name given to a variety of small dishes served and/or eaten by Cantonese people during breakfast and lunch hours.

Chéungfán, also known as ‘rice noodle rolls,’ is a dish made by rolling vegetables (or meat substitutes for vegan versions of the non-vegan variants) in shahe fen – thin wide rice noodle sheets. The shahe fen is made from a mixture of glutinous rice flour and water or rice flour from non-glutinous ranges of rice combined with tapioca flour and water to create the chewy texture associated with foods made with glutinous rice flour. The vegetables are steamed, and the noodles are lightly folded or rolled to encase portions of the vegetables. The dish is finished with a drizzle of sweetened soy sauce.

vegan cantonese cuisine
Congee. Image credit: @maneatingplantla. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Congee, also known as ‘jūk,’ is a thick rice porridge dish. It is either served plain with side dishes or with toppings (usually savory) served on it. It is prepared by cooking white rice in a lot of water over a long period of time, so the rice disintegrates and creates a thick porridge. Although the water is usually salted for flavor, it could also include aromatics such as fresh ginger which will infuse the congee with a more noticeable and warmer flavor. Common toppings for congee are jaléung, lettuce, pickled tofu, wheat gluten, soy sauce, and bamboo shoots. Sweet versions of congee might include mung beans, red beans, dried fruits, lotus seeds, and/or peanuts.

Dau fuh fā, also known as, ‘tofu pudding,’ is a sweet pudding made from very soft tofu (often referred to as ‘silken tofu’). It is often served with syrup such as sweet ginger syrup or any clear syrup. Some people add sesame paste to their dau fuh fā for more flavor.

vegan cantonese cuisine
A typical Chinese breakfast: tofu pudding and soy milk. Image credit: @accidentalchinesevegan. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Jaléung is made by tightly wrapping yàuhjagwái (fried dough) with sheets of rice noodles. It is often doused in condiments such as hoisin sauce, sesame paste of soy sauce, and garnished with sesame seeds to serve. Jaléung is usually eaten as a breakfast food and accompanied by congee and soy milk.

Jīndēui, or jīmàkáu, is a chewy fried pastry made from glutinous rice flour. It has a hollow inner area that is filled with lotus paste but can also be made with a black bean or red bean paste filling. The jīndēui dough is encrusted with sesame seeds hence its other name, jīmàkáu, which means, ‘sesame seed balls.’ Despite being part of the Cantonese cuisine, jīndēui is of chang’an (central Chinese) origin. However, due to the southward migration of people from central China, jīndēui became part of Cantonese cuisine.

Sīumáai, also commonly known as, ‘shumai,’ is a dumpling dish consisting of steamed dumplings filled with a mixture of vegetables such as garlic chives, spring onions (green onions/scallions), ginger, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, carrots, and/or peas. Black mushrooms are also a common filling ingredient. The filling is often seasoned with Shaoxing, soy sauce, fresh stock, and/or sesame oil. The dough of the dumpling is usually made using lye water which gives it its color and springy texture. Sīumáai is also known as one of the sei daaih tīn wòhng – ‘The Four Heavenly Kings’ of the Cantonese cuisine.

vegan cantonese cuisine
Fried breadsticks (youtiao / dau chao quay). Image credit: @scruffandsteph. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Other Meals

Other Cantonese meals include (but are not limited to) cháau mihn (chow mein) and hung siu daufuh.

Cháau mihn, commonly known in the Chinese diaspora as ‘chow mein,’ is s a stir-fried noodle and vegetable dish. Variations of it contain tofu and could also contain meat substitutes to make the non-vegan variants vegan. The stir-fry is seasoned with soy sauce which gives it its brown tinted color. It is one of the most popular Cantonese dishes found and eaten outside China.

Hung siu daufuh, also known as, ‘hong shao doufu,’ in Mandarin and ‘braised tofu’ in English, is a tofu dish made by frying tofu then cooking it further with veggies, a braising liquid (consisting of vegan oyster sauce/mushroom sauce (an alternative to oyster sauce), sesame oil, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, and sugar) and a cornstarch slurry. The cornstarch thickens the braising liquid and gives the hung siu daufuh a somewhat glossy finish. This dish is usually served with steamed rice.

vegan cantonese cuisine
Chow mein. Image credit: @kaykayfood. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Vegan Cantonese Recipe – Sticky Rice Mushroom Shumai

This sticky rice mushroom shumai recipe was developed by Judy of TheWoksOfLife.com (@thewoksoflife on Instagram). It features a shumai wrapper recipe as well as the filling recipe and images which complement the instructions making the recipe easy to follow and the shumai rather simple to make.

vegan cantonese cuisine

Click here or on the image above to see the full recipe.

Author: Samantha Onyemenam.

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