If I had to pinpoint the most accessible cultural gift China has given the world, I would have to choose food. People who rarely meet Chinese people will tell me their favourite Chinese restaurant. They’re trying to find common ground and food is the great common table at which we all partake.
So let’s talk about the food.
Linda goes to China and learns things about Cantonese cuisine she’s never seen before
The Museum of Intangible Culture, Kaiping
Blame UNESCO for the awkward name, but China agreed to pass a law safeguarding its Intangible Cultural heritage in 2011 and this museum is one of the many efforts to define and preserve what I’d call traditional culture. Think of it as being akin to the same concerns that resulted in the institut national des appellations d’origine – the French body which oversees and controls French wine. At the Museum of Intangible Culture, there are many displays of culture from dragon boating to calligraphy but for this blog, I want to tell you about the food.
I learned it’s not just the extreme effort and knowledge that goes into making traditional Chinese food – it’s also the tools and specialized equipment that have evolved over thousands of years. If you cook, you know the battle is lost before its begun if you don’t have the right tools. Guangdong has its particular culinary specialities, among them preserved bean curd, fresh tofu, and the small dishes better known in Canada as dim sum (Chinese: 點心).
Dim Sum as Intangible Culture
I didn’t get a picture of the dimly lit wall-sized display of dim sum but our group had lots of fun identifying our favourites: sui mai (Chinese: 燒賣; shrimp and pork dumplings), dan tat (egg tarts), pai kuat (spare ribs). We might be first generation or fifth, Chinese or Caucasian, but we all knew our dim sum. Food isn’t only common ground between Chinese people and non-Chinese, it’s also common ground by and for Chinese. I’ll go further. Food connects families when all other modes of communication are impassable. We can all say let’s eat (together).
食飯 = sik faan (literally, eat rice)
This is my absolute, all-time favourite dim sum: joong, or 粽子. It’s a bamboo leaf-wrapped, sticky rice dumpling once reserved for the Dragon Boat Festival but now enjoyed year round and served at bettter dim sum restaurants. At the Cangdong Heritage Centre, the bamboo leaves were harvested locally, and the “ties” are actually a type of grass.
Dim sum in Gold Mountain
My grandmother made joong for us but she had to contend with dried bamboo leaves. Only now does it occur to me how hard she worked to keep the traditional cooking methods intact. It’s not just the food in intangible culture – it’s the methodology and the tools. Let me explain. Joong are traditionally wrapped in bamboo leaves and tied in a triangle shape. Each joong requires 3 bamboo leaves. To get to the stage where the leaves are pliable enough to work, the dried leaves have to be soaked for days, checking every so often the leaves are still covered with water, changing the water, and then checking the results. My grandmother would be annoyed at finding damaged (and therefore unusable) leaves. I now see that she had all these extra steps to get to the part of the prep which in China she’d be able to do with one quick trip out to the bamboo fields. For tying the joong, she used ordinary white cotton kitchen twine. Until I saw the joong in China, I didn’t know there was an even more traditional tying material (described to me as “grass” when I asked).
If you’d like to know more about making joong, I’ve provided links to two good recipes that includes details on the methodology, and the Toisan-style fillings I grew up with (and always wrongly asserted were the “right” fillings).
It’s tea time
On a hot and sunny morning in Cangdong Village, we sat down to learn about tea.
(Left) Three kinds of tea (top to bottom): pu’er, green, black. (Right) Green teas on the plate, orange peel tea in the cup. Cangdong Heritage Centre, Guangdong Province, China. Oct 2019. © 2019 All rights reserved.
This is as far from popping a tea bag into a cup as it’s possible to get. And this isn’t English-style tea at all: there’s no milk or sugar, and the cups are tiny. We were taken through the whole process of making tea, China-style, from the first wash (bathe the leaves and throw the water out), through the second and third pours, to finally pouring tea into our cups.
(Clockwise from top left) Pressing the orange peel, removing the orange peel, the third pour of tea with leaves into a pouring cup equipped with a strainer, the first wash of tea leaves to show us the residue. Cangdong Heritage Centre, Guangdong, China. Oct 2019. © 2019 Past Presence. All rights reserved.
The tea was clear, sparkling, and ranged in flavour from subtle to intense.
After a while, we stopped focusing on what was in our cups and started fetishizing about the tea service, complete with teak tea tray. I almost bought a tea service, but who am I kidding? I love how it looks but I won’t make tea like this at home.
Clay pot cooking
Where have you been all my life?
Like all my cousins, I live for fan zil, or crunchy rice (Chinese: 飯焦). This is a rare treat because most people who make rice own a rice cooker, and rice cookers do not produce the high heat needed to turn soft, fluffy cooked rice grains into hard, crunchy, golden fan zil.
Enter clay pot cooking, where rice is cooked with any topping you like (e.g., Chinese sausage, preserved duck egg, soy sauce chicken, ginger fish), each in its own covered clay pot, and the kicker, cooked over wood flames. This is Chinese casserole cooking: each pot contains the meat, veg, rice, and at the very bottom nestles a layer of golden fan zil.
Here’s Mr. Yongheng Guan, clay pot master, whose virtuosity was astonishing. He knew to the second when more rice, liquid, or topping was needed, and the way he accomplished this was to continuously open the lids, turn the pots, and swap them around from hotter to cooler spots over the flames. He wore one glove on his left hand. I presume his right hand is made of Teflon.
Mr. Guan, cooking dozens of clay pot dinners on a specially designed wood-burning stove with holes for the clay pots to settle in. At Cangdong Heritage Centre and at his clay pot restaurant. Oct 2019. © 2019 Past Presence. All rights reserved.
Cantonese cooking goes upscale
We hit two restaurants that served the ultimate in locally sourced, high-end, homestyle Cantonese cooking: AMO Organic and Wang Gang.
It was fascinating to see that for these two restaurant-cum-hostelries, Westerners were not the target market. We’re not even on the map. There’s nothing in English, and no possibility of forks and knives. I’m not sure why that was such a surprise – Westerners were not accomodated in any of the places I saw in all of Guangdong, with the exception of Guangzhou Airport. Indeed, the target markets for these places are high-end locals who are looking for the same things I am: the fabled cooking they remember from childhood.
This photo was taken in the kitchen of the Cangdong Heritage Centre, but it could have been taken in any Chinese Canadian kitchen. My father had this setup. So did my grandmother. It’s a medium-heavy cleaver with a razor’s edge, paired with a roughly finished tree stump.
Why does these tools endure? Because they are ideal tools for Cantonese cooking. With a cleaver, you can chop bones, fillet a fish, smash garlic, and make shoestring potatoes. There’s no need for a fancy mandolin if your knife skills are up to par.
These were some of the many culinary masterworks we ate while in China. I could keep going and tell you about the roast goose, the handmade tofu, and the chilled melon but this probably gives you a – taste – of what it was like.
Until now, all the knowledge I had about traditional Cantonese cooking came to me as a legacy from my father, Cecil Wing See Yip, and my grandmother, Leila Chu. Both of them were renowned for their talents in the kitchen. Their specialities are still legendary in our families – even today I can still taste my father’s stir-fried tomato beef, or my grandmother’s steamed egg with minced pork (Chinese: 猪肉蒸水蛋). These are simple dishes, executed with precision and timing. I can hear my grandmother describe how much of each ingredient to put in a dish: “… a little bit of ginger / a handful of bok choy / a dash of see yau (soy sauce).” They cooked with hands and tongue where I cook with measuring spoons, cups and scales.
Throughout this series, I am distilling knowledge from everyone I’ve ever known, up to and including Dr. Henry Yu, Dr. Selia Tan, and their teams, and from people in my group on the tour. I don’t know much Chinese at all, apart from the words that drift up from childhood memories. When these words come up, I google them for their proper spelling in English, and if possible, for their traditional characters in Chinese, because this is a think piece for me as much as a story.
Any mistakes I make are mine alone and are not a reflection on my excellent teachers. Doh jeh, laoshi.
Chinese sticky rice dumplings (recipe). Available at Saveur.com
Toisan-style joong (recipe). Available at SeriousEats.com.
What is intangible cultural heritage? UNESCO: Intangible cultural heritage.
I’ll tell you more about the tour. Here is the link.
6 thoughts on “Travels in China – the food”
Lovely post to read, Linda. Is the winter melon sweet or is it more like a gourd or pumpkin? Sounds like you had an enjoyable and informative time. 🙂
Thank you, Val! Writing this post made me hungry.
Winter melon is more like a gourd. It’s a huge vegetable, with smooth sides. When I was a child, we’d go to 500-person Chinese banquets with soup ladled out of whole steamed melons, their sides carved in intricate patterns. I can’t imagine how hard that is to make, never mind commercially, for hundreds of guests. What is that – 50 tables, so 50 melons?!?! Who on earth can steam 50 whole melons? Cooking issues aside, winter melon flesh is translucent, delicate, and apt to take on the flavours of the clear pork broths it’s cooked in. The more I am learning about “simple” Canto cuisine, the more I am realizing these dishes are far from simple. That must be why they’re so good.
I presume the traditions that gave rise to them, must have helped keep families – even big families – together.
Definitely! Not just Chinese families – all families benefit from getting together once daily to eat together.
I like Chinese food but sometime annoy with the taste because most of them are salty.
It can be. “Salty” is a flavour imparted by a number of additives from soy and fish sauce to MSG. Better restaurants avoid MSG and find other flavour enhancements (rice wine, rice vinegar, sherry, etc.) to make a dish pop.