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14 Signs You’ve Never Had Real Cantonese Food

China Student Work
by Ting Yiu Nov 6, 2014
1. You’re too cool for sweet and sour.

Convinced that neon-red takeout gloop is an American invention, you opt for trendy Sichuanese instead. We’re pissed by the bastardized versions, too, but don’t ditch sweet and sour just yet.

Real Cantonese gu lou yuk is 200-years old, and every family has a recipe. Bone-in pork soft-ribs coated in corn starch is double fried to a tooth-shattering crunch. Vinegar, Worcester sauce, and ketchup (also, not American), plus fresh pineapple and peppers tossed in a searing wok is the real sweet-and-sour experience. Secret ingredient? Haw flakes for a fruity tang and scarlet hue (only amateurs resort to food colouring).

For all you haters, sweet and sour is legit Canto comfort food.

2. You think “soy sauce western” is some kind of obscure film genre.

Served in our equivalent of the American diner (cha chaan teng), soy sauce western is the love child of British high-tea and Cantonese noodle houses. Read your paper while gruff waiters toss you fusion-fare classics like scrambled egg-and-beef sandwiches, Doll-brand instant noodles and satay beef, macaroni noodle soup and ham, rib-sticking HK French toast, bo lo bao, dan taat, and inspired beverages like yuanyang (½ coffee, ½ tea — don’t knock it before you’ve tried it), hot coke and lemon (sore-throat remedy), and our world-famous milk tea. Expect Canto-drama blaring in the background while the counter lady tallies your bill with a death stare — who doesn’t love a dash of masochism with their food?

3. You think we all eat adorable PETA mascots.

There will always be those who think that shark fin boosts social cred or tiger bones increase penile strength and shagging prowess, but they’re an outdated minority. The foods every expat misses are simple — water eggs and chives, stewed beef brisket, steamed spare ribs, blanched gai lan and oyster sauce, water spinach with fermented tofu, or steamed-ground pork with salted egg. You’ll be hard pressed to find these homemade classics at any restaurant. Relentless bribery may just convince your Cantonese friend to take you home for dinner.

4. You don’t give HK French toast the respect it deserves.

Neither French nor even really toast, this artery-clogging, bread-based stroke of genius is so over the top it’s like your loud cougar aunt in blue eyeshadow and sequins. Creamy peanut butter slathered between two thick-ass slices of white, crust-free bread, deep fried, and topped with butter, malt syrup, and condensed milk served on orange plastic plates. It’s a food group in it’s own right and Paula Deen ain’t got nothing on it.

5. You insist on milkless tea.

HKers don’t exist in some kung fu-verse where grandpas sip oolong, dishing out zen riddles. Si mut nai chaa (“pantyhose milk-tea” — no joke) is the unofficial drink of hong Kong. Start with black tea — exact blends are trade secrets. Pour through a fine-meshed strainer resembling stockings and serve with Black and White evaporated milk. The result is a terracotta-coloured, silky beverage aeons ahead of the British stuff. Best taken at 3:15pm when HK migrates en masse to cha chaan tengs for their afternoon pick-me-up.

6. You expect your food to be served squealing.

HK’s point-n’-cook joints (live fish caught, killed, and plated in 30 minutes) are notorious. While we do value freshness, we have a vast repertoire of preserved/dried flora and fauna that gives our food that umami uppercut to the tastebuds. From jinhua ham that rivals prosciutto, fermented tofu stronger than Roquefort to century eggs (that aren’t really 100 years old), our preserved goodies cost more than their fresh cousins. One dish — fat choy ho si — uses ONLY dried ingredients. A visually arresting dish of black dried shitake mushrooms, black dried oysters, and black dried hair moss (Gobi desert dune vegetable) is braised in oyster sauce until tender — a Chinese New Year staple.

7. You dismiss congee as overcooked rice porridge.

Congee satisfies all criteria for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s our version of chicken soup, prescribed for any ailment and the ultimate death-row meal, where a cup of rice turns into a meal that feeds ten. Dare call it “just rice porridge” and you’ll be laughed out of town. The best vendors cook rice overnight in industrial-sized vats adding meat broth and dried beancurd sticks. When the grains reach the exploded flower stage (bao fa), congee zenith has been achieved — a sublime, creamy, melt-in-your-mouth bowl of heaven. Classic pairings are century egg and salt pork, pigs blood, sampan-style, or hand-chopped beef and lettuce. Eat with yau zha gwai, fried-fish skins, luo baak go, and a side of hot, savoury soy milk.

8. You think dim sum is an etiquette-laden affair.

Apart from some chopstick-wrangling and tea-pouring rules, it’s a free-for-all. Dim sum ladies push carts of bamboo steamers with neon-skinned siu mai, behemoth lotus-leaf sticky rice, cha siu bao, or the poetic euphemism, phoenix claws (deep-fried chickens feet braised in sweet black bean sauce). Riots ensue when fresh har gow (the king of dim sum) is spotted and diners hone in like drones for the juiciest, plumpest portions. Leave immediately if the former scene does not occur, because the strength of a ‘har gow rush’ is the measure of a restaurant’s quality.

Warning: Never attempt this solo — there are over 200 varieties of dim sum — grab a crowd and dig in.

9. You’ve never heard of Cantonese barbecue.

Technically roasted in a vertical cylindrical oven, Cantonese barbecue (siu mei) is so good you’d sell your first-born for a taste. Laquered duck, five-spice flavoured goose, honey-drenched char siu, and five-layered crispy siu yuk pork belly sauced and served over white rice is practically a religious experience.

10. You underestimate the street cred of curried fish balls on a stick.

Our equivalent of the New York hot dog, 37.5 million curried fish balls are eaten in HK everyday. At only HK$9 for a seven-ball skewer, delicious and slightly nasty in that mystery-meat kinda way (they are at least 20% fish meat) — they’re quintessential street-food royalty. Since the 1950s, they’ve sated our cravings during school breaks, before catching the MTR, or after a karaoke and San Mig binge. The spiciest kinds are still guaranteed to give you a ring of fire the next day.

11. You think Cantonese dessert starts with orange slices and ends with fortune cookies.

a) Fortune cookies are Japanese, and b) We’re such sugar freaks we add sweetener to our savoury dishes. True story! From red-bean slushies at the diner, Hui Lau Shan mango treats on a hot day, tong but lut at Yuk Yip’s on Elgin Street, tong yun for Chinese New Year, dragon-beard candy at festivals, and green-bean icicles from 7-eleven, we’ve got sugar covered for every occasion. Theres even competing chains of dessert-only restaurants selling our legendary sweet soups. This sugar dedication must win some prize.

P.S. Get over our love for beans in dessert — we dig beans. End of story.

12. You thought nose-to-tail eating was a hipster thing.

Necessity breeds creativity and we’ve been performing culinary magic with all the scary bits way before the hipster bandwagon made peasant-food cool. Just check out our Michelin-starred duck tongues, ginger-steamed ox stomach, braised chicken feet, pork knuckles in black vinegar, stir-fried goose intestines, roasted pork cheek, pork blood with chives, soy braised ox tongue, and more. Don’t be scared, we’ve had a couple thousand years to fine-tune this, so live a little and taste something risqué today. Your tastebuds will thank me later.

13. You think medicine is something the doctor prescribes.

Self medicating with food is a Cantonese obsession. Ng fa cha cures summer rash, and winter chills call for a hot pot laden with tonics. If we’ve been hitting the bottles hard, we visit herbal-tea stores for ching bo leung the next day. Dong guai soups are prescribed for the ladies, and snow fungus and papaya have moisturizing properties. It/s no wonder so many of us live past the century mark.

14. You avoid dai pai dong like the plague.

By skipping street food, you’re missing out on an essential experience of HK’s food culture. Do ya think they’d all still be in business if they poisoned their customers on the regular? Some of the best chefs are found curb-side under a naked lightbulb serving crispy, stinky tofu, bowls of chopped offal in gravy, silky cheong fun with sesame paste and sweet sauce or wun tsai chee with red vinegar. And I haven’t even mentioned the cooked-food centres and open-air restaurants of Temple Street where you can enjoy a cold Tsingtao with salt n’ pepper mantis.

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