No, Cantonese food is not bland

Nov 11, 2019

A defense of the cuisine’s subtle flavors.

In college, I lived in a dorm with international students. Every week, one of us was assigned to cook dinner for everyone else on the floor, a chore we accepted as a condition for living in one of the nicer buildings on campus.

Whenever my turn came, I invariably fell back on the food I grew up with: Cantonese. I would roast sweet marinated pork in the oven to make char siu. I would stir-fry beef tips and broccoli with oyster sauce, and blanch Chinese greens with fine minced garlic.

Blanched choy sum with minced garlic.
Blanched choy sum with minced garlic. / Photo: Shutterstock

The seasoning and sauces I used were sparing and subtle; my parents had taught me that Cantonese cooking was about bringing out the ingredients’ natural flavors.

But for some of my dorm mates who came from spice-eating countries like India, Korea, and Thailand, the food was decidedly bland. In fact, one Korean friend made it a habit to bring a bottle of Sriracha hot sauce whenever it was my turn to cook.

It was not the first time I heard Cantonese food described as bland, or “light on flavor” in the kindest terms.

It’s entirely possible that their qualms were more an indictment of my own cooking than a judgement on the entire cuisine, but it was not the first time I heard Cantonese food described as bland, or “light on flavor” in the kindest terms.

Steamed fish, flavored with just ginger and soy sauce, is a staple of Cantonese cuisine.
Steamed fish, flavored with just ginger and soy sauce, is a staple of Cantonese cuisine. / Photo: Shutterstock

Of course, Cantonese food is not bland. Locals have an endless list of vocabulary to describe the flavors and textures of their food: qingdan 清淡 “light,” xinxian 新鲜 “fresh,” and shuang 爽 “smooth.” It’s just that spicy and pungent are not usually among those words.

Part of that comes from access to fresh ingredients. The region known for Cantonese cuisine—which includes Guangdong Province, Hong Kong, and Macau—sits on the southern seaboard of China. That means an abundant supply of fresh fish and seafood.

Rice is the major crop in Cantonese cuisine.
Rice is the major crop in Cantonese cuisine. / Photo: Ray Ngan

Abundant rainfall, coupled with seasonal flooding from the Pearl River, creates an ideal environment for cultivating crops, especially rice, which requires flooded fields to grow.

(Read more: The most authentic Hong Kong fish balls, made with fresh fish)

All this means Cantonese cooking is not about masking flavors but enhancing them. Steaming, for example, is the preferred way to cook meat and vegetables. You get more of the choy sum’s bittersweet flavor when the stalks are left to sit in a steamer. The fish has more fragrance when it’s cooked with just soy sauce and ginger.

Steaming is the preferred method of cooking in Cantonese cuisine.
Steaming is the preferred method of cooking in Cantonese cuisine. / Photo: Nicholas Ko

Steaming was one of the first things my parents taught me when I first learned how to cook. It’s one of the most effective ways to preserve the ingredients’ natural flavors, and it’s why dim sum, arguably the most well-known part of Cantonese cuisine, is often served in bamboo steamers.

(Read more: 8 quintessential dim sum desserts, illustrated)

And when there is flavor added, it’s ever so slight—a sprinkling of ginger, a drizzle of oyster sauce, or a dollop of hoisin sauce. When my dad taught me how to make char siu—Cantonese roast pork—he would coat the tenderloin in such a delicate amount of glaze that it was almost transparent.

Cantonese roast pork.
Cantonese roast pork. / Photo: Shutterstock

The result was a succulent roast, its flavor carried by the juice of the meat rather than the sweetness of the glaze.

The result was a succulent roast, its flavor carried by the juice of the meat rather than the sweetness of the glaze.

(Read more: A (very) comprehensive illustrated guide to Cantonese barbecue)

Over the years, I’ve developed a palate for stronger flavors—the punchiness of Korean gochujang, the sting of Sichuan mala, and the richness of Thai curry—but whenever I cook for myself, I always fall back on the subtle flavors with which I grew up.

Because in Cantonese cooking, the secret is not in the sauce but in the produce itself.

CantoneseHong KongDim sumChinese-Americans

Credit

Producer and Host: Clarissa Wei

Videographer: Nicholas Ko

Editor and Animation: Ray Ngan

Mastering: Victor Peña