Cantonese cuisine comes from Guangdong province and is one of the Eight Culinary Traditions of Chinese cuisine. Its prominence outside China is due to the great numbers of early emigrants from Guangdong. Cantonese chefs are highly sought after throughout China. When Westerners speak of Chinese food, they usually refer to Cantonese cuisine.
Guangdong has long been a trading port and many imported foods and ingredients are used in Cantonese cuisine. Besides pork, beef and chicken, Cantonese cuisine incorporates almost all edible meats, including offal, chicken feet, duck's tongue, snakes, and snails. However, lamb and goat are rarely eaten, unlike in the cuisines of northern or western China. Many cooking methods are used, with steaming and stir frying being the most favoured due to their convenience and rapidity. Other techniques include shallow frying, double steaming, braising, and deep frying.
For many traditional Cantonese cooks, the flavours of a finished dish should be well balanced and not greasy. Apart from that, spices should be used in modest amounts to avoid overwhelming the flavours of the primary ingredients, and these ingredients in turn should be at the peak of their freshness and quality. There is no widespread use of fresh herbs in Cantonese cooking, in contrast with their liberal use in other cuisines such as Sichuan, European, Thai or Vietnamese. Garlic chives and coriander leaves are notable exceptions, although the latter are usually used as mere garnish in most dishes.
Although Cantonese cooks pay much attention to the freshness of their primary ingredients, Cantonese cuisine also uses a long list of preserved food items to add flavour to a dish. This may be influenced by Hakka cuisine, since the Hakkas were once a dominant group occupying imperial Hong Kong and other southern territories.
Some items gain very intense flavours during the drying / preservation / oxidation process and some foods are preserved to increase their shelf life. Some chefs combine both dried and fresh varieties of the same items in a dish. Dried items are usually soaked in water to rehydrate before cooking. These ingredients are generally not served per se and go with vegetables or other Cantonese dishes.
Cantonese stir-fried vegetables. Often, vegetables are simply stir-fried plain or with minced garlic.
A number of dishes have been part of Cantonese cuisine since the earliest territorial establishments of Guangdong. While many of these are on the menus of typical Cantonese restaurants, some simpler ones are more commonly found in Chinese homes. Home-made Cantonese dishes are usually served with plain white rice.
Zaa Leung, a common dish in a Cantonese breakfast.
There are a small number of deep-fried dishes in Cantonese cuisine, which can often be found as street food. They have been extensively documented in colonial Hong Kong records of the 19th and 20th centuries. A few are synonymous with Cantonese breakfast and lunch, even though these are also part of other cuisines.
Slow-cooked soup, or lou fo tong (simplified Chinese: 老火汤; traditional Chinese: 老火湯; pinyin: lǎohuǒ tāng; Jyutping: lou5 fo2 tong1) in the Cantonese dialect (literally meaning old fire-cooked soup) is usually a clear broth prepared by simmering meat and other ingredients over a low heat for several hours. Chinese herbs are often used as ingredients.
Soup chain stores or delivery outlets in Cantonese-dominated cities such as Hong Kong serve this dish due to the long preparation time of slow-cooked soup.
Due to Guangdong's location on the southern coast of China, fresh seafood is prominent in Cantonese cuisine (many Cantonese restaurants keep aquariums or seafood tanks on the premises). In Cantonese (as in other parts of Asia) cuisine if seafood has a repugnant odour strong spices are added; the freshest seafood is odourless and, in Cantonese culinary arts, is best cooked by steaming. For instance, in some recipes, only a small amount of soy sauce, ginger, and spring onion is added to steamed fish. According to Cantonese cuisine, the light seasoning is used only to bring out the natural sweetness of the seafood. As a rule of thumb, the spiciness of a dish is usually inversely proportionate to the freshness of the ingredients.
Little Pot rice (simplified Chinese: 煲仔饭; traditional Chinese: 煲仔飯; pinyin: bāozǎifàn; Jyutping: bou1 zai2 faan6) are dishes cooked and served in a flat-bottomed pot (as opposed to a round-bottomed wok). Usually this is a saucepan or braising pan (see clay pot cooking). Such dishes are cooked by covering and steaming, making the rice and ingredients very hot and soft. Usually the ingredients are layered on top of the rice with little or no mixing in between. Many standard combinations exist.
A number of dishes are traditionally served in Cantonese restaurants only at dinner times. Dim sum restaurants stop serving bamboo-basket dishes after the yum cha period (equivalent to afternoon tea) and begin offering an entirely different menu in the evening. Some dishes are standard while others are regional. Some are customised for special purposes such as Chinese marriages or banquets. Salt and pepper dishes are one of the few spicy dishes.
After the evening meal, most Cantonese restaurants offer tong sui (Chinese: 糖水; pinyin: táng shuǐ; Jyutping: tong4 seoi2; literally: "sugar water"), a sweet soup. Many varieties of tong sui are also found in other Chinese cuisines. Some desserts are traditional, while others are recent innovations. The more expensive restaurants usually offer their specialty desserts.
Many Cantonese delicacies consist of parts taken from rare or endangered animals, which raises serious controversy over animal rights and environmental issues. This is often due to the supposed health benefits of certain animal products, for example shark cartilage, which is widely believed to prevent cancer, although scientific research has found no evidence to support these claims.
The recurring allegation that the Chinese will eat anything on four legs, except tables and chairs is related to a description of Cantonese cuisine that is common among people of Beijing. In 1986, the Duke of Edinburgh was criticized for commenting on Chinese eating habits at the World Wildlife Fund conference: "If it has four legs and is not a chair, if it has two wings and flies but is not an aeroplane, and if it swims and is not a submarine, the Cantonese will eat it." This public statement was deemed by some Westerners as a prime example of a lack of understanding of foreign culinary traditions in the Western world. Other commentators have pointed out that this is a modern saying used by the Chinese from other regions in reference to Cantonese culinary habits.