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Guangdong cooking is one of China’s four major regional styles and, despite northern critics decrying it as too uncomplicated to warrant the term “cuisine”, it’s unmatched in the clarity of its flavours and its appealing presentation. The style subdivides into Cantonese, emanating from the Pearl River Delta region; Chaozhou, from the city of the same name in the far east of Guangdong; and Hakka, from the northeastern border with Fujian, named after the Han subgroup with whom it originated. Though certain Chaozhou and Hakka recipes have been incorporated into the main body of Guangdong cooking – sweet-and-sour pork with fruit, and salt-baked chicken, for instance – it’s Cantonese food that has come to epitomize its principles. With many Chinese emigrants leaving through Guangzhou, it’s also the most familiar to overseas visitors, though peruse a menu here and you’ll soon realize that most dishes served abroad as “Cantonese” would be unrecognizable to a local.

Spoiled by good soil and a year-round growing season, the Cantonese demand absolutely fresh ingredients, kept alive and kicking in cages, tanks or buckets at the front of the restaurant for diners to select themselves. Westerners can be repulsed by this collection of wildlife, and even other Chinese comment that the Cantonese will eat anything with legs that isn’t a piece of furniture, and anything with wings that isn’t an aeroplane. The cooking itself is designed to keep textures distinct and flavours as close to the original as possible, using a minimum amount of mild and complementary seasoning to prevent dishes from being bland. Fast stir-frying in a wok is the best known of these procedures, but slow-simmering in soy sauce and wine and roasting are other methods of teasing out the essential characteristics of the food.

No full meal is really complete without a simple plate of rich green and bitter choi sam (cai xin in Mandarin), Chinese broccoli, blanched and dressed with oyster sauce. Also famous is fish and seafood, often simply steamed with ginger and spring onions – hairy crabs are a winter treat, sold everywhere – and nobody cooks fowl better than the Cantonese, always juicy and flavoursome, whether served crisp-skinned and roasted or fragrantly casseroled. Guangzhou’s citizens are also compulsive snackers, and outside canteens you’ll see roast meats, such as whole goose or strips of cha siu pork, waiting to be cut up and served with rice for a light lunch, or burners stacked with sandpots (sai bo), a one-person dish of steamed rice served in the cooking vessel with vegetables and slices of sweet lap cheung sausage. Cake shops selling heavy Chinese pastries and filled buns are found everywhere across the region. Some items like custard tartlets are derived from foreign sources, while roast-pork buns and flaky-skinned mooncakes stuffed with sweet lotus seed paste are of domestic origin.

Perhaps it’s this delight in little delicacies that led the tradition of dim sum (dian xin in Mandarin) to blossom in Guangdong, where it’s become an elaborate form of breakfast most popular on Sundays, when entire households pack out restaurants. Also known in Cantonese as yum cha – literally, “drink tea” – dim sum involves little dishes of fried, boiled and steamed snacks being stuffed inside bamboo steamers or displayed on plates, then wheeled around the restaurant on trolleys, which you stop for inspection as they pass your table. On being seated, you’re given a pot of tea, which is constantly topped up, and a card, which is marked for each dish you select and which is later surrendered to the cashier. Try juk (rice porridge), spring rolls, buns, cakes and plates of thinly sliced roast meats, and small servings of restaurant dishes like spareribs, stuffed capsicum, or squid with black beans. Save most room, however, for the myriad types of little fried and steamed dumplings which are the hallmark of a dim sum meal, such as har gau, juicy minced prawns wrapped in transparent rice-flour skins, and siu mai, a generic name for a host of delicately flavoured, open-topped packets.

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