For thousands of years, the people of China’s Guangdong region have created and refined the complex art of cooking. Also referred to as Yue cuisine, Cantonese cuisine is considered the most popular Chinese cuisine across the world, and its goal is to preserve and highlight each ingredient’s natural taste. Its flavors are mild, fresh, and sweet, with popular dishes including dim sum, char siu (barbeque pork), and fried rice.
Chinese cuisine incorporates a wide array of spices, meats, vegetables, and cooking techniques, but there are a few ingredients that provide a unifying thread throughout the Cantonese region.
Garlic has been a vital and prevailing ingredient in Chinese cuisine and culture for over 4000 years, so it is no surprise that China today provides as much as 80% of the world’s total supply. Used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat upset stomach, garlic is commonly utilized to enhance the flavor of meat and vegetables in Chinese cuisine.
According to legend, garlic was used by Emperor Huang-ti to cure him and his companions of poisoning. In today’s culture, some create a mixture called “garlic wine,” which is created by infusing rice wine with garlic. The wine is meant to alleviate symptoms of the common cold.
Common in dumplings, cheung fun, and assorted rice dishes, Chinese cuisine uses a variety of mushrooms and fungi that may be uncommon or unusual to newcomers. Straw mushroom, cloud ear fungus, black and white fungus, and bamboo pith are just some of the unique varieties common in China.
Chinese art often depicts the traditional lingzhi mushroom as a symbol of luck, health, and long life. Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of healing, has been depicted holding the mushroom in certain artwork.
Lily bulb is a vegetable which comes from the lily flower plant and has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for centuries.
The species of lily bulb most used in Chinese cuisine is the Lilium brownii, which resembles a garlic bulb but is different from the common household variety. The whole bulb forms underneath the ground and breaks off into small pieces.
Delicate and sweet in flavor, lily bulb becomes tender when cooked. Lily bulbs are most commonly used to treat respiratory disorders such as chronic dry coughing and bronchitis. This is because lily bulbs are believed to moisten the lungs and clear heat from the respiratory system, soothing the lungs as a result. In other words, lily bulbs can act as an expectorant to clear up lung congestion.
The lily flower itself is of great significance in Chinese culture, as it is a symbol of a happy marriage and a healthy family. It is often given to women as a gift for weddings and birthdays.
Reaching far beyond the plain steamed or fried rice you may be thinking of, Chinese cuisine utilizes rice in a wide variety of forms. Rice can be pounded into a fine flour to be used in rice noodles, dumpling dough, and rolls like cheung fun, or it can be soaked to create ingredients like rice vinegar. It is also boiled to create congee (rice porridge) and can be used in desserts like rice pudding. As a vital part of the Chinese economy, rice is likely the most prevalent ingredient across all of China.
In Chinese culture, rice carries the symbolism of luck, wealth, fertility, and a link between the heavens and the earth. During weddings, the bride and groom participate in a hair-combing ceremony which ends with the eating of rice dumplings called tòng yùhn. Rice is also historically used in funeral ceremonies, where rice and liquor are provided for the departing soul to enjoy in the next world. The rice is provided cooked in a bowl with chopsticks placed vertically, which is why it is considered bad luck to place your chopsticks in this manner while eating rice.
Also common throughout all Chinese cuisines, eggs are an important part of Chinese cooking. Traditional dishes such as savory egg custard, salted duck egg, and century egg are all still common today, and eggs can be found in almost every dish at some stage of the cooking process. Particularly of interest to foreigners, the unusual-looking century egg is preserved in a mixture of salt, clay, and ash, which change the color of the egg to a dark brown with a green center. Chinese recipes often wrap slices of the century egg with pickled ginger and it can often be found as street food.
Eggs are a symbol of fertility in Chinese culture and are common during birth announcements and children’s birthdays. In these cases, the eggs are dyed red (for good luck), hard-boiled, and are then passed out to guests.
Often paired with lobster and other seafood in Chinese cuisine, ginger is an ingredient common throughout Asia. It can add a fresh, tangy flavor to almost any dish, from stews to stir-fry. Although often used as a garnish, it can also be cooked with the dish to enhance other natural flavors.
Confucius famously had ginger with every meal as he believed it aided digestion. It is also used in Chinese customs for new mothers during the “month of confinement,” where mothers spend time with their baby while regaining their strength. This custom involves special meals and self-care rituals including ginger-infused baths.
One component of the popular Chinese five-spice, aromatic star anise is commonly used for meat dishes to enhance the natural flavors of the meat. It adds a sweet, licorice flavor to savory dishes, but is used in moderation in Chinese cuisine to avoid overpowering the dish. Recipes for duck, such as Peking duck, utilize the spice to cut through any fatty flavor in the bird.
Traditional Chinese Medicine uses anise as a way to balance qi (“chi,” life force) and help abdominal pain.
The Chinese have been enjoying tea for thousands of years. To this day, tea remains an essential part of Chinese culture. In China, tea is consumed for medicinal properties, as it’s said to have many benefits including aiding digestion, improving the immune system, slowing down aging, and purifying the circulatory system.
Tea was first discovered by the Chinese inventor Shennong in 2737 BCE. It is said that the emperor preferred his drinking water boiled and clean, and each day, his servants would boil large pots of water for his consumption. One day, on a trip to a distant region, he and his army stopped to rest. A servant began boiling water for him to drink, and a dead leaf from a wild tea bush fell into the water. It turned a brownish color, but it was unnoticed and presented to the emperor anyway. The emperor drank it and found it very refreshing, and cha (tea) was born.
In present day, the Chinese consume tea morning until nighttime, as it’s normally served with each meal and is important in a number of traditional ceremonies in China. Most Chinese varieties of tea complement the simple flavors of Chinese cuisine, especially Yingdehong, a sweet black tea grown specifically in the Canton region.
Through the use of these ingredients, Hakkasan’s dishes maintain the authentic tastes and traditions of Chinese cuisine while incorporating fresh techniques and flavors. Be sure to look for these ingredients on the Hakkasan menu during your next visit.