Guangdong or Cantonese cuisine is often seen as particularly high-end and requiring the most skills from a chef. Luckily, for this interview, I had the honour of talking with a very experienced Hong Kong trained chef. Originally from Guangdong province in mainland China, Mr. Chen started his culinary career in Hong Kong at a very young age as an apprentice and has since then been working as a chef – totaling in more than 45 years of work experience. Becoming a chef was a rather circumstantial decision but seeing him talk with so much passion about food, he seemed to have made it into his vocation.
Asked about China’s Eight Great Cuisines and Guangdong Cuisine as part of it, he did not particularly like this way of classifying local cuisines. Chinese food to him is just simply what people in China eat. To him, the elevation of certain local cuisines as “grand cuisines” is simply a matter of social prestige. So for example, the “famous dishes” (名菜) which are usually associated with regional cuisines, historically usually became “famous” because they had some connection to the Emperor. Similarly, he sees the reason for the fame of Guangdong cuisine in the fact that Guangdong has been one of China’s richest provinces in recent times.
An example for this is the Cantonese dish “Roasted suckling pig” (烤乳猪) which gains its fame not only from the fact that it was one of the main dishes of the sumptuous Manchu-Han Imperial Feast. It is also prominently featured in a tale about how humankind invented cooking meat instead of eating it raw.
Still, there is no denying that there are regional differences in the food that you will encounter in China. Like Xiao Gao in the previous interview, Mr. Chen explains them with differences in climate and natural resources. So then, what is specific for Guangdong Cuisine?
Mr. Chen defines the typical Guangdong taste as balanced, fresh and with a strong emphasis on bringing out the natural taste (原味) of the ingredients. Some people not used to this style of cooking are disappointed when they eat typical Guangdong dishes because they might expect something like the sweet and sour staples served in many “Chinese Restaurants” over here, or they are looking for a spicy taste such as found in the very popular Sichuan Cuisine.
Take the dish White Chop Chicken (白切鸡), for example.
At first glance, even somebody surviving on a pasta should be able to make this dish, as preparation mainly consists of boiling an entire chicken with a little bit of chives, ginger, and cooking wine. But if you really want to make this dish to be delicious, it takes a lot of skills and knowledge.
First of all, because the natural flavour of the ingredients is so important, it’s crucial to buy exactly the kind of chicken that is suitable for this cooking method, to get it in the highest possible quality and as fresh as possible. The same applies to the condiments, of course. So Mr. Chen spends a lot of time looking for the ingredients that meet his high standards.
In a next step, you have to know what to do with these ingredients, how to treat the meat, how to make the soup so that it helps enhance but not dominate the flavour of the chicken, how long to boil it, how to cut it, and so on.
And finally, the environment in which you eat a dish is equally important to the enjoyment of a dish, as Mr. Chen emphasises. Eating customs in China and Switzerland are very different, and if you order a Chinese dish here, it will be served in a very different environment. Taking a meal in China usually involves several people sharing dishes (which must be carefully selected to offer a balanced meal) and is about building a better relationship amongst the participants in a lively and relaxed atmosphere (热闹). Here in Switzerland, you may be able to order the same dishes, but if you take away the context of sharing food and building bonds over food, your experience of the food will also not be the same.
In short, Mr. Chen’s view of a good meal is very holistic, it comprises the ingredients, the people making it and also the people eating it. It comes as no surprise, then, that according to Mr. Chen, you will not find “authentic” Guangdong food here in Switzerland, as it’s impossible to get all these factors “right”. This is particularly the case because chefs from China and especially from Hong Kong are less and less willing to come here for work, as the salaries back home are equivalent or even higher than here.
However, having worked many years in many European countries as well as, for the last almost 35 years, in Switzerland, his goal is not to cook “authentic” (正宗) food. So-called “authentic” food is not only very hard to achieve, but also very few people can actually appreciate it. Rather than insisting on “authenticity”, he wants people to enjoy the dishes he cooks. Knowing that it is impossible to please everyone, his aim is to please 70% of the people he serves.
Considering his high standards towards preparing food, Mr. Chen’s suggestion was to go to Guangdong to experience Cantonese food in its richness. He does, however, teach people who are interested in learning more, and also offers special catering services. We can put you in touch upon request.
As I did not want to leave our readers without a recipe, I chose a dish similar to the one I enjoyed very much on a Cantonese Brunch or yum cha in Shenzhen. It is “just” congee, but is rich in subtle flavours and will warm your body from within.