Edited by Mike Aquino.
Cantonese cuisine originates from the southern Guangdong region of China, the home of the Cantonese people. Hong Kong is a Cantonese stronghold, and many of the best chefs and restaurants can be found in the city.
Unfortunately, while Hong Kongers are passionate about their cuisine, the restaurants (most of them takeaways) that they have set up around the world have rarely proved to be a good advert for the food. From Tribeca to Tamworth, Montreal to Motherwell, you rarely have to travel far to find a Cantonese restaurant – usually a take away and usually a bad one.
Thankfully, the menu and food at a Cantonese take away in Topeka bears little resemblance to that served up in Hong Kong. The experiences we’ve listed here show you what “Cantonese restaurants” in the West try (and often fail) to emulate.
What is Cantonese Cuisine?
Forget General Tso’s chicken or sweet and sour pork with floating pineapple chunks, in Hong Kong you’ll find Cantonese restaurants that have been showered with Michelin stars and chefs with a hatful of accolades.
The selection of menus and restaurants in Hong Kong includes seafood restaurants, Dim Sum houses and BBQ meats. However, unlike their garishly-sauced Chinese-cuisine counterparts abroad, Hong Kong food is in fact surprisingly subtle – with a reliance on fresh ingredients and light seasoning and flavoring.
Cantonese cuisine originated from the Pearl River Delta near Guangzhou, a major port during the Qing Dynasty where the locals blended their own cuisine with those brought back by returning overseas merchants. All through the centuries, though, Cantonese chefs stuck to simple dishes that needed no extra spices or condiments.
The meats favored by Cantonese chefs reflect the available livestock of the area – shunning lamb and goat for beef, chicken, pork and seafood.
Dim Sum: A Scrumptious Social Experience
Wildly popular in Hong Kong and quickly gaining a world wide fan base, Dim Sum is as much a social experience as a meal. Literally meaning to touch heart, Dim Sum is about groups of friends dining together and sharing lots of bite sized dishes.
You’ll usually sit around a revolving table and order a selection of dishes by picking them from a small cart or ticking what you want on a small card. All dishes are then shared.
Typical Dim Sum dishes are spring rolls, shrimp dumplings and BBQ pork pastry although the selection is usually extensive. Tim Ho Wan restaurant in Mongkok combines ample variety and excellent quality (there's a reason they have a Michelin star, after all).
Siu Mei Barbecue: Tasty Roasts from the Street
Forget chicken pink in the middle or steaks that have been flame grilled jet black, Siu Mei is the way BBQ should be done.
Based on the street food, Hong Kong’s Siu Mei restaurants specialize in slow cooked BBQ meat glazed in honey and five spices and other succulent rubs. You’ll find pork, beef, duck and goose on the menu, although the signature dish of slices of deeply flavorful BBQ pork and rice is probably the best. Not complex, not expensive, but very, very tasty.
The oldest – and still the most popular – Siu Mei establishment in Hong Kong can be found on Hennessy Road in Wan Chai. Joy Hing’s Roasted Meat offers classically-prepared crispy pork, roast goose and char siu, prepared the same way for centuries.
Hong Kong Street Food: Dining After Dark
Try not to mix this up with Siu Mei; Liu Mei is roasted, steamed and BBQed entrails and organs as well as some of the more unusual seafood items.
These are mostly found from street sellers clumped around night markets or major shopping areas such as Causeway Bay and Mongkok and sold to go on skewers or plastic trays. Proving the Chinese saying that the Cantonese will eat anything, you’ll find pigs ears, shredded jellyfish and fried pig’s intestines.
Seafood: Freshness Above All
Considering Hong Kong’s 200 plus islands and position perched on the South China Sea, it’s little surprise that seafood is one of the most popular ingredients in Cantonese cuisine.
Most of the best seafood restaurants are to be found out on the Outlying Islands or in smaller fishing villages; a reflection of the importance placed upon freshness. In most places the fish or crustacean will be kept alive in oxygenated tanks until you pick which victim is headed to the pot.
The selection of fish and shellfish is wide and includes favorites such as razor clams in black bean sauce, typhoon shelter fired crab and steamed grouper.
Feast Cuisine: Conspicuous Consumption
Not one for those who slide their pickles out of their burgers or scrape the anchovies off their pizza, the menu at a Hong Kong feast can test even the most adventurous palate.
Large scale feasts are still important in Hong Kong as a way of showboating your wealth and feasts are often held at weddings, graduations and when signing contracts or starting a business project together – this is where foreigners usually find they are thrown in at the deep end.
As the person throwing the meal wants to prove their status and position, they will order the most expensive item they can afford to be prepared – it is always exotic and – quite bluntly – usually disgusting.
The standard dish is shark fin soup, but you may also be offered abalone or bird’s nest soup.
Dessert Houses: Sweet Success
Usually little more than a hole in the wall with a handful of seats, Hong Kong dessert houses nevertheless enjoy much popularity.
Given the climate most of the year, the majority of dishes are light and cold and include red bean soup, mango pudding and sago pudding (a sort of Tapioca).
Another popular dessert comes to Hong Kong by way of Macau. Portuguese egg tarts - pastry shells filled in with a caramelized custard (see above) migrated over to the British holdings, but transformed to favor British tastes by becoming smoother in texture.
A favorite of the last British Governor Chris Patten, Tai Cheong bakery offers egg tart unchanged over sixty years.