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Nov 30, 2009 02:48 PM

A kind request from Mr. Taster - Please help me to love Cantonese food more than I currently do

When I think of Cantonese food, these three characteristics pop into my head.

- Sweet (the fivespice flavored glaze on roast pork or bbq duck)
- Gummy (think chewy rice dough on dimsum dumplings like shau mai)
- Mucousy (think viscous soupy bird's nest textured concoctions)
- Fishy (dim sum shrimp balls gone awry)

Don't get me wrong... I like gummy (in moderation, as a contrasting texture). I like sweet (though not cloyingly so). I like fishy (the mild oceany freshness of a well cooked, fresh fish-- or a deftly administered splash of funky fish sauce). I do have a problem with mucousy... even when decidedly savory. (By contrast, my Lovely Tasting Assistant loves all manner of mucousy Taiwanese soups... she is absolutely in love with the squid soup at Won Won Kitchen for example. For me, it's simply a no-go).

Perhaps it comes from a pre-Chowhound lifetime of overexposure to gummy, overcooked shau mai (although in my experience, even on a good day shau mai are at least a little gummy).

Whereas the vegetables prepared in other regional styles tend to be crisp and snappy (think garlic fried green beans), if I am served one more half-limp, half-undercooked bok choy floating in salty water, I think I'm going to revolt.

I love the idea of dim sum-- I really do. I just can't help but feel a slight bit disappointed every time I go. Even well represented versions of dim sum (like the dishes served at Elite, for example) are a combination of those four characteristics... fishy, gummy, mucousy, and sweet. What am I missing here?

I'm fully willing to admit that I'm in a Cantonese rut. When I eat Cantonese food, it's nearly always the dishes I've outlined above (dim sum, roast pork, roast duck, bok choy, wonton soup). (Oh, I do love a well prepared wonton soup-- thin broth, flavorful wontons, some greens and pork-- it's perhaps the only Cantonese dish I can say that I really do love with gusto).

Could you give me some suggestions here for some standout Cantonese dishes (and where I can find them)? For purposes of this thread, let's avoid chiu chow. I admit to generally avoiding seafood due to the expense, so perhaps that's a big part of why I'm missing the allure of Cantonese food.

Thanks in advance for your help.

Mr Taster

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  1. Have you tried doctoring the dim sum with chile sauce or a mixture of chili sauce and vinegar? Maybe Cantonese is just not for you. There's lots of other Chinese available.

    1. Casseroles are one of the dishes I associate with Cantonese food. Steamed whole fish, double-boiled clear soups are others. Plain congee with you tiao. I don't associate Cantonese food with sweet, so I'm not sure about that. Overly cornstarched dishes are gummy and a sign of bad Cantonese food IMHO, as are overcooked vegetables. Good Cantonese food to me means clarity and freshness of flavours. Agree though that Cantonese may just not be for you.

      5 Replies
      1. re: jadec

        Which casseroles are you referring to? And specifically which kinds of fish and double-boiled clear soups? I'm looking for specifics here, and recommendations as to where I can find good representations of these dishes in Los Angeles.

        Mr Taster

        1. re: Mr Taster

          I don't live in LA so sorry i don't have recommendations for restaurants. Steamed fish: rock cod, trout, even tilapia works if fresh. Ask the restaurant for recommendations or pick what looks good from the tanks.

          Casseroles: chicken with mushroom, eggplant, seafood and braised tofu, tofu and salted fish and chicken, beef brisket, vermicelli and shrimp. Lots of variations. Sometimes listed on menus as "hot pots".

          1. re: Mr Taster

            I always figured you knew about Cantonese food. Too bad you made your way to Asia but didn't get around to the really great stuff.

            Here's a section of Elite restaurant's menu. You'll find several casserole items on the lower right.

            Here's Empress Pavilion's menu page. Take a look at the section called "Clay Pot and Sizzling Platter".

            These are just a few examples. I'm sure you'll be able to find these types of dishes at any of the Cantonese seafood/banquet places. Go. Explore. And leave those insipid east coast egg rolls behind.

            1. re: E Eto

              "And leave those insipid east coast egg rolls behind."

              HEAR, HEAR!!!1! You live in L.A. now, Mr Taster -- time to move on...

              1. re: E Eto

                Ah, you had to get in a jab about the eggrolls! I'll leave that argument to other threads that have already beaten that discussion into the ground. Thanks for the suggestions, though... I absolutely do need to explore more Cantonese options.

                Incidentally, we did travel through Asia for nearly 8 months in 2006-2007 (3 weeks each in Taiwan and Cambodia, 1 week in Hong Kong, 2 months in mainland China, 1 month each in Thailand, Korea, Japan and Vietnam) and I assure you, even without spending a lot of time eating in Guangdong/Hong Kong we ate quite a lot of "really great stuff" (and very occasionally not-so-great stuff).

                Mr Taster

          2. Appreciation of fresh seafood is essential for a full appreciation of Cantonese cuisine. Fresh is the key word here. Truly fresh fish has very little "fishy" taste or smell.

            Maybe you and Cantonese food weren't meant to be BFFs

            A trip to Hong Kong is in order, perhaps.

            Should you choose to be purist about it, doctoring Cantonese food with excessive chile sauce "voids its warranty" as truly Cantonese, IMHO.

            4 Replies
            1. re: J.L.

              Ah well we did make it to Hong Kong in August 2006. However we stayed with friends, and the only two meals we ate out were at a famous triad dim sum shop which was famous for their char siu bao (delicious!) and another place famous for their roast pork (big slabs hanging in both the front and back of the restaurant). So as you can see, even in Hong Kong I was stuck in my Cantonese rut, ordering the dishes I knew. And in fact, I think I was more fascinated by how obviously the New York Chinese food of my youth was so obviously influenced by this HK style of cooking. It felt like I had gone home.

              As for the fresh seafood, what dishes would you recommend and where would you recommend I find them? I am definitely not into doctoring my Cantonese food with chili sauce and the like. I want to appreciate it for what it is, and not do the Chinese equivalent of drowning my filet mignon in ketchup.

              Mr Taster

              1. re: Mr Taster

                J.L. is correct that part of becoming "one" with Cantonese cuisine is to partake in truly fresh seafood.

                Bite the bullet (in terms of $$) and partake in copious amounts of fresh steamed fish, lobster, crab, prawns, scallops, and more exotic things like geoduck. Other seafood items -- whether braised or stir-fired -- that you should try include sea cucumber, jellyfish, abalone, and shark fin.

                For fresh seafood, with a wide selection, I would recommend either Sea Harbour (in Rosemead) or Happy Harbour (in Rowland Heights).

                1. re: ipsedixit

                  I'd second ipsedixit's and J.L.'s great recs. :)

                  Live Seafood is definitely the way to go. Cantonese food encompasses 2 of my all-time favorite dishes: Qing Zhen Yu (Steamed Live Fish (love that Soy Sauce blend they use, with the fresh Green Onions and Ginger) (^_^), and Bai Zuo Hsia (Boiled Live (Jumbo) Shrimp).

                  I'd recommend trying them at Sea Harbour on Rosemead. Enjoy~ :)

                  1. re: exilekiss

                    Thanks for these recs, ipse and exile. I'll be sure to try them out.

                    Mr Taster

            2. Soups and steamed foods are very prominent in Cantonese cooking. Cantonese soups are usually not viscous. Vegetables should not be undercooked or floating in salt water. Sweet dishes are not that common. BBQ pork (not roast pork), Beijing/Peking-style ribs, and desserts come to mind.

              Here are some dishes that you may wish to try (sorry, there are lots of seafood items):

              --winter melon soup (cooked inside half a winter melon): it is a broth-type soup, although most of the ingredients are mushy by the time it's finished cooking. The main point is to drink the soup.
              --fish maw soup
              --steamed fish or oysters: classic Cantonese style
              --pepper and salt shrimp or crab
              --crab stir-fried with ginger and green onions
              --minced squab (aka lettuce wrap)
              --stir-fried pea sprouts with garlic
              --deep fried chicken (without batter): sorry, I don't know how to translate this one
              --any number of baked rice dishes (sometimes referred to as casseroles or rice pots)
              --dried scallop and egg-white fried rice
              --steamed ribs in black bean sauce (dim sum)
              --steamed beef tripe in ginger (dim sum)

              There are many good restaurants that will serve these items--primarily the big Cantonese dim sum/seafood restaurants. Even though they are ostensibly seafood restaurants, all of them have many non-seafood dishes. You will pay more for these dishes than you would at some cheap chow mein joint. Some dishes, like pea sprouts, are seasonal.

              8 Replies
              1. re: raytamsgv

                These recommendations are more what I'm looking for.

                So are you suggesting that we try the dim sum houses at dinner time to order the non-dim sum dishes? I've never thought to go to a dim sum house at any time other than late-morning.

                Is it your opinion that it really doesn't matter if I order these dishes at Elite, 888, Sea Harbor, etc.-- they will all be prepared excellently?

                Mr Taster

                1. re: Mr Taster

                  Dim sum restaurants (with the one exception of Yum Cha Cafe in the SGV that immediately comes to mind) are usually "full-service" Cantonese restaurants (i.e. "banquet-ready"). The banquet situation is where the Head Chef proves his mettle, and the diner can see if the restaurant is "worth its salt".

                  Elite in Monterey Park, for example, has an excellent selection of dinnertime banquet menus, with various fixed price tiers (per table). I'd suggest you do the following:

                  1. Get a banquet menu in advance from the restaurant (usually available with the takeout menu; they'll fax it to you, too)

                  2. Pick a menu you'd like, and make the reservation.

                  3. Go with 9 or your closest friends (tables seat 10 or so) - When the final bill comes, the tally per person may actually be quite affordable!

                  I think Cantonese shines best when prepared and served in the dinnertime banquet setting, and not as much in the dim sum setting (though dim sum is often the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Cantonese cuisine).

                  Also, keep in mind the geography of China - As a general rule, rice is the main staple in the south (where it's grown), and wheat/flour is the staple for the north (where it's grown). Guangdong (Canton) is in the south, and so the rice dishes there can be often be brilliantly conceived and prepared. I'm not saying that you shouldn't ever order flour-based foods in a Cantonese place, but if you want what the Cantonese excel at, go for the rice dishes, IMO. Heck, many formal Cantonese banquet menus have noodle dishes included as part of its usual repertoire, but I especially look forward to trying the rice-based creations.

                  1. re: J.L.

                    The posts from J.L. and raytamsgv are very good for your purposes.

                    Cantonese is my favorite chinese cuisine (the fallacy of saying "chinese food" is that its the equivalent of saying "european food"). The thing with cantonese food is there is a large variety of what constitutes cantonese food. As you mentioned you have dim sum, seafood, soup noodle places, bbq meats, casseroles, clay pot rice, home style food that you probably can't find in a restaurant etc. But, I think what you're looking for sounds like what you can get from a big seafood hall type place.

                    As J.L. said, I think you're best off with the more the merrier, I think 6 is a good start and 9-10 is a better # since you can order variety and not have to order way too much food for the table. The key is to have a full variety of dishes for the table since it is family style.

                    As far as what to order raytamsgv gave a good run down, but i'll take a stab at it as well:
                    - Soup: you usually start off with a soup, sometimes they will give you a free house soup. Personally i like the soup where they take the fish bones etc and boil it into a fish stock. Although I think fish maw soup (which is actually fish stomach) is probably a classic, i personally like it with a bit of white pepper and a dash of the red vinegar they give you. Winter melon soup is also another classic
                    - stir fried lobster or crab (chao long xia or chao pang xie): they usually give you a choice of how you want it prepared, I usually order it with XO sauce, but I think the more standard version is the one with scallions, ginger and garlic...classic dish and so awesome when done correctly
                    - salt and pepper squid (jiao yen you yu): i love this dish, its battered and fried calamari. The batter is a salt and pepper batter, it should not be greasy at all if done right (like the batter should not be like fish and chips type batter) and it will be topped with sliced jalapeno peppers
                    - garlic fried chicken (xiang suan iji): this will be different than like KFC fried chicken, it should actually look like a rotesserie chicken except its actually fried. It's topped with minced garlic and the skin should be thing and crispy, but the chicken inside should be very tender and moist (should not be dry at all or it was cooked incorrectly)
                    - snow pea shoot leaves w/ crab egg white sauce (xie rou dou miao): i love this dish and it's not always on the menus of restaurants, but they always have it. It's dou miao which is a vegetable similar to spinach, but better and topped with a sauce made from egg whites and crab meat (not imitation, but real crab meat usually strictly from the claws). This is my go-to vegetable
                    - crab rice: not everywhere has this dish, but if they do get it. It's a very large bamboo steamer with leaves at the bottom (i believe they are lotus leaves), you then put rice in it and sliced up crab w/ scallions and fried garlic. it's steamed together so the juice from the crab runs into the rice. If done correctly the rice should be al dente, so chewier than normal rice and the juice from the crab has really flavored the rice well; this dish is more about the rice than the crab fyi and the roe / guts from the crab taste great with the rice.
                    - garlic crab over ho fun: this is similar to the crab rice except with ho fun (thick rice noodles), they steam the crab over the noodles with alot of garlic usually. It's very good when done right although all things being equal i like crab rice better
                    - steamed fish w/ ginger and scallions: this is another classic dish, its fairly simple as its just steamed dish with ginger and scallions in a certain type of soy sauce and then put hot oil on it after its done steaming. The key to this dish is getting very fresh fish, it shouldn't be fishy at all if done correctly
                    - stuffed fried peppers: these are spicy green peppers that are stuffed with either a minced shrimp or fish paste and then fried. very simple, should not be greasy if done correctly and are very good
                    - braised fish and tofu casserole: this is pieces of fried and battered fish and fried tofu in a clay pot, the sauce should be a brown sauce made with oyster sauce. If done correctly a few things a) sauce should not be gloppy b) sauce should not be very salty at all, should very light sauce actually c) fish should be tender and not fish (again fresh fish is important) d) the tofu shouldn't be totally fried, it should be fairly soft in the middle
                    - sweet and sour pork chops (jing du pai gu): not sure how this became somewhat typical, but it is. It's pork chops that are battered and fried and then put in a red sweet and sour sauce (it should not be goppy), i like this dish alot but not everyone does...its much closer to americanized chinese than anything else i mentioned

                    There are other dishes, but that's probaby enough to get you started. As far as where to go, I live in NY, but I'm from LA, so i'm a little dated on what the best cantonese is in LA these days (really depends who the chef is as opposed to who the restaurant is), but as others pointed out Elite is probably a reasonable place to start

                    If you ever make it to Orange County, if you call ahead to Fu Wing Low (like a day ahead of time), Kenny the owner (and a good family friend of mine) will make you whatever you want...he's an excellent cantonese chef even though his restaurant mainly caters to people looking for americanized chinese...Exilekiss did a good post on it after i gave him the tip

                    1. re: Lau

                      This is a great post. I haven't had this kind of food lately but when I did New Capital, 888, and Seafood Village were pretty good.

                      1. re: Lau

                        Just want to quickly point out that fish maw is not fish stomach - it's the gas bladder, the organ that helps fishes to swim at certain depth of the water.
                        Also, since Mr. Taster stated that "fishy" is something that turns him off, I'd like to point out (possibly) the obvious: did you use the vinegar? :-) Jei Cho (the vinegar in red/dark color) is very important to balance the "fishy" taste.
                        As in many of these dishes, the "fishy" taste did not come from the fresh seafood.; rather, they were dried seafood and processed that way on purpose to achieve the potent taste. If with vinegar you still can't like it, I am afriad nobody can help you. :-)
                        But there are always arrays of other dishes you can like in the "Cantonese" category. Lau was correct to say Cantonese food include large varieties.

                    2. re: Mr Taster

                      As J.L. mentioned, dim sum restaurants are almost always full-service Cantonese restaurants. Dim sum is just one of the meals they serve.

                      Generally, I like Elite the best. It's expensive, but you get what you pay for. I've had good winter melon and fish maw soup at Empress Harbour (I think you need to order the winter melon soup in advance). The dishes there are pretty good and generally more affordable than at Elite. I'm don't usually order baked rice/casserole, rice pot dishes, but my mom likes the ones at Tasty Garden in Alhambra or Arcadia. They have a very tasty version of dried scallop and egg white fried rice.

                      Go with a group of 8 or 10. That way, you can try more dishes.

                      1. re: raytamsgv


                        Don't you think it's a minomer to say "dim sum restaurants". It's really Cantonese restaurants that serve dim sum.

                        I think there's a strong misconception, or misimpression, on Chowhound LA that places like Elite, 888, Sea Harbor, etc. are only good for dim sum.

                        In fact, I would argue just the opposite. The strong suit to those restaurants are the dinner menu items -- dim sum is just something they do (generally) on the weekends, and sometimes on the weekdays.

                        It's sort of like a restaurant that has a happy hour. One wouldn't call Ciudad a "happy hour restaurant" -- it's a Spanish/Latin restaurant that has a happy hour.

                        Sorry, I just had to get that off my chest ...

                        Cheers everyone!

                        1. re: ipsedixit

                          It's a bit of a misnomer--that is very true. I agree with you in that the dinner menu items are usually better than the dim sum.

                          The reason why I wrote "dim sum restaurants are almost always full-service Cantonese restaurants" is that some dim sum restaurants are not full-service (e.g. Yum Cha cafe).

                          But your point is well taken as always.

                  2. Folks, there are some great general strategies being offered here, and we thank you. However, because this is the L.A. board, we also ask everyone to give tips on local restaurants where these dishes can be found. Thanks for keeping us locally focused.