Lesson Notes

Unlock In-Depth Explanations & Exclusive Takeaways with Printable Lesson Notes

Unlock Lesson Notes and Transcripts for every single lesson. Sign Up for a Free Lifetime Account and Get 7 Days of Premium Access.

Or sign up using Facebook
Already a Member?

Lesson Transcript

Nicole: Hi everyone, I’m Nicole.
Matt: And I’m Matt. Welcome back to CantoneseClass101.com. Now, many people are surprised upon their arrival in China to find that what they thought was Cantonese food is nowhere to be found.
Nicole: Yes, when I came here I didn’t recognize Cantonese food.
Matt: That’s right, so if you’re looking for General Tso’s chicken, Chop Suey, or fortune cookies in China… You might as well give up.
Nicole: But don’t worry, the food is really great in China, once you get a little bit familiar with some of the dishes.
Matt: That’s right, that is where we come in.
Nicole: Yes, because today we are going to tell you all about real Cantonese food.
Matt: All the way from deciphering menus to some insider tips on what you should try!
Nicole: Okay, now one thing that we are going to help you with so you don’t go hungry is Cantonese menus.
Matt: Yes, now here is a bit of a challenge. The names of Cantonese dishes, even in Cantonese, can be very cryptic.
Nicole: Right, even if you are in a bigger city and find a menu with an English translation, sometimes the English will be good for a laugh, but it's still not going to help you know what there is to eat.
Matt: Most of the names of Cantonese dishes are generally completely irrelevant to the actual ingredients.
Nicole: The cooks tend to try to come up with short, poetic names for their dishes.
Matt: And what makes it even harder is that it’s very cultural… some have historical, geographical, and even political references.
Nicole: That’s right, there are even some that originate with Cantonese fairy tales and folktales.
Matt: Okay, here are a couple examples for you. Now, knowing what one does about the Cantonese affinity for ‘alternative’ meats, what impression does a menu item called Lion’s Head leave you with? Is it really a lion’s head?
Nicole: No. It is giant meatball.
Matt: Actually, they are really good.
Nicole: Yes, yum!
Matt: Okay, but this one sounds really scary: it’s called 'Ants Climbing Trees.' Are the Cantonese into eating insects as well?
Nicole: Oh…hmm, maybe. But have no fear—this one is just sautéed vermicelli with spicy minced pork.
Matt: Can you say that again for us?
Nicole: 螞蟻上樹 (maa5 ngai5 soeng5 syu6).
Matt: Okay good. Now what else can people expect about food in China?
Nicole: Well, it depends on where you are to some degree. The food is really different in different provinces.
Matt: And the flavors can vary a lot from place to place.
Nicole: That’s true. And Cantonese food in general is sweet.
Matt: That's why you have so many desserts in Guangdong.
Nicole: Right. And like Cantonese food at home though, the main cooking methods are stir-frying, deep-frying, steaming, and stewing.
Matt: No wonder my apartment only has a gas burner.
Nicole: Yeah, Chinese kitchens rarely have an oven.
Matt: Though there are various specialties that are roasted, like Peking Duck or Sum Zeng Goose, but I guess you have to go to a restaurant for that kind of thing.
Nicole: Another thing to note is that rice is a staple of Cantonese Cuisine.
Matt: Yes, I’ve noticed. Cantonese people have rice every day.
Nicole: We do. Rice is the starting point of Cantonese food.
Matt: Now, Northern China features more dishes based around wheat flour, such as noodles, dumplings, steamed buns, and even thin pancakes.
Nicole: Yes, the starch...
Matt: A lot less meat than most western diets.
Nicole: Another thing that is really important to Cantonese cooks is the presentation of their final product.
Matt: Each dish is supposed to look nice, with beautiful colors and stuff.
Nicole: Exactly, it must have a good balance of colors, textures, and tastes.
Matt: Something cool to try as well are the Chinese festival foods.
Nicole: Yes, food is an important part of festivals.
Matt: And one that definitely comes to mind are mooncakes.
Nicole: 月餅 (jyut6 beng2), literally “moon cakes”. 月 (jyut6) is “moon”.
Matt: And what festival are they for?
Nicole: They are for the mid-autumn festival. Usually it’s in September.
Matt: That’s right! And you can’t miss them, because at that time of year you will be gifted and re-gifted literally millions of mooncakes.
Nicole: They are basically a round sort of pastry with a flavored filling.
Matt: The filling can be anything from lotus paste to sweet red bean.
Nicole: Yes, they are so delicious.
Matt: Hmm, I’m not entirely sure all of them are delicious.
Nicole: Why? There are different stuffings like barbecue meat, sweet lotus seed paste, etc.
Matt: Well sometimes they can be scary because you don’t know if you’re going to get one of those ones with the huge salty egg yolk in the middle. Like you think it’s a dessert and then wham-o - salty egg yolk in your face.
Nicole: Yes, to represent the moon!
Matt: Still, some of them are pretty good.
Matt: Yes, it seems like every Cantonese festival has its corresponding food items.
Nicole: Definitely. I told you Cantonese people like food!
Matt: Especially you, and a lot of Cantonese social life revolves around the table. Okay, so knowing that, let’s talk a little about Cantonese table manners!
Nicole: Good idea. Well first of all, Cantonese food is generally prepared in bite-sized pieces that can easily be picked up with chopsticks. A knife at the table is considered barbaric to Cantonese people.
Matt: Easily? You must be joking right? Easy for you guys to pick the pieces up!
Nicole: Well, we have years of practice.
Matt: Well, one good thing is, if you have a really nice host, he will be the one putting the food on your plate so you won’t be at as much risk for dropping stuff all over the place.
Nicole: You’re right Matt, that’s another thing.
Matt: It is a demonstration of utmost hospitality and respect for the host to dish food onto his guest’s plate.
Nicole: Right, and they will keep filling up your plate, no matter how full you are. You can beg and plead but if you keep eating, they will keep filling.
Matt: So one thing to know is, it’s okay to leave a little bit of food in one’s bowl…if you keep cleaning the plate, it is a signal to the host to put more food on it!
Nicole: Another thing to know is that in China, dishes are served communally so there are no serving spoons usually.
Matt: Right, everyone will just use their own chopsticks to dip into the dishes to get what they want.
Nicole: Yeah, that is hard for some people to get used to.
Matt: Can be. Well, swapping saliva is almost like a bonding experience, right?
Nicole: True.
Matt: Now, are there any things we should be careful of that are considered to be bad manners?
Nicole: Well there is one big one - never stab your chopsticks into your rice bowl and leave them there.
Matt: That’s right, I remember someone I was eating with once did this and the restaurant kind of came to a standstill. People were definitely uncomfortable. Why is that, Nicole?
Nicole: It is something that we do at funerals.
Matt: Right…and anything to do with death in Cantonese is a taboo subject.
Nicole: Definitely.
Matt: Okay, here is something else I noticed - Cantonese people are really generous about food. They were always treating me to dinner.
Nicole: That’s right. If a Cantonese person invites you to dinner at a restaurant, it generally means that they are treating.
Matt: Yes, important to know. You can still 'fake fight' over the bill, but it gives them a lot of face to treat you, so don’t feel bad, they like it.
Nicole: It’s our way of being hospitable.
Matt: But you might want to keep this in mind, because if you invite a Cantonese person out to eat in a restaurant, it may be expected that you are getting the bill.
Nicole: Right.
Matt: And another thing is, if you are taken for dinner, you won’t have to even look at the menu. There is no freedom of choice, which I guess can be a good thing and a bad thing.
Nicole: Yeah, because we might order some things that foreigners find a little scary.
Matt: What I heard is that most Chinese from outside Guangdong also find some of your food scary.
Nicole: Rumors are that Cantonese eat anything from the sky but an airplane, anything from the sea but a ship, and of course, anything from the land but a tank.
Matt: So be forewarned. But then again, it’s good to have an open mind. After all, a lot of the best Cantonese are the ones that scare us, and they also have a lot of health benefits, so they may be good for us.
Nicole: True, some of the stranger things for western people are the things we eat as Cantonese medicine.
Matt: Like how Birds Nest Soup is supposed to be an aphrodisiac. Something about the bird saliva that’s used for building the next.
Nicole: Yes and you know Cantonese food as medicine dates back as early as 2000 BC.
Matt: That’s a long time. So it wouldn’t hurt to just test it out, if you’re brave enough. But how does that work, like the birds nest thing?
Nicole: Well, the Cantonese believe that there are foods that increase body heat (yang), and those that cool the body (yin), and that for good health, a balance of these elements must be achieved through diet.
Matt: Hmm. Well, I recommend giving everything a try, at least once…except chicken feet!
Nicole: Chicken feet?!
Matt: And remember, when it comes to Cantonese food, sometimes ignorance is a bliss.
Nicole: Okay then, on that note, let’s give everyone some stuff to try out when they get to China, or even in their local Cantonese restaurants.
Top 5 Foods to Try in China
Matt: Here are the best of the best!
Nicole: Yep. Number 1 is 燒賣 (siu1 maai2).
Matt: Mmm, I miss these so much.
Nicole: These are probably one of the most famous Cantonese dim sum.
Matt: What they are, are these little juicy dumplings that are stuffed with meat. They are steamed in a basket.
Nicole: Yes, you will see the bamboo baskets steaming all over the restaurants in Hong Kong or Guangdong.
Matt: The professional way to eat them is to wolf them down in a single bite.
Nicole: Another similar must-have dim sum is 蝦餃 (haa1 gaau2).
Matt: These are "Shrimp dumplings!" They have the silkiest skin and the freshest shrimp fillings.
Nicole: Yeah, that's something you must order on your weekend Cantonese brunch.
Matt: You usually order them both.
Nicole: 蝦餃 (haa1 gaau2) and 燒賣 (siu1 maai2).
Matt: That's what you hear from the dim sum lady as well as she pushes the cart around.
Nicole: That should make it easier to order. Just repeat what she says. 蝦餃 (haa1 gaau2), 燒賣 (siu1 maai2).
Matt: That's probably why they are popular. Okay, next. What is the most famous breakfast food in all of China, what do you think, Nicole?
Nicole: Definitely 油條 (jau4 tiu2).
Matt: Yes, they are loved by Cantonese people everywhere. Basically, they are a long, deep-fried donut, but not no where as sweet as our donuts.
Nicole: Yes, 油條 are a very popular breakfast in China. Usually, people have them with soy milk or porridge.
Matt: In fact, they are so popular that even KFC now carry these donuts! Okay, I know another food that foreigners in China all love, and its super cheap and easy to get on the street.
Nicole: What is that?
Matt: It’s the fishballs.
Nicole: Oh, 魚蛋 (jyu4 daan2) of course! From the street vendors.
Matt: The most amazing thing about them is the sauce. You get all kinds of sauces to go with them…curry sauce, sweet and sour sauce, even get noodles as well.
Nicole: Oh I love fishball noodles 魚蛋粉(jyu4 daan2 fan2) and especially those curry fishball noodles 咖喱魚蛋粉 (gaa3 lei1 jyu4 daan2 fan2).
Matt: Another food that a lot of foreigners like from that area is the Chinese roast pork.
Nicole: 叉燒 (caa1 siu1).
Matt: Which we known as barbecue pork.
Nicole: Right. And they are basically everywhere.
Matt: For example?
Nicole: 叉燒包 (caa1 siu1 baau1) “barbecued pork buns”, 叉燒飯 (caa1 siu1 faan6) “barbecued pork rice”, 叉燒腸 (caa1 siu1 coeng2) “a rice roll with barbecued pork filling”, and on and on...
Matt: I can see you are a big fan of barbecued pork.
Nicole: It's hard not to be. It's a guarantee of taste when something's attached to 叉燒. I love 叉燒!
Matt: Yes, yum… Another renowned roast meat is Sum Zeng Roast Goose.
Nicole: Yes! 深井燒鵝 (sam1 zeng2 siu1 ngo4). It's named after a place in New Territory in Hong Kong called 深井 (sam1 zeng2) where there are two shops that have the best roast goose in the world!
Matt: True. The roast goose is oily and juicy, the skin of it is crisp and the meat inside is tender.
Nicole: Oh, I feel hungry now...pity that 深井 is not an easy place to find or visit.
Matt: But a lot of people are willing to go through all the trouble just for a taste of 深井烧鹅.
Nicole: I am definitely one of them.
Matt: Count me in as well.
Nicole: So I think those are five pretty good foods to try!
Matt: I agree. All of those are definitely very foreigner-friendly foods in China. But sometimes we want to have an even more authentic eating experience.
Nicole: Yeah, if you get the chance, you should try some of the more exotic or special foods in China.
Matt: So with that being said, we are going to give you the top five foods for the brave…
Nicole: And these are all really famous foods in China that I love!
Matt: I think we should start with stinky tofu.
Nicole: Ah yes, 臭豆腐 (cau3 dau6 fu6). Delicious!
Matt: Hmmm…well locals will forever be asking you if you’ve tried this fermented tofu specialty, so you might as well cave in once and do the deed.
Nicole: It is truly smelly though.
Matt: Yes, but I found that if you think 'French cheese' rather than 'smelly socks,' you just might enjoy it.
Nicole: What! I think cheese doesn’t smell as nice as 臭豆腐 (cau3 dau6 fu6) at all.
Matt: Okay, how about another sort of wild one…those black eggs…
Nicole: Ah yes, "century eggs" 皮蛋 (pei4 daan2).
Matt: They’re not really a century old, though they do look it. Basically, they are black, gelatinous, and very very salty…
Nicole: Yes, they are preserved in salt and ash for 100 days.
Matt: Yep…
Nicole: They look a little ugly, it's true; but they are really delicious.
Matt: Okay, here’s another one I think is totally over the top…Drunken shrimp. These are shrimp marinated alive and served to the customer.
Nicole: Watch out for the splashing wine.
Matt: You eat them after they drown. Enough said. How about something else from the sea? This one is not ugly looking at all, in fact, it may be too cute…my friend had seahorse soup while he was in China.
Nicole: Oh yes, that is sometimes in a special 'seahorse and bull penis soup.'
Matt: Wow. though it feels somehow wrong on many levels to eat such cute animals with bull, think of it this way - at least you’ll have something to write home about.
Nicole: I think that one will definitely get a reaction from people!
Matt: Now, last but not least, our final food in our top five foods for the brave, what is it going to be Nicole?
Nicole: How about 燕窩 (jin3 wo1) “Bird’s Nest Soup”?
Matt: Yes… as we mentioned, don’t let the saliva base of this broth turn you off from this healthful yet tasty aphrodisiac.
Nicole: Well it’s quite delicious too.
Matt: Absolutely! I guess I should try that one. It’s for a good cause after all.
Nicole: I hope everyone gets the chance to try these very special Cantonese foods and much, much more!
Matt: Cantonese food in China is really delicious, and there is so much variety. I think everyone can find at least one thing they really love.
Nicole: Just don’t forget to be a little brave.
Matt: And remember that if you can’t understand the menu, you may have no choice but to be brave!
Nicole: Right! Just close your eyes and point, and see what you get.
Matt: Good idea!