When I wrote that “Cantonese cuisine is the fat, bloated rock star of all regional Chinese cuisines, cruising on excess and ripe for young punks to pick off” for the last Chowtimes dinner, I meant it. The fare is like the Bill Nighy character in Love Actually, forever trying to maintain a constant presence, at times resorting to kitsch, but still plenty lovable if you only give it a second chance.
For most growing up in North America, Cantonese cuisine is simply ‘Chinese food,’ the noodles we order when we’re drunk, the spring rolls we order when we don’t feel like cooking, the fried rice we order when we’re low on cash. It’s ubiquitous and thus easily taken for granted, so overly familiar that it no longer captures the imagination. That’s particularly true these days, when other regional Chinese fare gains a stronger foothold.
It can be difficult to rationalize why Cantonese cuisine is known as the “best” of all regional Chinese cuisines. It’s even harder to explain it to others. But it’s not because that conceit can’t be true: it’s more a matter of not knowing where to begin. Part of that difficulty is in the sheer breadth of Cantonese cuisine. There’s dim sum, there’s your wonton and congee shops, there’s your barbecue, there’s your banquet fare… ad infinitum. Designing a dinner that hits on all these variations is near impossible.
And that’s why we ended up choosing holding a banquet at Red Star. If Cantonese cuisine is a glossed out Ab Fab character, there’s virtue in seeking the excessive. The Granville Street location — purportedly better than the other branch in Richmond —is flashy without being intimidating, a perfectly good place for a ten course Cantonese banquet. It’s got a broad and encompassing menu, hitting all the high notes of the region, and more than capable of doing a greatest hits dinner.
It has also won a Chinese Restaurant Award this year for its barbecue duck, and well known for its other barbecue. That's why we chose to feature a roast suckling pig at each table, our showstopper and main attraction. If there’s one thing most of the world can get behind, it’s roast pork (well, except for those with religious constraints), and the Cantonese barbecue version provides a completely persuasive argument as to why the region tops all other Chinese fare. It’s all about the crackling with roast pork, and Red Star’s is exceptional. The crispy skin is separated from the tender meat underneath, and comes with offerings of tiny wrappers, hoisin sauce and green onions on the side, such that one can wolf it down like a miniature version of Peking duck. The barbecue duck in itself can be hit or miss, but thankfully mostly the former. The Red Star version has plenty of meat topped with a thin, crispy layer of skin. On most occasions, it’s plump and juicy; on others, it’s just slightly dry.
It’s unthinkable to host a Cantonese dinner and not have soup. The region is known for them, and they’re prized for both their tastiness and, depending on the soup, their medicinal qualities. We didn’t bother with the latter and focused on the former, with a double-boiled (so-called as the soup is actually steamed inside a container placed in a boiling water bath, in order to concentrate the soup’s flavor without subjecting it to direct heat) chicken broth made with pork shanks and Jinhua ham. The ham, similar to an Iberian ham in flavor, adds a richness to the soup that fills your bones and enters the marrow.
It'd be naive to dismiss the class politics involved in championing Cantonese cuisine above all others. If ingredients can make or break a meal, than there's surely an advantage in being able to afford high end, exotic ingredients. Instead of being the best, Cantonese cuisine might simply be the most enviable, depending on one's subjective taste.
Sea cucumber is one moderately affordable (and, unfortunately, overharvested) example. The echinoderm can fetch north of USD$110 a kilogram, prized for its purported health benefits, and the subject of the first part of Satie's Embryons desséchés. It's an acquired taste of nothing, notable for its spongy blandness. For that reason, it's often used in braises and soups that impart its flavor: at Red Star, it's braised with Chinese mushrooms, the sea cucumber soaking up its earthy richness.
Guangdong is also synonymous with the Pearl River Delta, and the region is flush with conventional seafood as well. Slices of fuzzy melon (akin to a zucchini or squash) were cored and stuffed with a scallop in its centre, a single bite both light and heavy at the same time. A steamed rock cod was served whole, an auspicious choice for the Cantonese as having a 'beginning and an end,' head to tail, with little else to interfere with its natural flavors. A typhoon shelter crab, so named for having its supposed origins from sampan ships docked at Hong Kong's harbours, is buried with generous amounts of minced garlic, peppers and dried shrimp. The dish hails from Hong Kong's lower income community that lived on sampan boats dotting the waters, at one point numbering around 40,000 in a relatively small area, and which has now dwindled down to a 30 odd headcount amongst Hong Kong's perpetually shrinking harbour.
Dinner ended off with the obligatory starches; no Cantonese dinner is complete without at least one bowl of rice. A fried rice with dried scallops was then steamed inside a lotus leaf, taking in the herbaceous aroma of its vessel. Each person was then served a small bowl of egg noodles and a sui gao dumpling, a larger type of wonton emphatically filled with shrimp, covering off yet another cherished facet of Cantonese cuisine.
After ten courses - each exquisitely prepared by Red Star, surely one of the most consistent Cantonese restaurants in town - I'm hoping we've successfully given Cantonese cuisine a fair shake. Though it's difficult to pitch the comforts of familiarity, I'm hoping the dinner has churned that nurture that interest again. While it might have passed over into the ubiquitous, there's real depth to the regional fare, and it's definitely more a character than a caricature. Whether it's the 'best' or not, it's time to re-visit Cantonese cuisine again.
8298 Granville Street