Fifty years on, there is a booming industry of Cantonese cooking here in Manchester and a plethora of establishments which are serving up the best Char Sui this side of Guangzhou.
The Cantonese community has given us some fantastic food over the years, and I think the least we can do in return is put down that limp, lemon chicken and fried rice and learn a thing or two about authentic Cantonese cuisine.
Cantonese cuisine can be broken down into some principle flavours. Soy sauce, sugar, black vinegar and fermented bean paste are the flavours of China as a whole but throw in the ‘holy trinity’ of garlic, ginger and chilli, and you have a mouthful of Canton right there.
The Brave Stuff
Ok, so we all know that the Chinese like to eat some pretty weird and wonderful things by our estimations, and Cantonese cuisine is no different. I feel like I would like to begin by getting all these bits out of the way before moving on to the more appetising dishes.
If you want to give any of the following a go, however, I am certainly not going to stop you- just let me know if you do and you can pop over to the Finest office for a firm congratulatory handshake and an Alka Seltzer.
Lou Mei is the term which refers to offal in Cantonese. We’re talking duck necks, pigs trotters, chicken gizzard (don’t look that one up), pig intestines etc. Unlike us who are a little squeamish when it comes to offal, the Chinese just treat it like any other kind of meat, and cook with flavours like garlic, chilli and soy and serve it aloft rice or in noodle dishes.
If you head over to Hunan over in China Town, you can dig into a steaming bowl of all the aforementioned Lou Mei as well as other such delights as frogs legs, pig tripe and black fungus. Yum. Red Chilli, on the other hand, offers up a delicious plate of duck tongue and a salad of jellyfish and garlic which I hope is devoid of its stinging powers before consumption.
Another thing which is really popular is Century Eggs. Now, I warn you; please do not Google this if you have a weak stomach- looking at these (and imagining their potent stench) made my stomach flip upside down.
Century eggs are preserved chicken, duck, or quails eggs which are wrapped in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime, and rice hulls for several weeks to several months before eating.
They have a strong flavour- as one would expect- and considered to be a delicacy in China. The yolk goes from yellow to dark green/grey with a creamy texture and a strong taste of ammonia. The white, on the other hand, goes a translucent brown and tastes salty.
Century eggs can be served alongside Congee which is a thick, savoury rice porridge which can be eaten at any time of the day. I don’t know why you would, but if you want to try one of these horror eggs, you can buy half a dozen at most good Chinese supermarkets like Wing Fat in China town. You can also enjoy the full congee-egg-pork mince experience at Glamorous Restaurant in Ancoats.
Rice + Noodle Dishes
Moving on from the alien to something we might recognise are the rice and noodle dishes. When you order from a Chinese takeaway, the meals you are likely to order are Cantonese. We’re talking about your Sweet & Sour Pork, Chow Mein and Spare Ribs- but let me tell you there is so much more to these dishes than what you know already.
Most familiar to us would be Beef Chow Fun which is a stir-fried noodle dish made with flat rice Ho Fun noodles similar shape to tagliatelle pasta. These noodles are soaked and cooked over a hot flame with thin strips of beef, bean sprouts and spring onions. The flavour comes from soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar and Shaoxing rice wine which makes this a classic dish with simple flavour.
Beef Chow Fun (or Beef Ho Fun) is a great dish to order if you aren’t sure or if you are overwhelmed with a menu. I like it everywhere I go, but a particular shout-out would have to go to Tai Pan Chinese Restaurant which is attached to the supermarket on Upper Brook Street. The food is delicious, and you can pick up those delightful century eggs on your way out.
Sticking with rice noodles is Cheung Fun. This is a Cantonese style noodle which is big and flat. They are stuffed, rolled up and steamed and are often served on as a snack or as part of a Dim Sum Banquet.
Cheung Fun is typically Cantonese, and are usually filled with shrimp, beef and vegetables and served in a light soy-based sauce. You can find a selection of these rice rolls on the Dim Sum menu at Glamorous Restaurant. I am a big fan of the classic minced beef Cheung Fun and the more experimental scallop filling. When it comes to Cantonese food, these little guys are a must.
South China is also famous for its Clay Pot Rice dishes - a home-style favourite in the area and something that is comparable to a Korean Bibimbap. The rice is cooked with the meat on top which not only flavours the rice throughout - it also creates a delectable layer of crispy rice on the bottom.
I love the clay pot from Hun Dynasty in China Town. They have a few to choose from (including a vegetarian option with wild mushroom), but I always get sucked in by the dulcet call of the Shredded Beef Clay Pot. It comes with black pepper sauce which bleeds into the rice and makes each mouthful more delightful than the last.
Like most carnivorous cultures, the Cantonese like their meat roasted, and it just so happens that they are very very good at it. They call this process Sui Mei, and it is comparable to a Rotisserie style where the meat is cooked on a large perpetually turning spit over charcoal embers. This is a slow cooking method which ensures soft, tender meat and flavorful, crispy skin on the outside.
I’m sure you have all heard and most likely sampled Char Sui Pork. In case you haven’t, this is pork which has been marinated in sugar, hoisin sauce, soy and spices which is then barbequed on a spit. The result is deliciously succulent pork which a characteristic red hue on the exterior and a delicious salty-sweet flavour.
Throughout Cantonese regions you'll find dedicated barbecue shops which specialise solely in cooking Char Sui. You can see the red meat hanging in the windows which is just so inviting.
Over here in rainy old Manchester, however, I would have to point you in the direction of Happy Seasons for your Char Sui Pork. The meat is cooked Cantonese style served with Chinese greens and tastes just how it should. Oh, and the portion is massive, so I can assure you won’t go hungry.
The Cantonese are big into roasting goose and duck as well, and I’ve got to say there is nothing quite as decadent as a whole Roasted Duck. These kinds of dishes are most commonly used as banqueting dishes or celebrations and holidays as they are extravagant and feed a lot of people.
It’s a bit gnarly, but the duck/goose is often left with the head and neck still on- but I am told that where all the best bits are. Help I’m having flashbacks to section one.
If you think that’s bad, however, another celebratory Sui Mei dish is whole Suckling Pig. This is a milk-fed pig which is slow roasted until crisp and served whole at important events. If you fancy any of these roasts- all you have to do is head to the epic Yang Sing for an authentic Cantonese culinary experience.
I adore Dim Sum, so I have the Cantonese to thank for that one. Although Dim Sum is eaten all over China, the idea of the ‘full tea brunch’ where dumplings are eaten mid-morning with copious amounts of green tea originates from the south.
Ages ago, I did write a guide to ordering Dim Sum Like a Pro, so If you want to go into detail rather than me skimming over the basics here, please feel free to go and read that- if not just stick with me here.
Dim Sum are primarily little steamed dumplings which are cooked and served in bamboo baskets (although the term can encapsulate a whole range of small dishes). The outside is soft, sticky and translucent and the fillings can vary vastly. There are lots of different kinds, and the world is your oyster when it comes to stuffing them.
Traditionally speaking, you can expect pork and prawn, scallop and chive, or even beef and wild mushrooms. If traditional vibes are what you are after I would strongly suggest hunting down Oh Mei Dumpling, who you can find at the Manchester Makers Markets as well as the odd Grub Food Fair at Mayfield Depot.
If something a little more contemporary floats your boat, then look no further than the Dim Sum menu at Tattu. There you will find modern takes on traditional Chinese cuisine with the likes of Wagyu Beef & Kimchi, Sea Bass and Chicken and Truffle stuffed Dim Sum. Honestly, Tattu are the masters of modern Chinese cooking.
Cantonese cuisine is famous for its street food, and one of the most famous of these are the Char Sui Buns. These are a steamed Dim Sum where the succulent barbeque pork we learnt about earlier is smothered in sauce and wrapped in the soft dough. These are then cooked and eaten immediately.
These are Cantonese through and through, and you can tell an authentic bun as they are puckered at the top which bursts and leaves a little crack - not to be confused with Bao which are those folded sandwich things that originate from Fujian and Taiwan (and are very popular at the moment).
Seriously, once you try one of these bad boys you aren’t going to want to eat anything else… like, ever. I like Char Sui Buns wherever I can find them, but I have a particular penchant for the ones from Sakana Pan Asian over at 23 Peter Street.
I feel like Chinese desserts do not get enough airtime, so I spent the afternoon scouring the web for something sweet to finish things off. I learnt that Cantonese food includes Egg Tarts- which they call Dan Tat. These little tarts are an excellent example of how its trade routes and history influence the food of this area.
Dan Tat is a variation on the Portuguese custard tarts (or pastel de nata to those of you who were paying attention during my Portuguese food guide a couple of months back) which were brought over to Hong Kong in the 1940's.
Upon my research, I realised that I had actually bought some once in an emergency from Ho’s Bakery. They are seriously delicious and well worth a trip to China town in their own right.
While you’re there, I would pick up some of their Honey Buns and their Red Bean Cakes too just for good measure. Oh and the Mooncake.