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Wonona's Kitchen: More on Regional Cooking

by Wonona Wong Chang

Regional Foods

Spring Volume: 1995 Issue: 2(1) page(s): 15, 16, and 18

About Cantonese (Southern) Cooking:
Before World War II, the American public was mainly served Cantonese food. Cantonese-style restaurants were popular because at that time most of the Chinese immigrants came from in or around Canton, or what is now called the Guangdong Province. However, since the 1960's, large numbers of immigrants have come from the other provinces. That makes for availability of experienced cooks from Eastern, Western, and Northern Provinces. More recently, newer and even some of the older restaurants offer new menus and dishes from those regions as well, making for confusion in some minds as just what is Cantonese cooking.

I believe that Cantonese is one of the best regional styles of cooking in China. This may be because of its early exposure to the Western World and South East Asia. It combined the best of many worlds to become what it is today. I think, and many experts agree, that Cantonese food can be divided into three sub-groups, main-stream Cantonese, Tsaozhou, and Hakka.

Main-stream Cantonese food has a fine balance of taste. Food is dainty but not bland, tender but not raw, sometimes fried but always not greasy. Cooking methods vary and include shallow frying, deep frying, stir frying, steaming, baking, barbecuing, and grilling, to name the most popular. For condiments, the Cantonese love and use Hoisin sauce, plum sauce, sate sauce(also known as barbecue or tea sauce), shrimp paste, oyster sauce, a myriad of kinds and grades of soy sauce, catsup, and red and white vinegar. Tsaozhou cooking tends to favor foods of the sea. It uses less oil and salt and allows the main ingredients to bring out their own flavors. Specialities can also be vegetarian, sweet dishes, or casseroles. Hakka cooking includes meat dishes flavored with fermented black beans, the meats often pork, chicken, duck, or goose. One often sees vegetable dishes simmered in earthen crocks giving them a home-style flavor.

About Szechuan (Western) Cooking:
Szechuan (transliterated these days as Sichuan) is China’s most populace province. It is rich in vegetables, fruits, and some fresh-water fish, and in rice, a lot exported to other provinces in China. This province was given the nickname of The Heavenly Country (Tien Fu Tze Guo). When we think of Szechuan food, the outstanding picture that comes to mind is the numbing, peppery taste and flavor. Good foods of this region include a range of sweet, sour, bitter pepper hot, aromatic, and salty flavors. Chefs must carefully balance these flavors in order to get the right combinations because these flavors need to be subtly different yet very pleasant to the palate. Good examples are dishes made with garlic sauce and fragrant fish sauce. Well known Sichuan recipes can include Hot and Sour Soup and Szechuan Flower Pepper dishes.

Szechuan chefs, some say, have no equal. They have crytallized the science and art of Chinese culture in their most popular dishes such as Bong Bong Chicken, Double Cooked Pork, Kung Bao Chicken, Fragrant Fish Sauce with Shredded Meat or Eggplant, and Ma Po Bean Curd.

About Beijing (Northern) Cooking:
Beijing, known for centuries as Peking, is the current capital of China. Emperors, rulers, and aristocrats of the Imperial courts have lived here. Since the twelfth century, it has been the seat of government and, some say, the Chinese cultural center, as well. In such an environment, many imaginative dishes were created or imported from other parts of the country. Beijing’s character resisted change, its many barbarian conquests and occupations not withstanding. The same can be said with regards to its cuisine. Skilled chefs from the other regions migrated to the capital and here one found the finest restaurants in the world.

The main grain of northern China is wheat flour. The northern Chinbese produce stuffed breads, jiaozi (meat dumplings), steamed rolls, pancakes, and noodles. The famous Beijing Roast Duck is uniquely northern. The ducks are raised by force-feeding them a mixture of sorghum and mungbean flour mash. Withing sixty-five days, their meat is tender and their skin thin; they are ready for market at about four pounds. Other outstanding Beijing or northern dishes are Mo Shu Pork, Mandarin Fish and Dried Scallops with Turnip Balls.

About Shanghai (Eastern) Cooking:
Surrounding Shanghai are the Jiangsu and Chejiang Provinces, both rich in agricultural produce. Shanghai is the largest city in China; it is world famous and is both an area and a river port. Eastern cooking, also called Shanghai cooking, is a collection of the best of the cities of Yangzhou, Suzhou, Wushi, Ningpo, and Nanjing (Nanking). The cooking of this region makes use of the rich local ingredients including a large variety of fresh and saltwater fish, and fresh water eels, crabs, and shrimp. Presented in the Shanghai taste, dishes are known to be rich, sometimes delicate, often sweet, or they can be salty, sour, and/or fragrant.

Among famous eastern dishes are drunken Chicken, Fresh Water Eels in Ginger and Garlic Sauce, Dragon Well Tea Shrimp, Smoked Carp, Lion's Head, West Lake Sweet and Sour Fish, New Year's Glutinous Rice Cake (Tsao Nien Gow), a dish made famous in Ningpo.

So that you can compare China's regional differences, here are four chicken dishes. Make them and savor some regional tastes. In order, they are from Shanghai or the Eastern region, Cantonese or from the Southern region, From the Sichuan or the Western Region, and from Beijing or the Northern region.
Drunken Chicken I
2 pound fryer
2 teaspoons salt
1 and 1/2 cups dry sherry or whiskey
1. Bring some water to a boil. Suspend a large bowl over it to hold the chicken.
2. Steam the chicken over water for 25 minutes; remove from steamer and allow to cool.
3. Decant the broth from the bowl and mix it with dry sherry or whiskey.
4. Place the chicken halves in another bowl and pour the broth and sherry mixture in.
5. Cover tightly and refrigerate for one to two days. Turn the chicken ha;ves over at least once every four to six hours.
6. Cut the chicken into bite-size pieces and serve it cold.
Note: This recipe is from Shanghai or China's Eastern Region
Cantonese Scallion Chicken
1 fryer (chicken should be about 2½ pounds)
3 scallions, minced
5 slices of ginger 9each about 1/8 inch thick), chopped
2 Tablespoons dry sherry or Chinese cooking wine
2 teaspoons salt
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
3 scallions, split in half then cut into two-inch pieces
1/3 cup thinly shredded ginger
1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water
1. Clean the chicken, dry with paper towels, and place it in a bowl.
2. Mix minced scallions and ginger with sherry or wine, and the salt, then pour this mixture over the chicken.
3. Rub the chicken inside and out with the mixture and marinate it for one hour.
4. Bring water in a steamer to the boil, Place the bowl with the chicken in the steamer. Steam over boiling water for fifteen minutes, turn off the heat and leave the chicken in the steamer, with the cover on, for another fifteen minutes.
5. Remove the chicken from the bowl and save the broth. Cut the chicken into one by two inch to two and a half inch pieces and arrange them nicely on a platter.
6. Sprinkle evenly with the scallion pieces and shredded ginger.
7. In a saucepan, heat oil until very hot and pout it over the chicken. Repeat this procedure once more by pouring the oil from the chicken back in the pan, reheating it, and then pouring it over the chicken a second time.
8. Transfer the broth to a pan, heat and thicken with cornstarch mixture, then serve.
Note: This recipe is Cantonese, that is from the Guangdong Province.
Bong Bong Chicken
2 chicken breasts
2 stalks scallions
1 to 2 tender cucumbers
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 slices ginger, minced
½ to 2 teaspoons Szechuan pepper corn powder, to taste
3 Tablespoons light soy sauce
2 Tablespoons sesame paste
1 Tablespoon Chinese vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon hot pepper oil or to taste
1. Place chicken breasts in a pan with two slices ginger and scallions tied in bundles.
2. Cover with boiling water and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer twelve to fifteen minutes, then squeeze out water.
3. Skin cucumbers and cut each into half and slice them into thin pieces. Marinate them with half a teaspoon of salt for 10-15 minutes, then squeeze out water.
4. Spread out the cucumbers on top of the serving dish.
5. Bone chicken breasts and tear the meat into one and a half by one third inch pieces.
6. Put the pieces of chicken on top of the cucumbers and sprinkle with ginger, garlic, and the ground Szechuan peppercorn.
7. Place sesame paste in a bowl, add soy sauce and mix well. Just before serving, pour sauce over the chicken, toss lightly, and serve.
Note: This recipe is from the Szechuan or Western Region.
Diced Chicken with Walnuts
2 chicken breasts
1 egg white
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup walnuts (or cashew nuts)
1 Tablespoon brown bean sauce
2 teaspoons sherry
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1 and 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 white parts of scallions, diced
1. Bone and then dice chicken breasts; then mix them with egg white and salt.
2. Heat oil to 325 degrees F, then fry walnuts until golden brown. This only takes about a minute, and do be careful not to burn the nuts. Remove them and drain on paper towels. Discard all but two tablespoons of the oil.
3. Combine bean sauce, sherry, sugar, sesame oil, and cornstarch and mix these well.
4. Heat the two tablespoons of oil and stir-fry the chicken over high heat for one to one-and-a-half minutes. Remove it from the pan and drain.
5. Heat oil left in the pan and stir-fry the garlic and scallions for a few seconds before adding the drained chicken and the garlic mixture. Stir-fry these for one minute or until done, then turn off the heat and add the nuts and mix well. Serve.

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