As spice-wary cultures across the world are gingerly venturing into Sichuan cuisine, we’ve already put it to bed in India. Fiery gravies equalled Chinese food for too long; now we’ve evolved to appreciate the subtlety that is a staple of many Chinese cooking styles, especially Cantonese.
If anyone has had first-hand experience of how Cantonese food is perceived in different parts of the world, it’s David Pang, head chef of Mumbai’s Royal China restaurant. Before his Mumbai posting, chef Pang had headed kitchens in the chain’s Hong Kong, London, Paris and Benalmadena restaurants and knows how different folks like their snapper (pan fried, say the Parisians; the Spaniards like a mix of seafood steamed with rice). Chef Pang tells you (through his interpreter H. Liao) how to navigate through a Cantonese menu not like a Spaniard or an Indian, but like a Hong Konger.
The cuisine is flavourful but light. Pang says he does modify his dishes to suit customers’ tastes, and encourages them to use the sauces on the table— chilli oil, chilli vinegar and soy, if they want a bit of zing. “But that’s when it stops being the Royal China taste and becomes your taste,” he says.
The Chinese eat all meats, but if you’re ordering for a table of Indians, it’s imperative to ask about preferences. The Cantonese gave the world dim sums, so a selection of these bites is always a good option to start out with. “Sui mai, prawn dumplings, roast pork puffs and steamed sticky rice are good options,” says Pang. This is also the right time to order Chinese tea. “You can have Chinese tea at the start and end of your meal, or all through it,” says Pang.
Soup is next and Pang says this course depends on personal choice. “Asians would always opt for a clear soup, it’s lighter. Indians in general like thick soups; even today, nothing sells like Hot and Sour,” Pang smiles.
Another trend he sees at the restaurant is customers pairing the Crispy Peking Duck with their soup course. “I would probably not eat them together. Either one can go first, but I’m not too fond of them both at once,” he says.
To start the main course, Pang suggests steamed or pan fried fish—both styles are used widely in Cantonese cooking. “If opting for pan-fried, ask for sauces like yellow bean, or just with salt and pepper. If you’re getting a steamed fish, get the black bean, or steamed with either lily flowers or spring onions,” he says. Both the latter are delicate flavours that will do justice to the subtlety of steamed fish.
Prawns after fish is not overkill when you’re eating Chinese. “The Cantonese love seafood, they will order prawns after fish,” says Pang. Flaming Prawns are a speciality. Beef, pork and chicken are also eaten as main courses—just make sure the sauce of these meats don’t clash with each other or that of the fish. Pang says black bean is a safe sauce for tenderloin, or you could opt for tenderloin with mixed vegetables. “Roast chicken with mushroom and oyster sauce or steamed chicken are also good main course choices,” he says. For vegetarians, Pang says opt for any pak choi, asparagus and tofu preparations—you can rarely go wrong with them.
Rice and noodles are both widely eaten main course accompaniments—for a new experience, try Ho Fun noodles, which are thick, flat, home style noodles, or rice steamed in lotus leaves. “Another option is to have Man Tao or steamed buns, which go well with beef, pork and chicken dishes,” he says.
Round off your meal with Chinese tea. Dessert is not really a part of a Chinese meal but a platter of fresh fruits will do just fine, Pang says.
It’s very common for Cantonese dishes to have very little gravy, salt and fat, Pang cautions. That means you’re at an authentic restaurant. Subtlety is the essence of a Cantonese meal.