I’m not a foodie. I’m averse to too many types of food, primarily seafood, to be a foodie.
But I enjoy learning about food and different cuisines. I love learning about what goes into a dish, and how it is cooked and prepared.
I’ve spent way too many weekend afternoons watching cooking programs, from Rachael Ray to Jamie Oliver and Curtis Stone.
However, as a Chinese kid, one thing greatly annoys me about western chefs and cooks. Their version of “Asian” cuisine is always wrong. Just because a dish has fish sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, chilli, or sesame seeds, does NOT make it an “Asian” or “Asian-inspired” dish.
It’s a sin that’s committed by almost all western celebrity chefs. So today, with my own knowledge, I’ll educate you guys on the different types of Chinese cuisine, specifically from the different dialect groups.
Growing up, I always associated Cantonese cuisine with Dim Sum, mainly because it’s so popular in Hong Kong.
However, Cantonese cuisine is so much more than Dim Sum.
Cantonese cuisine hails from the Guangdong province of China. It incorporates many types of meat, from the usual chicken, pork and beef, to more “exotic” ones such as frog, goose and offal.
While faster cooking methods such as stir-frying and steaming are preferred, other cooking methods such as braising, double-boiling and deep-frying are also used to incorporate stronger flavours.
Cantonese cuisine also has very bold and strong flavours and it can be seen in the types of sauces that the dishes are usually paired and served with. Examples include Black bean sauce, Oyster sauce, Sweet and Sour sauce, and even our favourite Shrimp (Prawn) paste.
There’s also a lot of preserved and dried ingredients used to improve or layer flavours in a dish. Ingredients such as Century egg, Salted egg, Preserved radish (better known as Cai Po that we eat with Chwee Kueh), and Salted fish.
Some traditional Cantonese dishes include Century egg congee, Minced Pork patty with Salted egg, You Tiao (dough fritters), Double-boiled Winter Melon soup, Wonton noodles with shrimp wontons, Claypot Chicken rice, and Roasted meats such as pork and goose.
My encounters with Hakka cuisine are mostly thanks to my maternal grandfather. He’s proudly Hakka and we used to visit his hometown back in the Hakka province in China.
While Cantonese cuisine relies a lot on the condiments for flavour, Hakka cuisine has flavourful ingredients. The main ingredients is usually already preserved or braised, which already imparts a lot of flavour into the ingredient itself.
The garnish and condiments are usually to complement the main ingredient. One example of this is Braised Pork Belly with Preserved mustard greens.
One of my personal favourites is Hakka Yong Tau Foo. Unlike the one we commonly find in Singapore, the ingredients in Hakka Yong Tau Foo are stuffed with minced pork or a meat paste and served with a yellow bean stew.
A variant I’ve tried is a dry stir-fried version of minced pork-stuffed beancurd in a peppery, starchy sauce and garnished very generously with spring onions.
Other Hakka dishes you might be familiar with include Thunder Tea Rice (Lei Cha Fan), Salt-Baked Chicken, and the famous Abacus Beads.
While my maternal grandfather is Hakka, my grandmother is Hokkien. Their palates say a lot about their heritage.
My grandfather, raised on Hakka dishes, usually complains that food isn’t flavourful enough, while my grandmother finds that most food are too salty or too sweet.
Hokkien cuisine hails from the Fujian Province in China and the dishes there are usually lighter and focuses a lot on umami flavours. This is reflected in the preferred cooking methods – steaming, boiling, braising, and stewing.
Soup is an important component in every meal. I relate to this because my grandmother insists on having a soup even when we already have 5 dishes and there are only 3 people eating. Portion control desperately needs to be enforced.
Some of the favourite local food in Singapore are in fact, Hokkien dishes, such as Bak Kut Teh, Ban Mian, Braised Frog (Claypot Frog Leg), and Oyster Omelette. Other traditionally Hokkien dishes that can be found in Singapore include Red Wine Chicken, Mee Sua, and Buddha Jumps Over The Wall.
Hokkien Bak Kut Teh is the dark, herbal version that’s usually found in Malaysia. I personally prefer the Teochew version.
Now, personally I am of Teochew descent, though I was raised Hokkien, by Hokkiens. Teochew cuisine can be seen as a mix of both Hokkien and Cantonese cuisines.
Teochew dishes always seem to be very “clean” to me, in the sense that the flavour of the food is usually very delicate due to the cooking methods, as opposed to the strong flavours of Hakka cuisine. Poaching, steaming, stir-frying and braising are preferred cooking methods in Teochew cuisine.
Seafood is a common ingredient in Teochew cuisine, with fish being a primary ingredient in most dishes. Some of the ingredients that stem from this, are fishballs and fish cakes.
Many of Singapore’s local Chinese food are Teochew dishes. Bak Kut Teh (the Teochew variant is the one with the clear, peppery broth), Bak Chor Mee (Minced Pork Noodles), Carrot Cake, Chwee Kueh, and Popiah are some of the more common Teochew dishes in Singapore.
Another famous Teochew dish is Teochew porridge. In contrast with the thicker Cantonese congee, Teochew porridge has a thinner consistency with loose grains. The porridge is usually served with salted vegetables, boiled salted egg, fried peanuts and salted fish.
The Yu Sheng that the Chinese eat during Lunar New Year is also a Teochew dish.
Singapore’s cuisine has its roots primarily in Hokkien and Teochew cuisine, with a few influences from Cantonese cuisine. Chinese cuisine is as diverse as the provinces in China, each with its own influences, ingredients, cooking style, and flavour.
So before you go throwing sesame seeds into a dish and calling it Asian food, you might want to have PROPER Chinese cuisine first.
(Header Image Source: Burppler Denise Ong, Saltalk, Asian Inspirations)