Arguably the most familiar Chinese regional cuisine in the United States, Cantonese food got its start with the first Chinese immigrants to San Francisco. At that point they had to make do with what ingredients were available to them. Cantonese food in the US isn't like that anymore.
It's said that Cantonese people will eat anything with four legs except the table and chairs. The Chinese tradition of nose-to-tail eating is taken to much further lengths in Canton, to the point where even Chinese not from the region will blanch at some of the foods. Not so much of the truly odd stuff that lines the streets of Guangdong (formerly known in English as Canton, from whence the name of the cuisine) or Hong Kong is available here in Orange County, though. You won't find any scorpions on sticks, noodles with shrimp eggs, or animals more unusual than, say, sea cucumbers.
Cantonese food and roasted meat go together like peanut butter and jelly; the images of Chinese roasting shops, with head-on ducks, chickens and pigs strung under lamps are very Cantonese. A simple meal of roast meat, rice and a vegetable or soup is hugely satisfying and usually very cheap. Roast duck (燒鴨) is not the ordeal to make that its northern air-puffed cousin is; you won't find any buns here, but a portion of duck breast and maybe a leg. Make sure to lay your meat on the rice so the juices can run into the starch.
If duck is not your speed, try roast pork (燒肉) or its sweeter counterpart, cha shu (叉燒), the vibrantly red barbecued pork that is often tucked inside soft white buns (叉燒包). While cha shu is definitely more common, I like the plain roast meat better; it's still got a red tinge from its treatment and has an amazingly soft texture for a roast meat (at least when done well). Sam Woo is the name of at least four unrelated chains of Chinese roast meat shops that have sprouted good restaurants; ours is in Irvine (15333 Culver Dr., Irvine).
While you'll see chickens in these restaurants, the best Cantonese preparation of chicken is called baak tsit gai (白切雞), or white-cut chicken. This is chicken that has been rubbed with salt, then boiled in broth and lots of ginger (ginger and chicken are a traditional pairing). This will be served with a condiment called goong tsung jaau (薑蔥油), a mixture of ginger, green onions and oil. If your white-cut chicken is served over rice that's been cooked in chicken broth, it's called Hainan chicken rice (海南雞飯) and is pretty much the national dish of Singapore and the lunch of at least half the salaried workforce in Hong Kong. Try the Hainan chicken rice at Yum Cha Cafe (13861 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, inside the Thuan Phat supermarket).
Southern China is right on the South China Sea, and the amount of seafood that is consumed by the Cantonese is absolutely insane. The higher the host's respect for a guest of honor at a banquet, the more and more costly the seafood. Whole fish steamed with medicinal herbs and berries (like goji), live shrimp set into boiling wine, or crab stir-fried with sesame, garlic and green onions may make their appearance. Cantonese restaurants will sell seafood by the pound and prepare them to your liking. One of the best in OC is the house special lobster at King Harbor Seafood (13018 Harbor Blvd., Garden Grove); another is the same dish at Tan Cang Newport Seafood (4411 W. 1st St., Santa Ana), technically a Vietnamese restaurant.
Salt and pepper shrimp (椒鹽蝦) come as a surprise the first time they're ordered: they are fried with the shell still on. You're meant to eat the entire thing, shell and all; the shell will, if cooked correctly, shatter in your mouth and suffuse your palate with the salt and pepper flavor. If eating entire shell-on shrimp is uncomfortable to you, you may want to try salt and pepper squid (椒鹽魷魚).
Starches and Sweets
The Cantonese are eaters of rice; while plain steamed white rice will accompany every meal, Yang Chow fried rice (揚州炒飯), a staple of Chinese-American restaurants everywhere, is actually reasonably authentic (in the sense that it's commonly eaten in southern China). It's fried rice with chopped cha shu, eggs, peas, green onions and tiny shrimp, like a less-spicy Indonesian nasi goreng. If it's noodles you're after, yee mein (伊麵) are the fried bricks of noodle that you know as ramen noodles; in Cantonese cuisine, they may be fried and dipped in sweet sauce, or tossed in broth, or mixed with crab meat (very common on birthdays).
While there are a bunch of sweet soups that are served at the end of Cantonese banquets, the single best-known Cantonese sweet in the world is the daan taat (蛋撻), the egg custard bun. Flaky pastry encases a very eggy, very yellow sweet custard. These are two- or three-bite sweets, but they fill you up quickly. If you get a chance, try the Macau-style daan taat at Desir Bakery inside the Anaheim 99 Ranch (651 N. Euclid, Anaheim).
If you find yourself in a Chinese market, look for dou fu faa (豆腐花). This is soft, jiggly, silken tofu meant to be eaten warm with sweet ginger syrup. You may find it near the soy milk in the refrigerated section or in its own portable refrigerated unit. It'll be recognizable by its wrapping: a quart container of fresh tofu with a small foam tub of syrup balanced on top, wrapped in clear plastic. Warm it gently or you'll turn the tofu into jerky, though. While this is usually thought of as a Chinese dessert, the best place in OC to get it is Dong Phuong Tofu (15022 Moran St., Westminster).
Finally, if you can make it a little bit past the Orange Curtain, there's an honest-to-God Hong Kong-style teahouse (茶餐廳) called Phoenix Food Boutique (18166 Colima Rd., Rowland Heights), which looks like it was lifted straight out of Kowloon. Their desserts are a good representation of what people in HK eat for sweets; try the mixed fruit shaved ice.
Finally, a word about dim sum. Dim sum (點心), which is called yum cha (飲茶, literally "drinking tea") in Cantonese, is one of the obsessions of Hong Kong. It's served only in the morning and very early afternoon.
As you sit down, you can either drink the tea you're given (usually low-to-mid quality jasmine tea) or order what you want. While a hearty pu-erh tea (普洱茶) can be very invigorating, try chrysanthemum tea (菊花茶). It's got a lightly spicy and very floral flavor to it, and no caffeine (unless cut with green tea). If you prefer strong tea, try tiet kwun yum (鐵觀音, literally Iron Goddess of Mercy), a brownish-grey oolong tea. Finally, if you love the usual tea, ask for superior dragon well (彊龍井茶), which is to the usual low-grade tea what Cristal is to Cold Duck. Don't sweeten your tea; drink it neat. If someone pours tea for you, tap the outer knuckle of two fingers on the table to thank them. Make sure to reciprocate.
In most dim sum restaurants in OC, women with steam carts bearing stacks of small dishes will parade slowly past the tables. Each cart has between one and about ten kinds of dishes on it. If you're interested, stop the woman pushing the cart and ask to see. When you see something you want, tell her how many dishes you want; she will put it on your table and mark off a paper card with a wooden or plastic chop to indicate the quantity and price. For some common dim sum dishes, see the post here.
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In more modern dim sum restaurants, and in pretty much all of Hong Kong (where they've figured out that they can fit more tables if they don't have to leave room for carts to maneuver through), you'll order the dishes you want from a menu or a sushi-style card. It will be made to order for you and brought to your table as it's ready. The quality of this dim sum is usually somewhat higher, and so too is the price. I don't know of any dedicated dim sum restaurants in OC that use this method, but many of the newer places over the hill in the San Gabriel Valley do.
Go with several people, eat what you like, and drink lots of tea. If you run out of tea, remove the teapot lid and either turn it upside down or balance it between the pot and the handle. Then set it at the edge of the table. This signal, which isn't considered even a little bit rude, tells the waiter you need more water for your tea. You should be able to get five or six pots out of the leaves before the brews start to weaken and turn bitter.
When you're done eating and drinking--take your time, it's meant to be a social occasion, with lots of catching up on the week's events--signal the waiter to total up your bill. If you don't get a response quickly enough, wave the paper with the chop marks in the air. Don't be shy. Everyone does it. Pay your bill and head out.
Seafood Paradise (8602 Westminster Blvd., Westminster) is our usual OC go-to for dim sum, but Capital Seafood (2700 Alton Pkwy., Irvine) is also decent. If you're up in North County, consider heading over the hill to Happy Harbor (1015 Nogales St., Rowland Heights).