How China Fell in Love With Cantonese Cooking
What makes a perfect plate of Cantonese stir-fried beef and rice noodles? The secret is the oil. Like any stir fry, the dish requires a lot of fat, but the mark of a good chef is that none of that oil is transferred to the plate: The final product should be flavorful but never greasy.
This culinary tip comes not from a cookbook, but the recent hit drama “Blossoms Shanghai,” which is partially set in a high-end Cantonese restaurant that doubles as a parlor for backroom business deals during China’s go-go ’90s.
According to Zhou Songfang, a scholar of Cantonese culinary culture and the author of several books on the subject, including “The Introduction of Cantonese Cuisine to the North,” the setting makes sense. Although Cantonese cooking emerged in the kitchens of the country’s far south, it was its embrace by Shanghai’s trend-setting upper middle class — first during the early 20th century, then again in the 1990s and ’00s — that helped turn it from regional cuisine to national phenomenon.
This January, Zhou sat down for a telephone interview with Sixth Tone about the growing popularity of Cantonese cuisine, its connection to Shanghai culture, and its evolution as it spread out from China’s south. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sixth Tone: When did “Cantonese cuisine” as we know it begin to emerge?
Zhou Songfang: While today the southern province of Guangdong is known for its culinary culture, it wasn’t until the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and the early Republic of China period (1911-1949) that Cantonese cuisine was recognized as a distinct style. Before that, although the provincial capital, Guangzhou, sometimes known as Canton, was a bustling trade port, the city’s cuisine was actually dominated by cooks from the Yangtze River Delta region, including Shanghai and Suzhou. Many officials and merchants working in Guangzhou during that time came from this region, and they preferred the food of their hometowns.
That changed with the formation of cross-regional markets, especially the emergence of Cantonese restaurants in Shanghai. When cooks from Guangdong began moving to Shanghai in the mid-19th century, they initially focused on late-night snacks, such as congee. Guangdong natives already had a tradition of late-night dining, and as Shanghai began to develop into a major international trading hub, residents found themselves working — and eating — later.
As late as the end of the Qing, however, the most popular regional cuisines in Shanghai were still Fujianese and Sichuanese. Both were characterized by rich, strong flavors, while Cantonese cuisine was seen as blander, and it struggled to win over diners from China’s north and interior provinces. Guangdong natives might enjoy drinking things like cordyceps soup (a variety of fungi), but people from inland found it watery. Cantonese cuisine also favored the use of aquatic products, and its fishy taste was a cultural shock to some diners.
Sixth Tone: How did Cantonese cooking shed that reputation?
Zhou: The elevation of Cantonese cuisine’s status is closely tied to the upheaval of the early 20th century. First, popular perceptions of Guangdong, long considered a backward region, underwent a significant transformation after the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, as people from the province made major contributions to the overthrowing of the Qing.
Chinese realized that “big things cannot be accomplished without people from Guangdong,” and Cantonese cuisine became associated with a revolutionary spirit. Then came the Northern Expedition, an attempt by southern revolutionaries to defeat the warlords dominating China and salvage the newborn republic, which raised the status of Guangdong people to new heights and made Cantonese cuisine trendier than Fujianese or Sichuanese. The Guangdong-born Sun Yat-sen, sometimes called the “father of modern China,” once remarked that, “for food, look to Guangzhou; for clothes, look to Suzhou.”
At the same time, Cantonese restaurants had become highly competitive. Cantonese restaurants in cities like Shanghai pioneered large-scale modern catering services. Many managers had experience overseas, and they introduced modern concepts and business methods into the domestic catering industry. For example, Chinese gatherings traditionally occurred at round tables, but Cantonese restaurants introduced private booths for a more intimate setting. They also were among the first to adopt modern hygiene standards and an emphasis on kitchen cleanliness.
Another competitive edge of Cantonese restaurants was their hours. For instance, restaurants like Xing Hua Lou and Guan Sheng Yuan in Shanghai, even when they expanded beyond snack food, didn’t abandon their tradition of serving late-night meals. These meals were served until one or two in the morning; a few hours later, they’d reopen for dim sum.
At the time, this approach was unique to Cantonese restaurants in Shanghai. Even local restaurants in Guangzhou couldn’t match it — Guangzhou’s dim sum shops and late-night eateries were separate entities.
A sign of the high status Cantonese cuisine enjoyed in China in the mid-20th century can be found in the early days of the People’s Republic of China: The executive chefs of both the first state guesthouse in Shanghai and the famous Beijing Hotel were Cantonese. In the eyes of many foreigners, Cantonese cuisine was Chinese cuisine.
Sixth Tone: What defined the success of Cantonese restaurants during the pre-1949 period? Was it primarily a matter of market size or critical reputation?
Zhou: Let’s consider what Cantonese restaurants could provide that other restaurants couldn’t. First, as I mentioned earlier, they had modern business practices: long hours, private booths, open kitchens, hot towels for diners, and clean restrooms, just to name a few.
Cantonese restaurants were also connected to Guangdong’s broader commercial culture. For instance, in the early 20th century, the four major department stores in Shanghai were all founded by people from Guangdong, and each had excellent restaurants, allowing visitors to shop and dine.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Cantonese people saw modernizing the catering industry as part of the country’s broader modernization project. For example, Xian Guansheng, the Cantonese owner of Guan Sheng Yuan, gave his business the mission of “saving the country through the food industry.”
In addition to this, Cantonese restaurants also enjoyed the favor of China’s literati and intellectuals. For example, the Xin Ya Cantonese Restaurant in Shanghai was an important cultural salon, attracting well-known figures from publishing and literary circles who appreciated the restaurant’s modern style, privacy, and artistic atmosphere. It became almost a second home for them, with pioneering photographer Lang Jingshan even becoming a shareholder.
Sixth Tone: In a separate interview, you mentioned that Cantonese cuisine enjoyed a second peak with the advent of “reform and opening-up” in the 1980s and ’90s and the extensive flow of people, wealth, and goods it brought about. Can you expand on that?
Zhou: Under the planned economy, the private catering industry declined in China, and all the major cuisines experienced a period of contraction. However, there were a few high-profile restaurants like Guan Sheng Yuan, Xing Hua Lou, and Xin Ya that continued to serve diners in Shanghai, which helped maintain the status of Cantonese cuisine in the city.
Meanwhile, Cantonese cuisine was flourishing in Hong Kong, partly due to the number of Cantonese chefs who sought to make a living there as well as technological advancements like seafood tanks, which allowed more restaurants to offer fresh seafood.
Both of these factors played a role in the resurgence of Cantonese cuisine after the Chinese mainland reopened its borders and embraced the market economy. Although Cantonese cuisine had long made use of aquatic products, such as shark fin, it wasn’t until the introduction of seafood tanks that live seafood became a definitive part of Cantonese cuisine and a key factor in its second expansion northward.
In terms of talent, a large number of Cantonese chefs moved north from Hong Kong to develop their careers. For example, Lai Yuen, a renowned Cantonese restaurant in Hong Kong, earned a reputation as the “Whampoa Military Academy” of Cantonese cooking — a reference to the Guangzhou-based school that trained so many of China’s revolutionary leaders and warlords in the early 20th century.
That said, while Hong Kong-trained chefs helped reintroduce mainland diners to traditional Cantonese cuisine, by the 1990s and 2000s the Guangdong restaurant scene had recovered to the point that mainland restaurants were no longer reliant on talent from Hong Kong.
Sixth Tone: The recent hit drama “Blossoms Shanghai” is partially set in the fictional Cantonese Zhizhen Yuan restaurant, which the show portrays as a pioneer in introducing high-end Hong Kong cooking to mainland diners in the 1990s. Does this track with your research?
Zhou: Yes. Actually, boutique Cantonese restaurants and high-end Cantonese cuisine reemerged on the mainland in Shanghai before Guangzhou. Why? The first reason has to do with the two regions’ respective culinary cultures. When people in Guangzhou consume Cantonese cuisine, they focus first and foremost on the quality of materials and value for money. Is the fish freshly killed? Is the chicken free-range? Many people in Guangzhou can discern these details, and their mindset is more pragmatic. Meanwhile, Shanghai restaurants tend to rely more on a haute cuisine approach.
Then there is the fact that Shanghai simply had a greater demand for high-end dining in the 1990s. After 1992, China doubled down on its market reforms, and Hong Kong investors flooded into Shanghai to work on development projects. Numerous Cantonese restaurants, typically staffed with Hong Kong chefs or those who had gained experience in restaurants like Lai Yuen, opened to cater to these individuals and their local business partners. Coupled with the higher incomes and stronger spending power of local residents, high-end Cantonese cuisine began to flourish in the city.
(Header image: Visuals from VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)