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5 misconceptions about Cantonese food
Giant wontons, only foreigners eat sweet and sour pork, dining table etiquette and other fallacies explained
Cantonese food culture misconceptions for beginner eaters, seasoned gourmands and even the most seasoned Hong Kong veterans:
1. Wontons: The bigger the better
The same principle for apartments, budgets and hot tubs should surely apply to your food as well -- the bigger it is, the more of it there is to love.
But in the case of wontons, Cantonese chefs argue the opposite.
"One bite, one wonton -- that's the best," says So Kong Shing, owner of Hong Kong's Mak An Kee, an offshoot of the famed Mak's Noodles.
The Cantonese shrimp wonton is said to have evolved from pork dumplings from northern China. Over the decades, wonton sizes have gotten larger to impress customers who want value for their money.
Different wonton shops have their own recipe and Mak An Kee follows one that is representative of the traditional style. No tennis ball wontons here.
"We have been making wontons for 40 years, each one is made from a shrimp seasoned with shrimp roe, flounder and pepper. They should be bite sized," says So.
Celebrity chef Wan Tak Kong agrees and strives for wontons as small as marbles. It's considered a test of the wonton chef's dexterity to be able to handle the delicate wonton wrappers for such tiny dumplings.
Mak An Kee, 37 Wing Kut Street, +852 2541 6388 -- read more on CNNGo here
2. Sweet and sour pork is for foreigners
Scene: Non-Chinese people at a Chinese restaurant. Line: The waiter recommends sweet and sour pork. Reaction: Snickering by Chinese companions about gwailos and their stereotypical love of sweet and sour pork.
The sweet and sour pork lives in legitimacy limbo. Does it belong with its hyphenated cousins (such as the lemon chicken and chop suey) as an American-Chinese invention?
Derived from Jiangsu Province's historical dish of pork in sugar and vinegar sauce, the Cantonese version has been around since the 18th century. Sweet and sour pork is very Chinese.
Even Hong Kong celebrity gourmand Chua Lam went on a quest on his show "Chua's Choice" to find the legendary hawthorn sauce sweet and sour pork, said to be a lost Cantonese recipe.
The morish sweet and sour pork is such a crowd-pleaser -- it's no wonder that foreigners find it to be an easy way to appreciate our cuisine.
So, Chinese food snobs, give it a break -- "gu lo yuk" is legit.
Also on CNNGo: 40 Hong Kong foods we can't live without
3. Ingredients + soy sauce = Chinese food
An Italian friend once said, "Soy sauce is like the olive oil of Chinese food. People think you can add some to anything and it turns Chinese."
Basta! Soy sauce may be our flavor-enhancer of choice, but the golden rule in Hong Kong cooking is this: The more fresh the ingredients are, the less sauce is needed.
The most distinctive thing about Cantonese cooking is its freshness. Home cooks love to steam and blanch farm-fresh ingredients, adding just slivers of ginger to lightly steamed fish, or dabs of salt and spring onions to poached chicken.
Besides, using soy sauce alone won't give any depth to the flavor of food. Soy sauce is more of a foil for other herbs, spices and pickles.
Also on CNNGo: The best Hong Kong dim sum
4. Street vendors use thousand-year oil
Hong Kong mom's tell their kids to stay away from street-food stalls, especially the ones that sell deep-fried food. Because they are bad for you.
Mom says the oil used for frying has never changed. The stalls just use the same vat of oil over and over again.
We call it "ten-thousand year oil" and the ancient grease is supposed to be what makes that fried squid so scrumptious and so deadly.
But unscrupulous street-food stall owners are like Hong Kong's culinary bogeymen. Sure, the bottom line matters to them alot, but stall owners are not out to get you with dirty vats of rancid oil.
"I have to face the smoke and grease from cooking everyday. I'm more afraid of getting sick from it than you are!" says Mrs. Ho, the owner of hugely popular Chuen Cheong Foods.
Her husband is in charge of frying their famous stinky tofu while Mrs. Ho herself fries pigs intestines, stuffed peppers and other Hong Kong street food. They use a new wokful of soybean oil each day.
Chuen Cheong Foods, shop D, 150 Wanchai Road, +852 2575 8278
Also on CNNGo: The Hong Kong hangover breakfast challenge
5. Chinese dining etiquette is strict
The Chinese dining table can feel like a secret club where everyone knows all the unspoken rules and if you don't know them you risk getting kicked out.
Relax. Most Chinese people don't remember all the dining etiquette either.
Just know this single underlying principle for behaving properly at the table: Be humble and be considerate to others.
Why should we never be the first to take food from a dish that was just served? Because we place other peoples' hunger above ours.
Why should we only take a little bit of food from the plate each time? Again, we're sacrificing our cravings for fellow diners'.
The dining table is a theater of exaggerated good manners. Just play along. If you don't know what to do, just ask. We're not all unforgiving icebergs like the Lindo Jong character in "The Joy Luck Club." And that's another misconception.
Also on CNNGo: Ramen King in Hong Kong: 'Ramen is limitless'