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Cantonese For Beginners

Penelope Walsh plays padawan to Ken Hom, the Jedi Master of Cantonese cuisine

Written by . Published on September 30th 2011.

Cantonese For Beginners

IN Britain, we tend to talk of ‘Chinese food’. Regional variety exists in almost all cuisines, but when you consider the immense size of China, the extent of these differences should come as no surprise. For example, from the comforting meat and potato stews of Xinjiang in the far North West, to the highly fragrant and distinctly tropical food of Yunnan on the border with Laos, the cuisine is worlds apart, and geographically, it might as well be too.

In Cantonese cooking, timing is everything, and precision in this respect, is more important than quantities...

In London, and certainly in Chinatown, what we refer to as ‘Chinese food’, is in fact largely Cantonese, due to the initial wave of immigrants from Hong Kong. So what defines Cantonese food?

Ken Hom Vertical Portrait Sept 2010Ken Hom

There could be few more fitting chefs to answer that question than Ken Hom. Having written a staggering 24 cookbooks, and presented several TV series around the world, Ken Hom has made his name internationally as an expert on Chinese cooking. In 2009, he was even awarded an honorary OBE for ‘services to culinary arts’. Now, there is yet another book on the way, Ken Hom’s Complete Chinese Cookbook, due to be published in January 2011, and two more in the pipeline. His own take on the quality of Cantonese food in London is “pretty bloody terrific!” and personal favourites include China Tang at the Dorchester, Shanghai Blues and Royal China in Bayswater. 

Born in the United States, Ken’s parents were Cantonese immigrants, who came to America in the 1920s. They were, he tells me, “Chinese to the core. In fact, my mum spoke only Cantonese.” As such, even living in Chicago, Cantonese culture was integral to Ken’s upbringing, not least Cantonese food and cooking. It was, he says “the central part of our existence. We talked about food and cooking all the time, even when we were eating.” Ken’s interest in cooking began at age eleven, when he started working in his uncle’s restaurant, for around 30p a day. His uncle was passionate about food, and ultimately inspired Ken to pursue a career as a professional chef.

Pressed Duck from Ken Hom's Complete Chinese CookbookPressed Duck from Ken Hom's Complete Chinese Cookbook

“Everywhere you go in China, ask any Chinese, in any region and most of them will tell you that Cantonese cuisine is the best in China.” Ken could be called biased, but he argues, it is known as “the most delicate, refined and light”. Cantonese cooking, he explains, uses very little oil, especially in relation to other Chinese cuisines. It is usual to use either only very light sauces, or none at all, and common cooking techniques, such as steaming, stir-frying and long braising, compound this ‘lightness’. For example, the technique of steaming “highlights the freshness of the main ingredient, rather than masking it in sauces”. As such, Cantonese food focuses on the ingredients’ natural flavours, rather than flavouring ingredients with sauces and spices. Consequently, in answer to that question, it is the “pureness of flavours and clarity of tastes” Ken tells me that define Cantonese cuisine.

This focus is partly due to Hong Kong and Macau’s more tropical climate and sea access, which Ken comments impacts upon the “pure, freshness of ingredients, especially vegetables” and the availability of fresh fish. As a result, he says, “what you see mostly in the top tables in Hong Kong and Macau are steamed fresh fish and perfectly stir-fried vegetables.” Unsurprisingly, the tropical climate also means access to a variety of fresh tropical fruits such as mangoes, which has given rise to a number desserts. In fact, nowadays in Hong Kong, when mangoes are in season, they can be found added to almost anything. My own favourite discovery, if only for the sheer oddity, was a mango and chicken pizza.

Chicken on Crispy Noodles from Ken Hom's Complete Chinese CookbookChicken on Crispy Noodles from Ken Hom's Complete Chinese Cookbook

In Cantonese cooking, timing is everything, and precision in this respect, is more important than quantities, Ken says. Amusingly, Ken is the second chef I have come across to compares timing in cooking to ‘the force’ in Star Wars. Perhaps this is a secret of their success; the force is strong with them. 

Ken’s steamed fish recipe embodies the typical Cantonese traits he describes; it is light, elegant and the fresh fish flavours are able to sing out. It is also fairly easy. This cuisine, Ken argues, is “all about a few simple techniques” and is quite easy once you are a little practised. This recipe is the best for beginners, but the potential pitfall, he warns, is overcooking the fish. With other dishes, Ken says, the most common mistake is not getting the wok hot enough. And so, I leave you with the final word from the Yoda of Cantonese cooking: “Get your wok very hot, before you add the oil, and then, let the force be with you.”




Recipe Image- Steamed Cantonese Style Fish_3 Serves: 4
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 5-12 minutes (depending on the size and thickness of the fish)


450g firm white fish fillets

(Cod, sole or salmon fillets, or a whole sole or turbot all work well)

1 teaspoon coarse sea salt or plain salt

1½ tablespoons fresh ginger, finely shredded


For the garnish:

3 tablespoons spring onions, finely shredded

2 tablespoons Kikkomann light soy sauce

2 tablespoons Kikkomann dark soy sauce

1 tablespoon groundnut oil

2 teaspoons sesame oil

Fresh coriander sprigs


If you are using a whole fish, remove the gills. Pat the whole fish or fillets dry with kitchen towel. Rub salt onto both sides of the fish and set aside for 30 minutes. This helps to make the flesh firmer and to draw out any excess moisture.

Set up a steamer, or put a rack into a wok or deep pan and fill with 5 cm of water. Bring the water to the boil over a high heat.

Put the fish onto a heatproof plate and scatter the ginger evenly over the top. Put the plate of fish into the steamer or onto the rack. Cover the pan tightly and gently steam the fish until it is just cooked. The fish is cooked when the flesh turns opaque and begins to flake a little. It should, however, still be moist. Flat fish will take about five minutes to cook. Thicker fish or fillets such as sea bass will take 12-14 minutes.

Remove the plate of cooked fish from the steamer or rack. Sprinkle on the spring onions, and the light and dark soy sauces. Heat the two oils together in a small saucepan. When the oils are hot and smoking, pour the hot oil on top of the fish. Garnish with the coriander sprigs and serve immediately.


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