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I sat down at a rickety outdoor table next to a bustling night market in Hong Kong and scanned the laminated paper menu. The local specialty, surprisingly, was sweet-and-sour pork. When the dish arrived, it was disconcertingly familiar: deep-fried pork and chunks of pineapple swimming in a sticky-sweet, bright orange sauce. Was I really in Hong Kong? Or was I back in Hong Kong Kitchen, my family’s go-to takeout place in South Burlington, Vermont?

As it turns out, most American Chinese food traces its roots back to the Cantonese traditions of America’s earliest Chinese immigrants, most of whom were from Hong Kong and Guangdong. Their culinary expertise created such American favorites as lo mein, orange chicken, and egg rolls.

It was strange, after months of sampling strange and complex dishes from across Mainland China, to finally stumble upon something familiar. After all, Chinese cuisine is a vast and complex art form. Tradition divides Chinese cooking styles into four primary schools: Lu (a northern style from Shandong), Chuan (a spicy style from Sichuan), Su (native to Jiangsu), and Yue (Cantonese). Another traditional categorization identifies eight schools of cooking, including in addition to the previous four: Hui (from Anhui), Xiang (from Hunan), Zhe (from Zhejiang, including Shanghai), and Min (from Fujian). Each of these styles has a unique arsenal of ingredients and techniques, and a unique emphasis on flavors, textures, and appearances. Su cuisine such as that found in Nanjing, for instance, favors soft textures and salty flavors. Chuan cuisine smothers preserved ingredients in garlic and spice. Yue cuisine, in contrast, emphasizes fresh ingredients and complex textures, and features many small, bite size dishes known as 点心(diǎn xīn or dim sum). In addition to these eight culinary schools, China is also home to hundreds of regional variations, cultural appropriations, and minority nationality traditions. Some popular examples include the northern style of Manchuria, the exotic flavors of Yunnan, the meat and dairy-heavy cuisines of Mongolia and Tibet, and the Halal dishes of Xinjiang.

Of China’s vast and complex culinary landscape, only a tiny smattering of flavors and techniques have found their way to the Magic Woks and Hong Kong Kitchens of the United States. Even in Hong Kong, sweet-and-sour pork is only the tip of the iceberg. Although most Cantonese cuisine favors sweet and fresh flavors, it also utilizes such unique ingredients as chicken feet, sparrow’s nests, cuttlefish, and shark fin cartilage. Roasted duck organs are sold on skewers on the street. In some Guangzhou restaurants, patrons can pick their meal from tanks of live crocodiles and snakes.

I quickly learned that Cantonese cuisine is a great source of pride for the locals, to the extent that Cantonese people are reluctant to eat anything else. Although Hong Kong is a global metropolis brimming with world-class dining options, I was told that authentic Mainland food is difficult to find; when it does exist, it is tweaked to suit Cantonese tastes. An American friend living in Hong Kong told me that whenever he goes to the Mainland, his first stop is to a Sichuan restaurant, where he can finally satisfy his craving for real spice.

As a big fan of spicy Sichuan food (see my “about” page), I was disappointed to hear this. But since I was only in Hong Kong for 48 hours, I decided to embrace the local pride with a massive dim sum lunch. Although our restaurant of choice was disappointingly reptile-free, the sugar-crusted pork buns, shrimp dumplings, and steamed egg cakes were delicious.

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