Your Cantonese Cuisine Flavor Charts
Define your palate: Are you blander than white rice, or do you like a little bitterness in your life?
Sweet / 甜 (tim)
There’s always a pinch of sugar in your food, even if you didn’t know it.
Try it… The quintessential Hong Kong dessert: mango pomelo sago, served in coconut milk. Get this classic dish from the place it was invented: Lei Garden (Various locations including Shop 1003, 10/F, Times Square, 1 Matheson St., Causeway Bay, 2506-3828).
Fresh / 鮮 (sin)
There’s nothing more important in Cantonese cooking than freshness. From caught-that-day fish to vegetables that have just been pulled out of the ground, freshness is king.
Try it… Good sashimi always has that fresh-sweet taste. Try some wallet-friendly omakase at Sushi Man (Shop 5, Lee Fat House, 5 Yan Lok Square, Yuen Long, 2285-9477).
Salty / 鹹 (haam)
Salt is pervasive in Hong Kong cooking, from salted fish to ubiquitous soy sauce.
Try it…Salted duck egg yolks lend a rich salinity that works perfectly with seafood, such as with the salted egg yolk prawns at Shun Kee Typhoon Shelter (Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter, 8112-0075), where you’re served your meal on a sampan in the middle of the harbor. Just try not to think about the cholesterol…
Sour / 酸 (suen)
The perfect balance to sweet flavors, usually brought out in dishes made with vinegar.
Try it… Sweet and sour pork is, as the name would imply, both sweet and sour. Try the posh version at Mott 32 (B/F, Standard Chartered Building, 4-4A Des Voeux Rd. Central, 2885-8688), which uses aged black vinegar for a refined twist on a classic.
Aromatic / 香 (heung)
This implies a heady aroma, of spices being dry-fried in a wok (bao heung, “exploded into aroma”) until the whole room is full of smells that are both earthy and heavenly at the same time.
Try it… The Yuan Heng Spice Co. (19 Tung St., Sheung Wan, 2542-0275) sells spices from every corner of the world to kickstart your cooking.
Intense / 濃 (nung)
A strongly-flavored brew is said to be nung, a mix of flavors that are almost too much.
Try it… Nothing is nung like Hong Kong-style milk tea. Head to Lan Fong Yuen (2 Gage St., Central, 2544-3895) and order one of their classic silk-stocking milk teas—to go. There’s no reason to wait around.
Bitter / 苦 (fu)
A classic Cantonese flavor, challenging… but rewarding.
Try it… The classic bitter dish is stir-fried bitter melon with beef and black bean: Soft velveted beef fights against the bitter crunch of the melon for a truly Cantonese combination. Hit up the open-air dai pai dongs of Temple Street for a meal that’s half-touristy fun, half-quintessential Hong Kong.
Tart / 澀 (gip)
Astringent, sharp, bitter notes that make you pucker are said to be gip. It’s also the word used for tannins: The slogan for Vita Ceylon lemon tea is gip dak hei—“tart enough!”
Try it… Red wine is often described as gip, making this an easy flavor to get your head around.
Bittersweet / 甘 (gum)
An often medicinal flavor, gum is a rounded aftertaste following a bitter first note, like a dark-roast coffee.
Try it… Get your gum fix with some bat sin gwor, or “eight immortal fruit.” This snack is a dried, herbed fruit that’s cut into cubes, and it’s great if you have a cough. Get a bag at preserved sweetery Yiu Fung (various locations including 2A Pak Sha Rd., Causeway Bay, 2576-2528).
Spicy / 辣 (laat)
Spice may not be indigenous to Hong Kong food, but we’ve embraced it with open arms.
Sour-spicy / 酸辣 (suen laat)
Try it… Suen laat tong, hot and sour soup, is a northern Chinese specialty. Central’s Wang Fu (65 Wellington St., Central, 2121-8089) serves up a huge bowl of the Beijing dish for affordable prices.
Numbing-spicy / 麻辣 (ma laat)
Try it… Nothing beats numbing-spicy like Sichuan food. Get your I-can’t-feel-my-face-when-I’m-with-you fix at Sijie (10/F, Bartlock Centre, 3 Yiu Wa St., Causeway Bay, 2802-2250) for a perfectly balanced numb-athon.
Aromatic-spicy / 香辣 (heung laat)
Try it… At the sprawling Under Bridge Spicy Crab (G/F, Ascot Mansion, 421-425 Lockhart Rd., Wan Chai, 2834-6268) pretty much EVERYTHING is drowned in enormous amounts of deep-fried garlic and chili.
Al dente / 彈牙 (daan nga)
Try it… Any properly made, properly cooked noodle has a springy texture that leaves a little bit of bite in the mouth. Lau Sum Kee Noodle (48 Kweilin St., Sham Shui Po, 2386-3533) is one of the very few in town to still knead its noodles with bamboo poles, working the gluten into the perfect daan nga texture.
Soft / 軟 (yuen)
Try it… Yuen is a softness most often applied to gummy sweets or candies.
Tender (young) / 嫩 (nuen)
Try it… This kind of tenderness implies youth: So pea shoots, young choi sum or veal steak can all be nuen.
Tender (soft) / 腍 (lum)
Try it… Overcooked noodles can be lum, but it’s also a good thing when we’re talking tenderness. The falling-apart beef brisket noodles at Sister Wah (G/F, 13A Electric Rd., Tin Hau, 2807-0181) nail this texture.
Fluffy / 綿 (meen)
Try it… Meen is literally“cotton.” A good congee is said to be meen because it’s as light and fluffy as a ball of wool. Get a good “cottony” bowl of congee at Sheung Wan’s Sang Kee (G/F, 7-9 Burd St., Sheung Wan, 2541-1099).
Smooth/glossy / 滑 (waat)
Try it… Cheung fun rice noodle rolls and smooth tofu dishes are both the much-prized waat. Find out what’s waat with the sweet gingery tofu fa dessert at Lamma island’s Kin Hing Ah Por Tofu Fa (1 Yung Shue Wan, Tai Wan To, Lamma).
Alkaline / 鹼 (gaan)
Try it… Alkali or lye water gives wonton and egg-based noodles their springiness. It can lend a gentle tang in small amounts but too much overpowers the dish. See how it should be done at Tsim Chai Kee (98 Wellington St., Central, 2850-6471).
Silky soft / 絲 (si)
Try it… Dragon’s beard candy is the perfect example of si. This streetside snack of spun sugar consists of thousands of silken strands that melt in the mouth.
Crisp / 脆 (chui)
Try it… You know something is chui at first bite. Go get yourself a real Hong Kong spring roll at Fook Lam Moon (35-45 Johnston Rd., Wan Chai. 2866-0663) for that lovely noise.
Crunchy / 爽 (song)
Try it… Song mostly applies to fruits and vegetables like apple and cucumber that are fresh and crunchy, but it can also mean the texture of beef tendon—bouncy but with a bit of bite.
Pure / 清 (ching)
Try it… The best ching food is the simple home cooking that mom used to make when you were sick. Get your fix of nourishing broths and home-style dishes at Kau Gor Double-Boiled Soups (88 Jervois St., Sheung Wan, 2111-0904).
OK, so you know the words. Can you match them to these flavorful foodstuffs? (Careful, answers are below.)
- 1. daan nga (springy), heung laat (aromatic spicy), yuen (soft-tender)
- 2. gum (bitter-sweet), haam (salty), suen (sour)
- 3. heung (aromatic), heung laat (aromatic spicy), lum (tender-soft)
- 4. waat (smooth, glossy), sin (fresh), tim (sweet)
- 5. gong bei (attacking the nose), lum (soft), chui (crunchy, on the outside)
- 6. gong bei (attacking the nose), tim (sweet), waat (smooth)
- 7. All of the above, depending on who you’re with.