One of the most refined cuisines in the world is Cantonese – it offers an enticing combination of fresh ingredients prepared in a way that is light yet flavourful. Cooking is raised to an art form in southern China and there is no other place in the world where one can find so many master Cantonese chefs who understand the magic of ‘wok qi’ – stir-frying in a large wok with extremely high heat. The best Cantonese street food comes from the wiry men wearing white undershirts, sweating over roaring flames while strong forearms flick the handle of the wok with one hand while the other hand reaches for another ingredient to add to wok over the open flame.
That combination of gently and quickly coating the ingredients is a skill that is as time-consuming to master as learning how to make the best roux or French sauces. Of course in Cantonese cuisine we also have steaming and roasting techniques, both of which are highly refined, again to enhance the flavours inherent in the ingredients, not to alter their natural flavours. This offers an array of options in which to enjoy the natural flavours of ingredients – the essence of Cantonese cuisine.
Being close to the sea, southern China has an abundance of seafood and the cooking methods that preserve freshness mean that generally, Cantonese food is not too oily, not too sweet nor too salty. The flavours of each dish emerge from the gentle handling of the ingredients, without the use of excessive sauces or condiments.
For these delicate seafood dishes, I love dry Riesling or dry Pinot Gris. I would opt for a dry rather than sweet style, a wine that is not too powerful and has very little, if any, residual sugar. I prefer tasting the sweetness of the seafood – the sweet flesh of shrimp or the briney sweet clams and not the sweetness from the wine.
I also avoid aromatic wines such as Gewurztraminer or Muscat because the strong flavour profile and personality of these two varieties can overpower the delicate sweetness and flavour of many fresh seafood dishes.
With the focus on lightness and freshness, introducing wine to a typical Cantonese meal is among the easiest, especially when compared with more challenging cuisines such as Yunnan, Sichuan or Hunan.
A quick review of the main dishes and seasonings provides guidance on identifying the strongest flavours. For instance, a fairly light dish such as fried vegetarian spring rolls, when enjoyed with either a vinegar dipping sauce or a sweet chilli dip, become more flavourful and not quite as light.
In general, Cantonese cuisine includes lots of stir-fry items and restrained use of sauces based on soy, oyster and the more pungent and salty, black beans. Thus wines need substance and depth.
For a typical local meal, one can either choose a wine that is refreshing, palate-cleansing and acts as a backdrop to the food, or stands up boldly to the flavours. Most traditional Cantonese meals do not consist of very strong flavours and many are refined meals devoid of aggressive flavours – in this context, the best wines are those that mirror this refinement and subtlety.
Consider wines such as mature Chardonnay from Puligny-Montrachet or Yarra Valley, aged Semillon (I love those from Hunter Valley) or a mature Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend, either from Bordeaux or from Margaret River.
The delicate flavours of local favourites such as shark’s fin and abalone are usually served as a single dish within a banquet-style meal where small dishes arrive in succession. Depending on the strength of the soup or sauce for the shark’s fin or abalone, both full bodied whites or light bodied reds can work well.
For these expensive ingredients where one is slowing down to savour and appreciate the dish, I would suggest a serious red Burgundy to further enhance the complexity, depth and layers of flavours. A wonderful wine to enjoy now is a mature Chambolle–Musigny from the mid 1990s from a top producer such as Domaine Georges Roumier or Domaine Meo-Camuzet.
Cantonese cuisine can also have strong flavours, often served at the beginning of a meal such as suckling pig or roast goose. Here, opt for full-bodied reds from southern France such as Cote du Rhone, Crozes-Hermitage or Cote Rotie. For Northern Rhone reds, give them at least 10 years before pairing them with either suckling pig or roast goose – Syrah is too strong and aggressive when young but become silky and spicy with time in bottle. If you want to pair a young red wine with these roasted meat dishes, then choose the fruity, refreshing Pinot Noir.
The lighter-flavoured dishes like vegetables and noodles are served at the end of our meals. The food sequence does not match the normal progression of enjoying light wine first before moving on to heavier, fuller-bodied wines. Thus, the best option for Cantonese banquets is to serve two wines at one time: a red and a versatile white wine. This also offers the diner the opportunity to experiment matching the two wines with different dishes.
For traditional Cantonese banquets, generally, an Old World, medium-bodied fruity red wine with low to moderate tannins works best. The fruit stands up to barbecue meats, while the medium body echoes the weight of the meal, often neither heavy nor too light. The moderate tannins provide just enough backbone to some of the meat dishes without mouth-puckering astringency or heaviness. A fuller-bodied, more aggressive wine would detract from the meal. Options include: mature Bordeaux from the 1980s, mature Cote Rotie or mature Burgundy from the mid 1990s.
White wines need a refreshing character and sufficient acidity to cut through numerous stir-fried dishes and a fair amount of oil content in the meal. The most suitable whites are generally from cool climates with subtle rather than aggressive fruit characters. Choose a dry Alsace or German Riesling, a Pouilly-Fume or even vintage Champagne, which pairs well with Cantonese food.
Reprinted with permission from WINE Guangzhou