In the past decade, Chinese dining in the United States popularized “Mainlander food,” or non-Cantonese regional cuisines. The Mainland moniker distinguished it from food from Hong Kong and Taiwan. But Mainland food largely excluded Cantonese cuisine, even though Canton (now known as Guangzhou) sits squarely on the Chinese mainland.
Chinese have lived in the United States since the mid-19th-century. However, these immigrants did not come from the whole of China. Rather, they mostly came from rural villages around Toisan (now called Taishan), some eighty miles outside Canton. For over a hundred years, the majority of Chinese residents in America were of Toisanese origin.
The dishes that these rural villagers brought with them where what came to be known as Chinese food in America. The cuisine was adapted to use local ingredients and to fit local tastes. The Toisanese-influenced American Chinese food was not at all representative of authentic Chinese food in general. Chinese Exclusion Laws slowed Chinese immigration to a trickle, so this Chinese food wasn’t particularly representative of contemporary Cantonese food in China, either.
It was only when America relaxed its immigration laws in the late 1960s that a significant influx of new Chinese immigrants arrived. However, because the United States and mainland China did not have diplomatic relations at the time, the first wave of new Chinese immigrants originated in Hong Kong and Taiwan, bringing with them the latest, up-to-date Cantonese cuisine. In ensuing decades, as Hong Kong blossomed as a culinary center, restaurant trends such as the development of seafood and dim sum palaces were replicated in the United States.
In the 1980s, after the United States and China re-established diplomatic relations, Shanghai and Beijing-style cuisine arrived in America. As more regional cuisines arrived behind them, Cantonese food became a relatively small part of the overall dining scene in most U.S. Chinese communities. In the Los Angeles area, for example, it seems like every new authentic Chinese restaurant either serves Sichuan food, hot pot, or skewers — none of which are Cantonese.
Mainland food came to be identified with migrants who arrived from China after diplomatic relations were re-established. Though Cantonese people did migrate to the United States during this period, they had no effect on America’s Cantonese cuisine.
This neat compartmentalization of Mainland and Cantonese food started to blow up in the past five years. America’s growing appetite for Mainland Chinese food attracted the attention of restaurant chains based in Mainland China itself. Many such chains, like Din Tai Fung, Hai di Lao, and Meizhou Dongpo, rushed to set up shop in the United States, primarily in Los Angeles but also in San Francisco and other communities.
When H.L. Peninsula restaurant opened in South San Francisco last year, it represented the first Guangzhou-based restaurant chain in America. Previously, Mainland Chinese restaurant chains reflected the new wave of non-Cantonese regional food, coming from places like Shanghai, Beijing, and Chengdu. But H.L. Peninsula is a Mainland Chinese Cantonese food restaurant.
When dining at H.L. Peninsula, I can’t say there was much of an apparent difference from a typical Hong Kong-style Cantonese seafood restaurant. The only thing truly distinctive was a plate of fruit waiting for us as we were seated at the table.
Shortly after H.L. Peninsula opened in the Bay, Guangzhou-based vegetarian restaurant chain Ooak Kitchen set up shop in Culver City, on L.A.’s Westside. Its situation was quite puzzling, as the predominant concentration of Chinese in the Los Angeles area is in the San Gabriel Valley, which lies miles to the east of downtown Los Angeles. But here, diners were treated to Guangzhou vegetarian specialties likely never seen in the United States, such as the mock shaking beef steak pictured below, rendered from a gigantic mountainous Chinese mushroom.
Alas, Ooak Kitchen was the wrong place at the wrong time. It quickly rebranded as a more generic Chinese restaurant, Fifty One Kitchen. But it gave a glimpse of how Guangzhou-style Cantonese food could be different from the Hong Kong-style we’ve grown used to.
Early this year, the Guangdong-based Ying Ji Chang Fen chain opened in the San Francisco suburb of Pleasanton. Ying Ji Chang Fen offers a limited menu specializing primarily in rice noodle rolls (often referred to in the United States as cheung fun) and congee. But this isn’t your Chinese American father’s cheung fun as pictured below.
No, Ying Ji Chang Fen serves a burrito-sized roll that comes close to being a meal in itself. There’s also a thin vegetable layer to make this rice noodle roll a more balanced dish than its Hong Kong-style version. It shows that Guangzhou-styled Cantonese food differs from what we’ve seen in the United States and Hong Kong.
Recently, H.L. Peninsula opened a second branch called H.L. Peninsula Pearl in Burlingame, near the original location. And Ying Ji Chang Fen opened on Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel. Surely, more Guangzhou-based restaurants will follow in California and throughout the rest of the United States. It raises the question of whether the terms Mainlander and Mainland Chinese food will continue to refer only to non-Cantonese cuisine. And it challenges chefs to see how distinctive Guangzhou-style Cantonese food may be from what we have come to expect.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.