My Frustration with Japan about "Cantonese Food" (And Where to Find Some in Osaka)

Growing up in Toronto meant that you were exposed to a lot of different communities' ethnic foods. Because of so much ethnic diversity and so many people belonging to those groups, they often have a section of the city (or many smaller bubbles) where they can really show their culture proudly, through food. And it's often why it's really not too difficult to find authentic versions of these foods.

The Chinese community is especially the case. Because of many immigrants from Hong Kong, the Cantonese food scene is extremely prominent even beyond the walls of Toronto's Chinatown. In fact, our city's Cantonese cuisine was so good, the joke was that Chinese-Americans would often cross the borders into Canada and drive to Toronto just to eat, then drive back. Some often drive from as far as New York City! Nowadays, Chinese cuisine is equally as established in American cities beyond just Chinese buffets and Panda Express, so I reckon the joke isn't all that true anymore.

Anyway, point is, I grew up eating a lot of Cantonese food from Hong Kong despite living in a western country. But since coming to Japan, it's been really hard to find things to eat that makes me feel like home again. Osaka may have a lot of good food, but let me tell you - they haven't got a clue what Cantonese food even is.

Japanese's Take on Chinese Food

In Japan, there's really no shortage of Chinese restaurants. In Osaka especially, we're famous for Osaka Osho, which is famous for dumplings, and Horai551, which is famous for their buns, Siu Mai (shrimp & pork wrap thing)... which yes, it is technically in every sense - Chinese food.

But it's not necessarily Cantonese food.

In fact, people don't seem to understand that Chinese food isn't just one singular entity.

What frustrates me more is that there are LOTS of the restaurants that claim to serve Cantonese food, but when you look on google maps, it's really just another Chinese restaurant that serves your very typical Panda Express-like chop suey or tsap seui (杂碎, "miscellaneous leftovers") style food. Others like this restaurant focus so much on the Banquet-style restaurants (which again, is more Chinese than Cantonese) and frankly too overpriced for what its worth. I think other Chinese people from other regions of China can also relate to some extent; that their region's food is often misrepresented, underrepresented, overpriced and sometimes not that tasty. Especially Cantonese food.

And honestly, I'm okay that Japan has borrowed what they know as "Chinese food" and made it their own - like Siu Mai. That's not the point. Cantonese food is not "original" by any means. As you will see below when I talk more about it, you will see that the food itself is often some of a fusion. A marriage between a common food elsewhere, and adding a twist to make is "Cantonese". This is more about highlighting some foods in a particular region of China that is special to me, and would honestly love to see more correct and authentic representations of. This way, I think it can also elevate the Japanese-Chinese food scene.

Because you know what? Lots of people enjoy Japanese takes of Chinese food. Me included! There are some Japanese-Chinese dishes I really dig myself. Like the tenshinhan (天津飯), for example.

But there's so much more they're missing out. Chinese food is more than just Mapo Tofu or Xiao Long Bao. Each region of China has their own unique flavours and dishes that Japan is not tapping into. Just like how they haven't tried at all to figure out what Cantonese food really is... or I guess, most people don't want to. And I think that's what makes introducing new foods so difficult in Japan. Thus the lack of authenticity when it comes to regional offerings of foods.

Not that I can really convince anyone, but I hope those of you who are reading this can learn more about Cantonese cuisine, be open try some of it and maybe come to like it. I think if most people understood it better, the food would be more popular and it would invite more businesses to try the market out.

Dim Sum, or Yum Cha? Just what is "Cantonese Food"?

I very briefly mentioned Siu Mai earlier. Siu Mai is actually what we call a "dim sum" item. Dim Sum, or yumcha (a term Japanese people are more familiar with) is the brunch equivalent of the western culture. They are various kinds of dishes served in small portions, made for sharing. Depending on where in China you have dim sum, the varieties will vary, but these items are often common in all Chinese dim sum:

I find that Cantonese dim sum in Hong Kong will in corporate more carbs like rice noodles and clay pot rice, while Taiwanese has more dumpling varieties like Xiao Long Bao, etc. Nowadays, it's not uncommon to find Dim Sum restaurants with a mix of all these things though, which makes it more and more difficult to pinpoint the origins of each item, if any at all.

More on Dim Sum: A Chinese Dimsum Guide (With Some Math)

And just to get it out of the way: Dim Sum and Yum Cha are both correct.

No, no. Not that one.

Dim Sum is the noun (the food items), and Yum Cha is the verb (the action of drinking tea) and the noun (the general meal itself). While it seems the Japanese can't really grasp what this meal really is, they at least got the term correct. It's definitely more common to use the term Yum Cha when you want to invite someone out to partake the meal.

So anywho... back to our Siu Mai now. What's different about Japanese Siu Mai, and Cantonese Siu Mai? Am I offended by Japan's take on Siu Mai?

Horai551's Shrimp Siu Mai. (JAPAN)

In short, I'm kind of offended. But not really. I'm only offended that it really tastes terrible, in my opinion. But this version seems to be popular amongst Japanese people, so who am I to judge, right?

Actually, there is something in Hong Kong called the "street-style" Siu Mai which is actually kind of similar to the Japanese Siu Mai. Hong Kong "street-style" Siu Mai uses fish paste as the filling (cheap & quick to make and sell), and the Japanese Siu Mai also uses a paste filling. But this is definitely not a typical Cantonese dim sum Siu Mai.

This is more like it:

I mean... just look at that beautiful real siu mai in the video above....

Here's the thing which I think makes Dim Sum (and Cantonese food) unique - it's the time and effort chefs put in each food item, that when you bite into the Siu Mai for example, you can still taste the individual main ingredients that was used.

If you tried dim sum in Japan from Hong Kong Chon Long, it's a far cry from that.

And in the video above, you will see that Cantonese Siu Mai uses a mix of sliced pork, shrimp pieces and shiitake then gets wrapped 3/4 of the way with a wonton wrapper. In a good Cantonese Siu Mai, when you bite into the filling, you should be able to get a good mouth-feel of all those individual pieces at play. The filling shouldn't be like fish paste (unless the food itself is fish paste - like fishballs).

Mhmmmm curry fishballs (made from fish paste). A Cantonese street food staple!

Lots of Chinese people from other parts of China will often say our food is bland, but I say we just like to put emphasis on the ingredients and less on the condiments/extra flavours. Of course, we do use soy sauce, oyster sauce and other flavourings very generously - but it's not too often that we'll mix too many sauces together like our northern kin (where chilis and vinegar are their best friends).

And beyond just dim sum, there's so much more to Cantonese food!

The heart and soul of Cantonese cuisine (especially in Hong Kong) comes from our casual meals and "cafes". Not the Starbucks type, but there is a Starbucks in Hong Kong that mimics the kind of cafe:

Starbucks in Hong Kong mimicking a "cha chaan teng"

This is often places (called 茶餐廳 cha chaan teng) where you will find cheap, casual type meals during all times of the day. You'll find a lot of foods that are familiar to you since it has lots of British & other western influences, but very foreign. For example, during breakfast, you might find sandwiches on the menu - but filled with spam, ham and/or eggs. Or macaroni in soup broth, with ham. Exactly like this:

The lunch menu at a cha chaan teng will be filled with one-plate rice, rice noodles or pasta varieties - either as fried rice, fried noodles, noodles soups or carbs with a side of wok fried protein and/or vegetables.

In home cooking (and restaurants that cater more to the dinner crowd), families will often serve a variety of different proteins & vegetables on separate dishes. One variety for each person at the dinner table, shared among everyone. And a bowl of rice for each person. Like so:

In banquet-style restaurants (they operate as dim sum restaurants during lunch), the above style of dining is most common - but the food will obviously focus more on rare, expensive ingredients and the presentation. These are usually huge restaurants, and people who need to host wedding banquets usually book off a section of the restaurant for the festivities.

For dinner in a cha chaan teng, lunch menu usually stays and some places will start serving steaks, chicken steaks on hot metal plates with sides of soup, carbs, a drink and dessert. These places are meant to be cheap, quick, and family-friendly so while presentation is not necessarily their strongest suit, what matters most is that you leave feeling full and satisfied.

We even have afternoon tea. It's not fancy at all - they're usually cheap snacks/pastries like french toast, egg tarts (mhmmm egg tarts), chicken wings, light soup noodles or sandwiches plus one drink of choice. My parents usually eat these smaller items as early dinner, as an excuse to not eat too much "for diet" (but it's hard not to order everything off the menu!).

Phew, all of these pictures and links are making me hungry. I hope I've did some justice explaining what Cantonese food in Hong Kong is. I know some of you may disagree with certain details, but this is what I grew up to as Cantonese food. And this is by no means comprehensive. I mean... I haven't even gotten into our street foods! But I hope those of you who are Cantonese can at least agree with me on certain points about Japan's Cantonese food scene. It's really a shame to not see more of our soul foods shine.

But on a brighter note, I am seeing more Taiwanese snack shops open up due to its Bubble Tea phase. So I'm glad that one more region is being more represented properly!

Well... Does Cantonese Food Exist in Osaka?

Fortunately for you and me, yes - it does.

Slowly but surely, there are small, off the main downtown strip shops that do sell somewhat authentic Hong Kong food. At the time of writing of this, I know of two spots in Osaka and I want to share them with you!

1. 香港軽食

Hong Kong Keshyoku was recommend to me by someone who was a fellow Hong Konger. They specialize in the afternoon tea snacks I had talked about in this post, but it seems now they also serve some more cha chaan teng style meals too. It's unfortunately a bit out of the way for me, and I haven't been able to try it yet. But I'm excited to try it out in the future!

2. 中國華記茶餐廰

Hong Kong Wah Kee was probably one of the first restaurants to serve cha chaan teng style foods here in Osaka. I have been several times when it first opened 2 years ago. Their HK Style milk tea and wonton noodles were pretty solid at the time.

I have been told more recently that the quality has gone down, and some Hong Kongers in Japan have stopped going due to the restaurant's political stance against Hong Kong. So I shall leave you to make your own judgment about this restaurant.

Anyway, that's it from me today - thank you for reading this!

This is honestly more of a personal piece than anything. And more of a rant, if I may. Haha. Before I go though, just one more thing I want to put out there - RAMEN NOODLES ARE NOT WONTON EGG NOODLES.

Thanks for coming to my TED Talk, everyone. ;)

PS: If you know of a good dim sum restaurant in Osaka - please tell me!

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