When you have access to the freshest ingredient, the next step you take is to make sure you give it the respect it deserves. In Guangzhou, the cuisine is founded on the availability of produce that is either swimming, wriggling or walking around hours before they settle on the dining table.
After our visit to the Huangsha seafood wholesale market, we go back to the kitchens of the Four Points Sheraton where executive chef Ben Huang gives me a few lessons.
We had bought a kilo of banded flower prawns, brought home in a plastic bag pumped full of oxygen so the crustaceans retain their bounce.
These, the chef says, are to be steamed until the prawns are just the right side of translucent, cooked only enough to retain the texture and sweetness. It will be served at table with just a little saucer of the best soy sauce.
It is the best finger food I have ever tasted. The shells came off smoothly, and the heads needed a little tug to remove them, all evidence of the precise timing that went into the cooking. Each morsel was sweet and succulent and the platter disappeared in the few minutes of silence that was homage to the prawns, and the chef.
I wanted to see how our monster cockles were to be prepared and asked permission to go into the kitchen.
These cockles are slightly hairy, although Huang tells me they are a different species from the maohan, or hairy shells sold in northern markets.
The difference, the chef says as he cracks open a cockle with his Chinese cleaver, is that these are blood cockles. Sure enough, red juices drip as the chef expertly cleans the cockle and removes the dark bits.
The cleaned cockle is then placed in a bowl of crushed ice to which the chef adds lemon juice.
"That's to tighten the flesh of the cockle and improve its texture."
The shellfish is also thrown against the chopping block a few times before it is cut, to tighten its flesh further. It shrinks before our eyes.
The lips of the cockle are trimmed and set aside, while the dark orange-red body is expertly cut.
When we next meet the cockles, they are beautifully arranged on a huge platter on top of crushed ice. It is a simple but beautiful presentation and the cockles are flavored by the best seasoning in the kitchen: the chef's respect for the ingredient, and its freshness.
It was a return to roots for me personally, and thanks to the patient explanations from Huang, I am beginning to understand more about the cuisine of my home province, and why of all the foods in China, it has traveled so far, and so extensively through the world. It makes me grateful that I was born Cantonese.
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