Redefining Cantonese cuisine in post-Mao Guangzhou   1

Jakob A. Kleina1

School of Oriental and African Studies, email:


To what extent do regional cuisines provide a set of principles through which “outside” flavours, foodstuffs and techniques may be safely incorporated? This question is explored through an ethnographic account of Cantonese cuisine in Guangzhou (Canton) at the turn of the twenty-first century. I focus on a historic restaurant in the city, where managers and cooks sought to innovate with the help of “outside” tastes, but without the restaurant losing its status as a “traditional” establishment. I argue that the incorporation of “outside” flavours onto local menus was not done on the basis of culinary principles alone, but that considerations of social hierarchy and cultural identity were equally important factors. Indeed, many of the dishes and techniques introduced contradicted the alleged principles of Cantonese cuisine. Such contradictions were downplayed, however, through essentialized representations of Cantonese cuisine and its relationship to specific localities.


1   This article draws primarily on my PhD research (Klein), which was supported by an ESRC postgraduate research fellowship. Fieldwork was conducted in both Mandarin and Cantonese. In the text most Chinese terms are given in Mandarin, using pinyin. Cantonese terms are given only for colloquial sayings and terms with no direct Mandarin equivalents. Where Cantonese (C.) words and phrases are used, they are transliterated using the Yale system. Previous versions of this article were presented in January 2007 at the East Asian Research Society, University of Leeds and in February 2007 at the East Asian Institute, University of Cambridge. I would like to thank the organizers for inviting me and everyone who commented on my presentations. I would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their many helpful suggestions.