Although not authentic, these Chinese dishes found acceptance in the West, and during the California Gold Rush, Cantonese cooks were sought after in the mining camps. Later, these cooks began to open their own restaurants, serving the cloyingly sweet-and-sour dishes and the fat egg rolls that appealed to Western tastes.
In the final watering down, Cantonese-inspired foods have long filled the canned-food aisles and frozen-food cases of supermarkets.
So in the 1970s, when Americans became intensely interested in different foods - and, in particular, authentic foods of other cultures - it was hardly to Cantonese restaurants that they turned for a Chinese fix. The newer, and thus less Americanized, Szechuan and Hunan seemed more sophisticated.
But true Cantonese is perhaps the most haute of the classic cuisines of China. It is the lightest, most subtle and least greasy of all regional styles. The Cantonese excel in stir-frying. Dim sum, the Chinese meal of little plates, comes from the Cantonese, as do many of the great Chinese banquet dishes.
Even such dishes as egg foo yong are elegant when prepared properly. As cookbook author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo notes, "foo yong" means "beautiful and delicate." The real Cantonese dish involves lightly cooked eggs and tiny shrimp rather than the overfilled, hard-scrambled omelets of the West.
For Occidentals dining in a Chinese restaurant, one stumbling block to discovering authentic dishes is the staff's expectation of what patrons will - or won't - like. If you think the Asian family at the next table is getting dishes prepared differently from yours, it's because they probably are.
Patronizing one restaurant so that the staff comes to know you and to have confidence in the adventurousness of your palate is a partial solution. Even then, there are some dishes you won't be served - perhaps rightly so. Some Chinese foods are truly an acquired taste.
One authentic Cantonese dish that takes about two seconds to acquire a taste for is Ginger-Onion Lo Mein.
Your first bite will tell you it is far more subtle than the lo mein you've sampled on Chinese buffets. Thin whole-wheat noodles, almost as fine as angel hair, are briefly stir-fried with skinny matchsticks of ginger and crisp green scallions. The sauce is hardly evident - except for the nuances of flavor it adds.
From this dish, you will want to go on to investigate more Cantonese specialties. The lo mein is so clean-flavored, it could be worked into a Western menu; I think it would be excellent with roast lamb or pork.
Don't put soy sauce on the table when you serve it. The Cantonese wouldn't.
GINGER-ONION LO MEIN
2 bundles fresh Chinese noodles (see note)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon fine matchsticks of fresh ginger, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon Chinese cooking wine (see note)
1/4 cup chicken broth
2 teaspoons oyster sauce
Small pinch each salt and white pepper
Larger pinch of sugar
2 drops sesame oil
1/4 bunch scallions, washed, trimmed and cut into 1-inch to 2-inch lengths (also halve the white part the long way)
Cilantro for garnish
Bring pot of water to a rolling boil, add the noodles and cook 1 or 2 minutes. Pasta should be al dente. Drain and rinse with cool water, then drain well again.
Heat the oil in wok, then add the ginger, the cooking wine and chicken broth, stirring all the time. Next, stir in the oyster sauce, salt, white pepper, sugar and sesame oil. Add drained noodles and scallions and cook until heated through and scallions are slightly wilted. Garnish with cilantro sprigs and serve immediately. Makes two servings.
Note: Chinese noodles can be found in Asian groceries and some supermarkets. If unavailable, substitute fresh angel hair pasta. The cooking wine used in most Asian kitchens here is Michiu, a distilled spirit of rice. It has the sharp aroma of brandy and is about 12 percent alcohol.