Cantonese cooking seems to have spread across America before any other Chinese cuisine1. It dominated America’s instruction in Chinese food so completely that we use the Cantonese word wok for the frying pan rather than the Mandarin word, guo. Probably the primary reason for this dominance lies in immigration patterns—a large number of people immigrated to California and other parts of the U.S. from Taishan in Southern China in the 19th century, followed by immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan.
In any case, China could probably not have chosen a better ambassador. The ingredients often favored in Cantonese cooking may seem strange to outsiders: Yan-Kit So describes several Cantonese dishes made from snakes, and how rice worms, parasitic insects that damage rice plants, are harvested and eaten; and Thomas Hollmann mentions dog, cat, and rat as especially favored by Cantonese cooks. But Cantonese cooking is widely held in high esteem.
That said, the Chinese food widely served in the U.S. is not generally held in as high esteem as authentic Cantonese food. It has its merits, but if you want to appreciate authentic Cantonese food, you have to look further.
So I went to Imperial Palace in Flushing, which is widely reputed to have excellent Cantonese food. It lies just off Main Street on a quiet stretch of 37th Avenue.
The décor here is generally uninspired: the walls have oak paneling and mirrors, and a gilt dragon curls around the back wall. The tables are all covered in plain linen table cloths. There are, however, some intriguing exhibits on one wall—small models of ceremonial vessels framed with text that I cannot read.
There are some relatively pricey dishes on the menu featuring prized ingredients like bird’s nest (edible nests made by swiftlets), but I am on a budget, and I know of a few dishes that are supposed to be excellent at good prices. I ordered walnut-mayonnaise shrimp.
This consisted of jumbo shrimp resting on a bed of broccoli (steamed and crisp), smothered in slightly sweet mayonnaise and walnuts. The shrimp was tender, and magically infused with the flavor of walnut. It was slightly sweet, like the mayonnaise. Perhaps honey or some other sweetener was added. The walnuts were candied. The dish was heavenly.
1Other Chinese cuisines were introduced to America on a smaller scale. American diplomats sent Chinese duck eggs back to the States so their countrymen could try Peking duck. See Yan-Kit So.
136-13 37th Ave,
Every day, 11am-11:30pm