SOMETIMES A MEAL isn’t as simple as it seems. So it was last month at Hakkasan, a Cantonese restaurant in Manhattan, where a progression of elemental, refined dishes was set before me. There were tiger shrimp braised in a clay pot with asparagus and taro, with a mildly spicy bean sauce; a plate of steamed white Dover sole draped over cabbage, seasoned with homemade soy sauce and topped with shreds of scallion and wisps of fried turnip; and stir-fried string beans with a soft crumbling of minced pork. I’d wisely put myself in the hands of my dinner companion, the chef Pichet Ong, a frequent visitor to the restaurant.
Nearly a year earlier, after a talk at the Museum of Chinese in America on the Lower East Side, I’d heard Mr. Ong, the evening’s featured guest, bemoaning the disappearance of Cantonese restaurants across the city. I wondered what exactly defines that regional cuisine and what accounted for its shif...
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