Comparing to other Chinese regional cuisine, the flavours of most traditional Cantonese dish should be well balanced and not greasy. Apart from that, spices should be used in modest amounts to avoid overwhelming the flavours of the primary ingredients, and these ingredients in turn should be at the peak of their freshness and quality. There is no widespread use of fresh herbs in Cantonese cooking, in contrast with their liberal use in other cuisines such as Sichuanese, Vietnamese, Lao, Thai and European. Garlic chives and coriander leaves are notable exceptions, although the former are often used as a vegetable and the latter are usually used as mere garnish in most dishes.
Although Cantonese cooks pay much attention to the freshness of their primary ingredients, Cantonese cuisine also uses a long list of preserved food items to add flavour to a dish. This may be influenced by Hakka cuisine, since the Hakkas were once a dominant group occupying imperial Hong Kong and other southern territories.
Some items gain very intense flavours during the drying/preservation/oxidation process and some foods are preserved to increase their shelf life. Some chefs combine both dried and fresh varieties of the same items in a dish. Dried items are usually soaked in water to rehydrate before cooking. These ingredients are generally not served a la carte, but rather with vegetables or other Cantonese dishes.
A number of dishes have been part of Cantonese cuisine since the earliest territorial establishments of Guangdong. While many of these are on the menus of typical Cantonese restaurants, some simpler ones are more commonly found in Cantonese homes. Home-made Cantonese dishes are usually served with plain white rice.
There are a small number of deep-fried dishes in Cantonese cuisine, which can often be found as street food. They have been extensively documented in colonial Hong Kong records of the 19th and 20th centuries. A few are synonymous with Cantonese breakfast and lunch, even though these are also part of other cuisines.
Old fire soup, or lou fo tong (老火汤; 老火湯; lǎohuǒ tāng; lou5 fo2 tong; 'old fire-cooked soup'), is a clear broth prepared by simmering meat and other ingredients over a low heat for several hours. Chinese herbs are often used as ingredients. There are basically two ways to make old fire soup – put ingredients and water in the pot and heat it directly on fire, which is called bou tong (煲汤; 煲湯; bāo tāng; bou1 tong1); or put the ingredients in a small stew pot, and put it in a bigger pot filled with water, then heat the bigger pot on fire directly, which is called dun tong (燉汤; 燉湯; dùn tāng; dun6 tong1). The latter way can keep the most original taste of the soup.
Soup chain stores or delivery outlets in cities with significant Cantonese populations, such as Hong Kong, serve this dish due to the long preparation time required of slow-simmered soup.
Due to Guangdong's location along the South China Sea coast, fresh seafood is prominent in Cantonese cuisine, and many Cantonese restaurants keep aquariums or seafood tanks on the premises. In Cantonese cuisine, as in cuisines from other parts of Asia, if seafood has a repugnant odour, strong spices and marinating juices are added; the freshest seafood is odourless and, in Cantonese culinary arts, is best cooked by steaming. For instance, in some recipes, only a small amount of soy sauce, ginger and spring onion is added to steamed fish. In Cantonese cuisine, the light seasoning is used only to bring out the natural sweetness of the seafood. As a rule of thumb, the spiciness of a dish is usually negatively correlated to the freshness of the ingredients.
Little pot rice (煲仔饭; 煲仔飯; bāozǎifàn; bou1 zai2 faan6) are dishes cooked and served in a flat-bottomed pot (as opposed to a round-bottomed wok). Usually this is a saucepan or braising pan (see clay pot cooking). Such dishes are cooked by covering and steaming, making the rice and ingredients very hot and soft. Usually the ingredients are layered on top of the rice with little or no mixing in between. Many standard combinations exist.
A number of dishes are traditionally served in Cantonese restaurants only at dinner time. Dim sum restaurants stop serving bamboo-basket dishes after the yum cha period (equivalent to afternoon tea) and begin offering an entirely different menu in the evening. Some dishes are standard while others are regional. Some are customised for special purposes such as Chinese marriages or banquets. Salt and pepper dishes are one of the few spicy dishes.
After the evening meal, most Cantonese restaurants offer tong sui (糖水; táng shuǐ; tong4 seoi2; 'sugar water'), a sweet soup. Many varieties of tong sui are also found in other Chinese cuisines. Some desserts are traditional, while others are recent innovations. The more expensive restaurants usually offer their specialty desserts. Sugar water is the general name of dessert in Guangdong province. It is cooked by adding water and sugar to some other cooking ingredients. It is said that Huazhou sugar water is the famous and popular one in Guangdong. There is a saying that Chinese sugar water is in Guangdong, and Cantonese sugar water in Huazhou. And the booming of Huazhou sugar water stores prove it.
Certain Cantonese delicacies consist of parts taken from rare or endangered animals, which raises controversy over animal rights and environmental issues. This is often[according to whom?] due to alleged health benefits of certain animal products. For example, the continued spreading of the idea that shark cartilage can cure cancer has led to decreased shark populations even though scientific research has found no evidence to support the credibility of shark cartilage as a cancer cure.