Lobster Cantonese

The traditional Manhattan recipe.

lobster with black bean sauce

Lobster with black bean sauce by stu_spivack, on Flickr

When Americans talk about Lobster Cantonese, we’re usually talking about deep fried chunks of shell-on lobster in a cornstarch-based sauce that includes black beans, garlic, and egg. But there’s no such dish in traditional Cantonese cuisine.

It’s actually contrary to the basic Cantonese culinary aesthetic that fresher ingredients deserve lighter spices, which tends to mean that seafood gets the lightest spicing of all. Compare a shrimp chow fun or a steamed sea bass to beef in oyster sauce or braised pork belly with lotus root. Combining fresh lobster with aggressive fermented black beans would be considered odd.

Actually, even the other most frequently seen Cantonese-inspired lobster dish–lobster with ginger and scallions–was originally a preparation for crab. Although China is mad for lobsters now, I haven’t been able to find any evidence that there’s been much fishing of the native South China Sea lobsters, like the deep-sea spiny lobster. Even today, the lobster available in China is generally rock lobster imported from Australia.

Sigh. You’re not paying attention to me anymore, are you? You’re thinking about the B-52s. Fine, get it out of your system:

Now, where we were? Right, the origins of Lobster Cantonese. The earliest mention I’ve been able to find is from Walter Winchell’s syndicated column–here it is in the February 27, 1942 edition of the Waterloo (Iowa) Daily Courier:

...Lobster Cantonese (mitout garlic, plizz) at the House of Chan...

New Yorchids: Zanuck’s “Song of the Islands,” plus Grable’s legs. Stemsational . . . The flicker, “To the Shores of Tripoli,” as exciting as a landing by the Marines . . . Lobster Cantonese (mitout garlic, plizz) at the House of Chan . . . Prof. Noro Morales’ rumba–one rhythms at LaConga–simplee graaaand . . . The latest Bluebirdisc, “And So It Ended” . . . Benny Goodman’s recording, “Jersey Bounce.” As zingy as its name . . . The “MacArthur Cocktail” concocted by Oscar, the Pierre head barman: Half-ounce lime, ditto triple sec or cointreau, 1-1/2 oz. White Rum, 1/4 oz. Jamaica rum, half teaspoon white of egg . . . Deelish!

[Relevant portion excerpted; expand to see the entire original.]


Fair enough, Walt. Let’s talk about House of Chan.

In 1929, Sou Chan came to the United States without a dime in his pocket, the ticket paid for by his uncle. He arrived in Portland, and did odd jobs; he moved to Chicago to work as a dishwasher. In 1935, he came to New York City as a truck driver.

He saved enough money by 1938 to spend $6,300 to buy a building on 52nd street and 7th Avenue. Four years later, and his House of Chan was already known coast to coast.

Chan was a character. He refused to sell his building to build a skyscraper; ultimately, a building was built around it, and he sold the “air rights” above his building for about $45,000 a year, earning the family millions over his lifetime. He died in 1978, of cancer. The restaurant closed and the family sold the building in 1981; horror of horrors, the location is now part of a chain of bars.

But yes, House of Chan was early to the Lobster Cantonese party, and kept it going strong. Here’s a version listed on a menu of theirs from 1962, and a matchbook.

And actually, while we’re reading, let’s also peek at another dish on the menu:

Lobster Cantonese 3.50
Live Maine Lobster, cut up in its shell and prepared in an elegant, garlic-tinged sauce.
Shrimps With Lobster Sauce 2.75
Whole shrimps in the elegantly rich, garlic-tinged sauce created for Lobster Cantonese.

So why Cantonese? Chan was from Guizhou, after all. But black beans are particularly associated with Cantonese cooking.

And that’s how shrimp with lobster sauce came to be. So if someone asks you why shrimp with lobster sauce doesn’t have lobster in it, you can tell them it’s for the same reason steak sauce doesn’t have steak in it.

From a box sold in Martinez, California.

Lobster Cantonese

2 lb. lobster
2 T. oil
1 clove garlic
1/4 [lb.] pork, ground
1 t. [fermented] black beans
1-1/2 c. hot water or chicken broth
1/2 T. soy sauce
2 T. cornstarch
3 T. dry sherry
1 egg
3 T. water

Heat oil in skillet; add garlic and saute. Add pork and lobster. Brown lightly, stirring to break up pork.

Wash and drain beans. Add to skillet, mashing well with fork. Add water, soy sauce.

Mix cornstarch and sherry; stir into sauce. Beat egg with 3 T. water. Blend into sauce.


  1. I love, love, loved this post.
    And now I could really kill someone for the black bean crabs at Hop Kee on Mott Street.

  2. James

    As a small child, I was a guest at the Chinese New Year’s celebration at the House of Chan. My dad was Mr. Chan’s dentist and frequently played bridge with him, Charles Goren and Omar Shariff.

    The meal was one of the best I ever had. I have no idea how many courses there were, but it was more than 7 and included Peking Duck, Long Life noodle, Abalone, Shark Fin Soup and Lobster Cantonese. Sou was a great gentleman and a very proud naturalized US citizen.

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