A Journey to New Sichuan Food in China
My patrons always told me that Grand Sichuan Chinese Restaurants at 9th Ave. at 24 street and at 50 street were great. Someone even told me that the Grand Sichuan at 24 street would probably become a legend. I was so glad and so happy to hear all of these. Anyway, some thoughts came to my mind from time to time. Finally I caught my thoughts and made it clear: the two Grand Sichuan restaurants were like a "cheese" which was good but a little bit "old", though. Nobody now moved my old cheese and I still enjoyed it. But I decided that it was the time that I should look for "the new cheese" because the Sichuan food in China had been changed.
One thing I could not forget was that I was back to China for the first time in 2001 Summer after 12 years I stayed in USA.. What really surprised me in China was that Sichuan food was undergoing a fundamental change. I have seen so many great and beautiful restaurants and tried so many brand new dishes I had never eaten before. I still was wondering why the Sichuan food changed so fast after I was back to New York. One day I suddenly thought that the changing Sichuan food in China was the "new cheese" I was looking for. As a result, I decided to go back to China in Summer of 2002 to look for "the new cheese". I had my camera with me and took the pictures in China if possible. Now I post some of the pictures I took in China here and am glad to share my experience with my patrons. I repeatedly ask myself and also ask my patrons to see if I have found "the new cheese".
Shanghai, on July 26, 2002. The first step of my journey to China was Shanghai. The hottest spot of the Sichuan restaurants in town was "Darling Port" New Concept Sichuan Restaurant. When we arrived the restaurant around 6 O’clock in the evening, there was a Shanghai, on July 26, 2002. Thefirst step of my journey to China was Shanghai. The lot of people waiting in and out the entrance. Knowing that we had no hope to get in the restaurant to eat, we had to come back next lunch time.
The "New Concept" meant the combination of the Western decoration and the new style Sichuan food. I ordered two typical new dishes: one was the ChongQing Spicy Chicken with Dry Red Pepper, another was the Diced Fish with Red Pickled Pepper. Both were originated in 1990’s. The cooking technique of the first dish came mainly from the traditional "dry and sautéed"(for example, dry and sautéed string beans) and combined it with the fry and the quick sautéed techniques. This dish was also bold to use a lot of dry red pepper that does scared some customers. Actually it was not really spicy but really tasted. The taste was a well blended of the spicy, salty and sweet.
For the second dish, the diced fish was braised with pickled red pepper. It was the first time that the pickled red pepper become a major flavor to cook a fish dish. The fish tasted tender and the pickled spicy pepper was very special.
From these two dishes, "two series" were developed: Dry spicy series and Pickled pepper series. Same cooking techniques and flavors might be cooked with different food: fish, meats, crab, bean curd and so on. These two series represent an important aspect of the new Sichuan food that how to create its new food dishes.
Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, August 1, 2002. Hangzhou is in the two hour train travel west distance from Shanghai and also is the hottest tourist spot with its famous West Lake in the China. Generally speaking, Hangzhou people didn’t eat the spicy. With the "invading" of the Sichuan restaurants recent years, more and more Hangzhou people started to eat the spicy food.
We went to the "coolest" Sichuan restaurant called "Liu’s spicy restaurant". How cool was it? First, some of dishes were served with super sized plates, bowls or containers. Watching these plates, you could not help shooting": it’s cool !" Second, the amount of the food of the some dishes was usually huge. Third, the sauce was heavy and the taste was very strong. However, the coolest part of the restaurant was the spicy crab. This dish had only come to the market for two years, but it had already become number one popular in China.
How did the Hungzhou people started to like the spicy crab? The reason probably was that the Hangzhou people liked eating fresh crab all the time but never eating the spicy one. Anyway the taste of the spicy crab was well mixed with the spicy, salty and sweet. Thus they didn’t fell too spicy just the "tasted spicy". Not too long, the Hangzhou people adapted the spicy crab dish.
Furthermore, the dish was a good combination of Sichuan spicy cooking technique and the fresh seafood. Traditionally only Canton or Shanghai cuisine used a lot of the fresh seafood. So the spicy crab was the first and important example that the Sichuan Cuisine cooked the fresh seafood.
Chengdu City, Sichuan Province, August 4, 2002. When I arrived in Chengdu, I went to BaGuoBuYe(Sichuan’s working people) restaurant first. This restaurant is the first one that created and promoted the new Sichuan food in Sichuan Province and emphasized on the relations between the food and the culture. In its major dinning room, the decoration strongly expressed the countryside tradition and style of the Eastern Sichuan. On its menu, there were no classic Sichuan dishes like Braised beef with chilly sauce or Braised whole fish with spicy brown sauce. One of the reasons that they called their food "New Sichuan Food" was that they sent their people to the countryside and ate at the different places like the small towns, villages or peasants’ houses. In that way they found the new dishes they didn’t know before. Then they studied and refined these dishes and gave them the new names that became the new Sichuan food!
The restaurant "TaoRanJu"(Living with comfort and easiness) was a chain restaurant from ChongQing City(now becoming an independent city from Sichuan Province and managed directly by the Central Government). This restaurant only opened a few months ago this year. The inside decoration was very new, modern with green color. The food on the table was so brand new, beautiful and creative that you might not image them before you came in. One dish was also on our menu called "Sliced Pork with the Spicy Garlic Sauce." It is very common and traditional cold dish. However, they made it very special: the sliced pork hung on a wood bracket and the sauce on the side. I really didn’t know how this idea came out. The whole table food might be seen as the best example of the new Sichuan food.
"HongXing"(red apricot) restaurant was famous for its traditional and classic Sichuan food. Anyway, it was a "new Sichuan food" restaurant because its 90 percent of its dishes were new. The restaurant was always busy. We waited in the waiting room first. The waiting room was about 1000 square feet big. The restaurant provided free tea and sautéed dry Sunflower seeds for waiting customers. Finally I got in the dining room and took a table. I really liked the dish "Prosper Chicken Blood" which delighted me for the whole evening. The sliced chicken blood was cooked with spicy sauce soup, spicy, salty and tasty. I ate one piece and eagerly wanted another one. As a result, our restaurant serves this dish, too. The major different was that they served chicken blood and we serve the pig blood because we could not find chicken ones in New York. Chicken blood is much more tender and tasted. Chinese really love this dish. How about Americans? Probably not.
"PiaoXiang"(the flying of the good smell) restaurant was a high class new Sichuan food restaurant. The inside decoration was very expensive and glorious. The golden color was the major one. All utensils like plates, bowls or chopsticks were with golden laces or edges. The carefully cooked food was beautifully layout in the plates or bowls.
I tried some new dishes: the spicy crab, dry braised whole fish and cold red peppers. All of them were delicious and excellent. For a long time, Chinese said the Canton food would be the higher class than the Sichuan food. But from the "PiaoXiang", I have seen a real high class Sichuan restaurant.
"LaoGongGuan"(The old celebrates’ private dishes) restaurant was located on the side of "Dupu Villa," a famous tourist spot. Dupu was one of the greatest poets in the history of China from Tang Dynasty. The restaurant rented a "palace" as a restaurant building. It was not only outside a palace, but also inside decoration a palace like, too. Actually, its inside was like a royal garden, including conduit, flowing water, flower bushes, stone hill, pavilions and real birds singing.
The owner of this restaurant was a retired professor who researched and collected a lot of the old celebrates’ private food recipes mostly from those who lived in the early and middle of the 1990’s. On the restaurant menu, every dish came with a detail that who created the recipe and how to make the dish and the related historical information. "The red cooked pork" was a big and whole piece of pork that was cooked for 3 to 4 hours and tasted very soft and tender. The fatty part of the pork was not felt oily because the most of oil in the fat meat was steamed out. This version was totally different from the Chairman Mao’s red cooked pork. This one was originated from the warlord Liu Xing’s family cooking in 1930’s. When I ate the pork, I could not help imaging how the warlord liked and ate the big chunk pork.
"XingYangHong"(red sun setting) restaurant was established by an old woman who was quitted her job from a state run factory in the early 1990’s. This brand new restaurant was huge, modern and excellent. The restaurant occupied the whole building with the total four floors. The first floor was the master dining hall. I counted total 50 service persons(managers, hostess, waiters, waitress, busgirls, cashers and so on). Matched this number, probably there were other 50 cooks in the first floor kitchen. From the second to the fourth floor, they were all kind of the big or small party rooms. Thus the estimated total number of employees would be around 300 to 400.
"Green Lotus Garden" LongJiaLuo, Pei County, Chengdu suburb, August 10, 2002.
"LongJiaLuo"(happy peasant’s family) restaurant resort. "LongJiaLuo" was invented by Chengdu suburb peasants(farmers) and was very popular abound Chengdu suburb. Chengdu people liked playing "MaJiang" which was the most popular game in Chengdu. One joke said that if you see more than three Chengduniese together, they would certainly play "MaJiang!"So the suburb peasants built up the restaurant resort on their lands. Usually the resort included "MaJiang" playing rooms, restaurant, small shop, Karaok and dancing hall and other things. Chengdu people went to "LongJiaLuo" in the weekends and stayed there for a whole day. Most of the time they played the "MaJiang", and then ate, drunk, sang or danced.After the day’s enjoyment, the Chengdu people were back to the city.
The "LongJiaLuo" I went was called "Green Lotus Garden". The garden was abound 100mu(about 7 or 8 hectares). The majority of the land was covered by the lotus field. The "MaJiang" playing house, the bamboo pavilions, were built up right in the middle of the lotus field. People played games there.
I didn’t know how to play the game and just went to restaurant directly. Most of the food materials was right from the lotus field. The "Farmer’s Spicy fish" was very fresh and delicious. The Sautéed Diced Lotus Roots was very tender and fresh white. The Steamed Pork wrapped with lotus leaves was super good with a smell of the lotus. After dinner I went out and walked along the small earth trail in the lotus field, seeing the sunset from the long sky and viewing the unlimited lotus field, I was suddenly wondering if I were on the earth or on the paradise. I believed that it was one of the most beautiful and remember able moments in my life.
When I was back to New York, I sometime thought why I was so fascinated with the home land. Was it my memory to my childhood of my homeland? No. Was it my unforgettable love to the homeland where I was raised and educated? No. What was it? It was the "change" of the homeland that fascinated and excited me. The homeland has been changed into a place that we are not familiar with, a place that we don’t know and a place that we could not find our directions to home.The homeland looks like going far and far away from us. All of these make us exciting, uneasy, and expecting and longing for. For the pursuit of the "new cheese" or the "new Sichuan food," we opened this "Grand Sichuan" at second Ave.. We wish this restaurant could bring the new smell, new taste, new feeling and new meanings to comfort those who are far away from their homeland and make their life more colorfulness.