Accompanying photos courtesy of yours truly, of course :)
Eating Beyond Sichuan
By NINA ZAGAT and TIM ZAGAT
(c) 2007 The New York Times Company
Twenty years ago, American perceptions of Asian food could be summed up in one word: “Chinese.” Since then, we have developed appetites for Korean, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese fare. Yet while the quality of the restaurants that serve these cuisines, particularly Japanese, has soared in America, Chinese restaurants have stalled. For American diners, the Chinese restaurant experience is the same tired routine — unimaginative dishes served amid dated, pseudo-imperial décor — that we’ve known for years.
Chinese food in its native land is vastly superior to what’s available here. Where are the great versions of bird’s nest soup from Shandong, or Zhejiang’s beggar’s chicken, or braised Anhui-style pigeon or the crisp eel specialties of Jiangsu? Or what about the tea-flavored dishes from Hangzhou, the cult-inspiring hairy crabs of Shanghai or the fabled honeyed ham from Yunnan? Or the Fujianese soup that is so rich and sought after that it is poetically called “Buddha Jumps Over the Wall,” meaning it is so good that a Buddhist monk would be compelled to break his vegetarian vows to sample it?
Like so many other aspects of Chinese life, the culinary scene in China is thriving. As capitalism has gained ground there, restaurants have become a place for people to spend their newfound disposable incomes. Cooking methods passed down within families over the centuries have become more widely known as chefs brought the traditions to paying customers. Today, there are a number of regional cuisines known in China as the Eight Great Traditions (Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan and Zhejiang cuisines). Unless you’ve visited China, they most likely have never reached your lips.
That’s because the lackluster Cantonese, Hunan and Sichuan restaurants in this country do not resemble those you can find in China. There is a historic explanation for the abysmal state of Chinese cuisine in the United States. Without access to key ingredients from their homeland, Chinese immigrants working on the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s improvised dishes like chow mein and chop suey that nobody back in their native land would have recognized. To please the naïve palates of 19th-century Americans, immigrant chefs used sweet, rich sauces to coat the food — a radical departure from the spicy, chili-based dishes served back home.
But today, getting ingredients is no longer an issue. Instead, the principal obstacle to improving Chinese fare here is the difficulty of getting visas for skilled workers since 9/11. Michael Tong, head of the Shun Lee restaurant group in New York, has said that opening a major Chinese restaurant in America is next to impossible because it can take years to get a team of chefs from China. Chinese restaurateur Alan Yau planned to open his first New York City restaurant last year but was derailed because he was unable to get visas for his chefs.
If Henry Kissinger could practice “Ping-Pong diplomacy,” perhaps Condoleezza Rice could try her hand at “dumpling diplomacy”? China and the United States should work together on a culinary visa program that makes it easier for Chinese chefs to come here. With more chefs who are schooled in China’s dynamic new restaurant scene, we would see a transformation of the way Chinese food is served in this country.
Imagine, if you will, what it would be like to discover for the first time Memphis-style barbecue, New York deli food, soul food and Creole, Tex-Mex, Southwestern, California and Hawaiian cuisines all at once. Eating food prepared by an influx of Chinese chefs would be like opening up a culinary time capsule.
When authentic Chinese cuisines reach our shores, we can expect a revolution in ingredients and styles that will change the way we prepare food for years to come. Look how quickly our taste for offal, sous-vide cooking and tasting menus have grown. We have a much more ambitious dining culture today than we did 150 years ago.
So, we welcome Chinese chefs to share their authentic cuisines with us. American palates, unlike those of previous generations, are ready for the real stuff.