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Authentic Chinese Food Guide, Part 1
Authentic Chinese Food Guide, Part 2
Dumplings and Buns – Unwrapped and Exposed!
I think this is my favorite section to write about! Chinese stuffed buns are my go-to comfort food, hands down, no contention. I grew up in a northern Chinese city, and there were as many as three dumpling shops within the same block of my apartment. They sold steamed buns stuffed with all sorts of fillings, some with pork and chives, some with spinach or carrots, and occasionally pumpkin. I just loved the fluffy and yet chewy wrapper, partly moist from the savory filling, and I got super excited every time we had them for lunch.
Steaming as a cooking technique has always been part of Chinese cuisine, and I can’t find a second civilization that loves steaming as much as the Chinese. It is said that potteries from 3000 BC already exhibited traits of a steamer. Steaming not only helps preserving the original shape, form, and sometimes texture of the food during the cooking process, it also conserves energy, since a steamer allows two dishes to cook at the same time: a soup or porridge at the bottom and a side dish in the basket.
The challenge really comes when we need to steam wheat products like buns, breads, and dumplings. When hot steam reaches the cooler lid, condensation takes place, and the water droplets forming on the lid will rain down onto the food. It’s good for vegetable and meat since the “rain” helps keeping the food from overcooked, but detrimental for leavened wheat dough. Once cold water drops touch the dough, those delicate, fluffy crumb structure will collapse and never rise again. To solve this problem, the Chinese invented the almighty bamboo steamer.
Unlike a ceramic or metal steamer, the bamboo steamer isn’t airtight. It allows excess steam to escape freely, so no condensation will form on the lid. The free flow of steam also allows many steamer baskets to be stacked together and cook at the same time – a perfect way to mass-produce breads, dumplings, and stuffed buns.
Of course, steamer isn’t the only way to cook them, though every cooking method involves some form of steaming which is necessary to heat the filling thoroughly. There are so much diversity it can get pretty confusing, so I came up with a list to help you understand the differences.
Dumpling (“Jiao Zi”) – savory filling wrapped inside unleavened dough, which can be steamed or boiled. Typically, boiled dumplings are smaller, firmer, and take more effort to make. This is why you almost always see steamed dumplings in Chinese restaurants rather than boiled.
Pot Stickers – again, most Chinese restaurants just take regular dumplings and deep fry them, but real pot stickers are pan-fried only on the bottom side. After the brief pan-frying, the cook will add a small amount of slurry to the pan and cover it to steam the dumplings. Usually the pot sticker dumplings aren’t fully sealed to allow steam to get inside, so they typically look like elongated dumplings. The slurry will eventually dry up and caramelize into a crispy crust, hence the name “pot sticker”.
Stuffed Buns (“Bao Zi”) – similar as steamed dumplings, except the wrappers are leavened.
Soup Dumplings (“Xiao Long Bao”) – steamed dumplings with unleavened wrapper, and chopped gelatinized broth is added to the filling, which will melt and turn into mouth-watering Jus.
Pan-fried Buns – Stuffed buns cooked the same way as pot stickers. Some versions also include gelatinized broth, such as Shanghai pan-fried buns.
Wontons – The wrapper is a thin, square sheet, and it’s wrapped loosely around a small amount of filling. Once boiled, wontons can be added to soup or noodle soup, or mixed with sauce and seasoning as an appetizer.
Shumai – Very similar to steamed dumplings, except the wrapper is thinner and more delicate, and not sealed all the way. In the North there’s different type of Shumai, which has thick, unleavened wrapper and contains sticky rice in the filling.
Bao – A Taiwanese slider sandwich consisted of a steamed bread and a slice of braised pork belly.
Yuan Xiao (rice dumplings) – a seasonal dessert, usually in the form of a sticky rice ball with sweet filling. The rice balls are boiled and served with the cooking liquid.
Buns and Dumplings Restaurant Guide
While you can find steamed or fried dumplings at pretty much every Chinese restaurant, they are usually mass-produced in some factory and shipped over in refrigerated trucks. If you want authentic dumplings made in-house, there are just a handful of restaurants worth checking out. Just keep in mind that hand-made dumplings are a little more pricey due to intensive labor – around one dollar each.
First of all, I wrote a guide on Xiao Long Bao in Dallas which will give you a general idea on where to find them and the quality you can expect. Xiao Long Bao has become real trend lately and everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon. I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of years later, frozen manufactured XLB becomes a staple in Chinese restaurants. Let’s hope bad money doesn’t drive out the good. But for now, the best I have had is from Fortune House. My blog post about Fortune House also has an introduction of Shanghai cuisine, which I decided not to write about as a separate chapter due to its limited presence in Dallas.
Dragon House in Southlake is the original owner of Fortune House – they are the OG of XLB here in Dallas. It’s a bit far from most of us here, but totally worth the drive if you have the opportunity!
In one of the posts I mentioned my visit to Jeng Chi, a restaurant with a big focus on dumplings. In addition to Xiao Long Bao, they also offer boiled dumplings, which tasted pretty close to what I made at home.
Dumpling House in Plano has recently expanded their menu. They now offer twelve kinds of dumplings and six kinds of stuffed buns – it’s a heaven for dumpling lovers! Don’t over-look menu item D12 – you don’t want to miss any hand-made boiled dumplings! I would recommend each person to order a soup, such as Hot & Sour, Egg Drop, or a porridge to go with the dumplings. Oh, I almost forgot to mention – they sell house-made dumplings in frozen form too, so you can grab some for next day’s lunch.
Original Taste Restaurant right between Plano and Frisco, which I covered in the Capital Cuisine section, is also known for their pan-fried buns with three choices of fillings. One of their fried dumplings has pork and fennel filling – something I grew up with and have never seen in a restaurant in the US. If you live close-by, don’t miss it!
Ma Shi Fu Noodles from the Northwestern Cuisine section has recently added two dumplings in their menu: the pork pot sticker and Xiao Long Bao. Their pot stickers are pretty authentic in the way they are wrapped and cooked, and taste great too.
If you like Taiwanese Bao sandwiches, check out Enter The Bao in Legacy Hall. They are all about the Bao, with different varieties like pork belly, beef and chicken. It’s a great place for a quick bite to satisfy your Bao cravings.
Finally, as far as Yuan Xiao goes, I don’t know of any restaurants here that serve it. But you can easily find them in Asian supermarkets in the freezers. They are extremely easy to cook. Just bring a pot of water to a boil, drop the rice balls while frozen and just boil until they float. You want to stir occasionally to prevent sticking. Once done, ladle them into the bowl along with the cooking liquid and serve.
Hot Pot – Let off Some Steam!
In many parts of China, including my hometown, hot pot is the ultimate celebration dinner for special occasions or just having a good day. It’s interactive, easy to prepare, and also a perfect counter against the cold winter. The idea of hot pot is basically eating while cooking. A variety of bite-sized raw ingredients are arranged around a boiling pot of liquid, and everyone can pick up whatever he wants with chopsticks and “rinse” the food in the pot to cook briefly. There’s usually a dipping sauce to further season the food before taking a bite.
Eating hot pot is a nation-wide custom with large variations depending on geographical locations. I would say there are three major styles of hot pot based on the type of cooking liquid.
Beijing Style Hot Pot
First up is the plain water hot pot, also known as Beijing hot pot. It’s most popular in northern China, and I grew up with it too. Traditionally it’s served in a special brass charcoal stove with an integrated pot. The stove has a short chimney in the center and a vent at the bottom to control the rate of burning. Due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from the charcoal, brass hotpots are mostly banned in public restaurants, replaced by gas, ethanol, or electric burners. However, there are really no good substitutes for them, because charcoal can keep a whole pot of water boiling for hours, and the water temperature is essential to achieving the best taste of the ingredients. Besides, the fragrance of burning charcoal adds so much festivity to the dinner which is not possible with smokeless heat sources.
Beijing hot pot is extremely simplistic. The pot contains nothing but water, maybe some slices of scallions and ginter, but that’s it. There are only three or four main ingredients: sliced lamb, Napa cabbage, fresh tofu, and sometimes cellophane noodles. For the dipping sauce, it’s always the standard mixture of sesame paste, fermented chive flowers, and the juice from canned fermented tofu. As with any simplistic dishes, the quality of the ingredients is paramount. Ideally, as the star of the meal, the lamb should be hand-sliced and never frozen, and only certain parts of a sheep make good use for hot pot.
Seasoned Hot Pot
Secondly, we have what I like to call “seasoned broth” hot pot. The cooking broth is heavily seasoned so that during the few seconds of “rinsing”, enough flavor is incorporated into the ingredients. There may be no dipping sauce or simply a small plate of seasoned oil to “round up” the taste. Classic examples are Mongolian hot pot, whose broth has a central-Asian flavor profile characterized by chili powder and cumin, and Sichuan hot pot originated from Chong Qing, which is an entirely different beast.
Sichuan hot pot is all about the tallow, or beef fat. To make a really tasty Sichuan broth base, the rendered tallow must be infused with spices like Sichuan pepper corn, hot chili, ginger, and various exotic herbs. Then, you combine the seasoned fat with a broth containing fermented beans and even more chili, often in a 3:7 ratio, and serve in a hot pot. After each meal, the tallow is supposed to be recovered and used again for the next one, and over time it will develop a complex taste and aroma so strong that you can tell when a person has just had a Sichuan hot pot. This type of hot pot is not for everyone. Sure, it’s spicy, but all the medicinal herbs will make you feel like having a pizza oven inside your body.
Cantonese Style Hot Pot
In comparison, Cantonese style hot pot is much easier to enjoy. The broth is seasoned but not heavily. It’s all about the savory, rich bone or fish stock simmering for hours. Fresh chicken, pork, and seafood only need a moment of hot bath in the stock to soak up the flavor. Once all the ingredients are done cooking, the broth becomes a delicious soup to complete the dinner. You can’t do this with plain water or seasoned broth since they are too salty, but with Cantonese hot pot it’s perfectly fine. There is even a variation where the broth is a thin pork bone congee with the rice removed, which gives the cooked ingredients a smooth, velvety quality. The rice can come back later to finish the meal.
Modern Hot Pot
Finally, a new school of hot pot emerged in restaurants in the past few decades, which boasted innovative broth flavors like Tom Yum, tomato, and mushroom. These restaurants often feature a self-serving bar of sauces and minced herbs for diners to build their own dipping sauce.
Hot Pot Restaurant Guide
When you visit traditional Cantonese restaurants in Dallas, some of them have “hot pot” in the menu. These are not the ones where you can cook as you eat, but rather just a pot of stew with a small heat source to keep warm. You’ll also not going to find authentic Beijing hot pot since lamb is scarce and there’s just not much profit to be made with this style. It doesn’t mean you can’t easily set it up at home, which I’ll cover in a bit.
We do, however, have a few new school hot pot restaurants, not counting the Korean or Japanese Shabu-Shabu. Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot in Plano and Grand Prairie offer their signature red and white soup base, just order the cooking ingredients from a sheet and you’re good to go. You may also find the same packaged soup base from any Chinese supermarket, if you prefer D.I.Y.
Zhabuki is a destination for dinner and late-night after-parties. The hot pot menu items come in tiny personal-size portions, so be sure to order a lot to feed a party. Personally I didn’t have a great experience there due to the kitchen messing up the hot pot order. There were just too many orders to keep track of since the serving was so small.
If you have a big appetite and want to try all-you-can-eat hot pot, visit Shabro Shabu Shabu in Carrollton. Even though it’s mainly Japanese-Korean fusion, they do offer a Chinese style soup base. The meat portions are more hefty and generous than other places despite being a buffet, so I would recommend you to give it a try.
Squares Hot Pot on Spring Creek Pkwy and Coit is one of those new school hot pot places with a big selection of soup base and a self-serving sauce bar. The name of the restaurant, “Squares”, refers to the original cooking vessel of Sichuan hot pot, which is a shallow pot with a nine-compartment metal divider. Each hot pot is shared by eight diners around the table, one compartment per diner. What’s the point of the ninth compartment in the center then? That’s where all the whole spices will stay so you don’t accidentally eat them. This nine-compartment setup is available here upon request.
For the heat seekers, Sichuan Folk on Parker and K Ave offers a hidden Sichuan hot pot menu, but that’s nowhere near as spicy as the House Hellishly Spicy Pot from Chubby Cattle in Park Pavilion. Think you got what it takes to be a Sichuanese?
Enjoying Hot Pot at Home
Now, you want to brave a Beijing style hot pot at home this weekend? It’s actually more do-able than you think. First, you’ll need a heat source that’s safe to use on a dinner table. I use an electrical hotplate which doesn’t generate carbon monoxide. It does take a while to bring a pot of water to boil, so I do the initial heating on a regular stove. All you need to add into the pot is plain water plus a few slices of scallions and ginger, and if you want to be a little more adventurous, one star anise seed and some goji berries.
You can find thinly sliced lamb in the frozen isles of any Chinese supermarket, such as 99 Ranch, zTAO, Jusgo, or Good Fortune. Some of them come in rolled form which makes it very easy to just serve frozen, but if it’s just a frozen stack of meat, you’ll need to thaw it first. While you are at it, don’t forget to grab some Napa cabbage and fresh tofu!
For the sauce, you’ll need three basic components: sesame paste, fermented chive flowers, and fermented tofu. See pictures below – just ask the Chinese supermarket staff to help you find them! To assemble the dipping sauce, there’s not really any set formula – it all depends on your personal preference. You can start off with equal part of each, then taste and adjust as you like.
Once you have a nice boiling pot of cooking liquid going, snatch a slice of lamb with chopsticks and “rinse” it in the hot water for about five to ten seconds, depending on how thick the slice is. Do not let go of it or you’ll have a hard time find it in the boiling water! Then dip lightly in the sauce and enjoy. You may substitute lamb with thinly sliced beef ribeye if you can find it, but if you choose chicken, make sure to cook it thoroughly to avoid food-born illness.
Chinese Kebabs – Mediterranean Flavor with Asian Twist
As a child, I always saw those foreign-looking men wearing little colorful hats on the streets of my home town. They stood behind small grills, fanning the charcoal smoke while chanting in some undecipherable language. The grills were long and rectangular, just wide enough to let skewers of lamb rest on it. The smoke from the burning charcoal mixed with the fragrance of charred lamb always got me salivating. Occasionally my parents would buy one for me to snack on. Unlike the hefty chunks of meat on Turkish Shish Kebabs, these skewers were much smaller bite-size pieces. The only seasoning was the small boxes of salt, cumin powder and cayenne pepper hanging off of the grills, which are to be sprinkled onto the cooked meat upon request.
These street vendors were the Uyghurs from Xinjiang province(meaning “new territory” in Chinese), a huge region of grasslands and deserts that shares border with Central Asian countries like Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Naturally, the diet of Xinjiang is heavily influenced by Central and West Asia. Guess what those lamb skewers are called in the Uyghur language? “Kawap” – just like “Kebab”. Uyghur kebabs are actually very different from the ones I saw growing up. They pinned large chunks of lamb through the red branches of salt cedar, a plant prized for its distinct fragrance, and grilled them over coal pit on the ground. Remember how Alton Brown built his kebab grill with bricks? Just like that.
When the Uyghur immigrants came to eastern China in the past few decades, they brought their favorite Kawap to the streets. For the sake of mobility, the traditional Turkish coal pits was replaced with waist-high metal grills. They also reduced the size of the meat on the skewers to lower cost and shorten cooking time. The locals quickly picked up this new cooking style and invented the “Northeastern BBQ”. The main difference is the seasoning – instead of sprinkling powders, a “BBQ sauce” is brushed over the skewers during and after grilling. In addition to lamb, Northeastern BBQ also includes various offal meat, sausages, chicken wings, green beans, Chinese chives (Nira), and even steamed bread. Or I should say, anything that cooks relatively quickly can be Q-ed and sauced. Each BBQ shop boasts their own secret seasoning sauce, which in general contains oil, vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, and various spices like cumin, five-spice powder, and chili.
Chinese Kebab Restaurant Guide
There was no Chinese BBQ here in Dallas until the last couple of years. If I wasn’t mistaken, the first restaurant to open was Focus BBQ in Spring Creek Crossing, followed by Fat Ni BBQ and then See You Again Kabob Bar. Their range of BBQ items and seasoning are pretty close to one another, but each restaurant has its own unique side dishes. Focus BBQ had a roasted eggplant with garlic sauce, which reminded me of Baba Ganoush, but with whole eggplant rather than mashed up. They also offer some Xinjiang dishes like spicy braised chicken with belt noodles. See You Again Kabob stays true to the Northeastern Chinese BBQ style. They have a few popular “fads” like stir-fried instant ramen (you have to try it!) and pig brain stew. Finally, Fat Ni BBQ emphasizes Northwestern Chinese influences like lamb noodle soup and wheat starch noodles. If you ask me, I think my favorite would be Fat Ni because I liked the Northwestern side dishes.
If you plan to visit any of these restaurants, keep in mind that they are not great with services. They will come and take your order but never check back to see if you need anything else. That’s just how Chinese BBQ culture is – it’s all about the food and you are expected to take care of other needs yourself. For me, I just walked up to the register and let them know when I needed something, and they would be happy to assist.
Bonus Round! What Is “Marinaded XYZ”?
Sometimes when you visit Cantonese or Taiwanese restaurants, you’ll see items in the appetizer menu like “Marinaded Chicken”, “Marinaded Pig Ears”, “Braised Pork”, or “Marinaded Beef”. So what are they?
“Marination” is a rather unique cooking method from China, mostly applying to meats, offal, eggs, and sometimes tough vegetables like kelp. It’s really hard to find the most appropriate translation, but I guess “Marination” works good enough. It’s not just taking a piece of raw meat, marinade it and serve. It consists of two major steps. First, the main ingredient is braised in a “master stock” that provides all the seasoning needed for flavor. Once cooked through, the food is left to soak in the master stock to settle, cure, and absorb flavor.
The seasoning in the master stock is what makes Chinese marinaded dishes taste so different. Similar to Indian Masala mix, marination seasoning contains dozens of herbs and spices, some of which are also utilized in Chinese herbal medicine. There are so many possible combinations that the exact content and proportion of spice mixture are usually trade secrets. The achieved complex flavor profile is beyond any human language’s capability to describe. The only thing I can say is that when I let my Muslim boss taste my marinaded beef (I swear it was beef), he said it was one of the best meats he ever had!
After cooking each batch of marinaded meats, the master stock is filtered and preserved in the freezer for the next time. For each cooking session, you only need to add extra water, salt, and a little more seasoning to keep the intensity going, but over time the stock will taste better and better, with the sharp edges rounded, and all the flavors from different spices mingled and melded.
So next time when you see marinaded meats in a Chinese restaurant menu, just give it a try! From my experience, our restaurants tend to make their recipe very mild, so you won’t be startled by strong spices. As for me, I prefer stronger tastes with marinaded meats, so I always make it at home.
Wrapping It Up
Dear readers, I would like to thank you for staying with me throughout this whole journey! I hope you enjoyed the ride, maybe learned something new, or maybe I got you hungry and craving for some Chinese food! Unfortunately, not all of the Chinese dishes I mentioned in this series can be found in Dallas’s restaurants right now, but who says they won’t be in the future? Just a few years ago I wouldn’t have thought there would be Chinese kebab bars all over Plano. For now, I think it would be a good idea to index all of the restaurants for your convenience, so here you go:
My Canh – Cantonese cuisine, Richardson
Garden Restaurant – Cantonese cuisine, Richardson
Kirin Court – Cantonese cuisine, Richardson
Canton Chinese Restaurant – Cantonese cuisine, Richardson
First Chinese BBQ – Cantonese cuisine, Richardson/Plano
Little Kaiping Cantonese BBQ – Cantonese cuisine, northeast Richardson
Royal Sichuan – Sichuan cuisine, Richardson
Sichuan King – Sichuan cuisine, Richardson
Sichuan Folk – Sichuan cuisine and hot pot, Plano
Sichuanese Cuisine Restaurant – Sichuan cuisine, Plano
Imperial Cuisine – Sichuan cuisine, Richardson
Hunan Taste – Hunan/Northeast cuisine, Plano
Hunan Bistro – Hunan cuisine, Plano
Xi’an Yummy Foods – Northwest cuisine, Plano
Morefan – Northwest cuisine, Plano
Royal China – Northwest cuisine, Dallas
Taiwan Cafe/Ma Shifu Noodles – Northwest cuisine, Richardson
Beijing Brothers – Beijing cuisine, Coppell
Mr. Wok – Beijing cuisine, Plano
Original Taste Restaurant – Tianjin and northern Chinese cuisine, Plano
North Town Chinese Kitchen – Tianjin and northern Chinese cuisine, Plano
Taipei Station Cafe – Taiwanese cuisine, Plano
Noodle House – Taiwanese cuisine, Plano
Taiwan Cafe – Taiwanese cuisine, Plano
Wu Wei Din – Taiwanese noodle and Xiao Long Bao, Plano
Bull Daddy Noodle Bistro – Taiwanese beef noodle soup, Plano
King’s Noodle – Taiwanese noodle, Richardson
Fortune House – Shanghai cuisine and Xiao Long Bao, Irving
Dragon House – Shanghai cuisine and Xiao Long Bao, Southlake
Jeng Chi – Dumplings and Taiwanese cuisine, Richardson
Dumpling House – Dumplings and buns, Plano
Enter The Bao – Taiwanese Bao sandwich, Plano
Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot – Hot pot, Plano
Zhabuk – Hot pot, Plano
Shabro Shabu Shabu – Hot pot, Carrollton
Squares Hot Pot – Hot pot, Plano
Chubby Cattle – Spicy hot pot, Plano
Focus BBQ – Kebabs, Plano
Fat Ni BBQ – Kebabs, Plano
See You Again Kabob Bar – Kebabs, Plano