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Authentic Chinese Food Guide, Part 2
Authentic Chinese Food Guide, Part 3
What Is Authentic Chinese Food?
A friend once asked me where he could find authentic Chinese restaurants. I get this a lot, but I always had a hard time answering the question. The definition of “authenticity” is different for everyone, depending on past experiences and whether the emphasis is on ingredients or techniques. I was about to give him a snarky answer: “in China”, but then I changed my mind, so I said: “where you can find authentic Chinese people.”
Still a bit snarky, I know. But the thing is, the restaurant itself is only half of the dining scene. The diners, whose preference and understanding of the food defines what the restaurants are willing to cook, are equally important. Certainly, no restaurants would want to sell something that nobody wants to buy. So if the diners know what authentic Chinese food should be, and there is a lot of demand for it, then the restaurants will gladly provide it. On the contrary, if the diners prefer something that satisfies them but not necessarily authentic, the restaurants will give them that too. Sadly, this is happening a lot right now, even in China.
So, where can we find authentic Chinese food in DFW? I could just make a list of all my favorite places, but hear me out: the biggest challenge with exploring Chinese restaurants (even for me sometimes) is that every menu has a ton of items, usually a mix of Americanized dishes, “chef’s specials”, and a few authentic ones. From my experience, if I wasn’t familiar with the background of the cuisine served in the restaurant, I would have a hard time ordering the right dishes for the most authentic experience. So, it seems like we have some homework to do before heading out. Let’s get to it!
What is Chinese cuisine really like? Well, for starters, it’s very regional, like Italy in some ways. Different regions have access to different types of ingredients and the cooking style depends heavily on local climates, trades, and life style.
Many of us have heard of the Eight Great Cuisines: Lu, Chuan, Yue, Su, Min, Hui, Xiang, Zhe – each being the unique cooking style corresponding to one of the eight provinces. This official recognition had settled only about half a century ago, so it mostly represents the state of the art during the early 1900’s. Today, though, with advancement in technology and transportation, along with changes in lifestyle, some cuisines saw great expansion while others slowly slipped into history.
Out of these official styles, only Chuan (Sichuan) and Yue (Cantonese) cuisine still hold some grounds in Dallas, with the majority of the restaurants in Richardson and Plano. Before diving into them, there’s something interesting I’d like to share. Take a look at this map:
The colored regions in the map are the eight provinces known for the eight cuisines. You can see they make up only about a quarter of China. What about the rest of the country? Do they not eat then? Why are they not part of the “Great Cuisines” list? Well, it mainly has to do with one thing: influence. It’s like marketing: you can’t just have good food and expect everyone to hype about it. The “marketers” for the local cuisines are the educated literati, rich merchants, and influential government officials, who would travel to other parts of the country with their personal chefs, and share their best dishes with other equally influential people. It’s interesting how six out of the eight colored regions are around the coastline – these are the most economically advanced areas with the highest concentration of population.
Unfortunately, the influence didn’t quite reach many parts of America, and most of us are stuck with the standardized General Tso’s Chicken (which I think is very tasty nonetheless, if done right). In Dallas, though, with the recent growth of Chinese communities, a lot of young, frequent diners who really know their food have moved in. This poses a great business opportunity, so many restaurants began serving authentic Chinese dishes. In this guide I will go over a few regional styles I was able to find in the metroplex, and hopefully it’ll help you find the most authentic dining experience.
Cantonese (Yue) Cuisine – Respect for The Food
I’ve heard from many people that there’s no real Cantonese food outside Guangdong province. It’s quite true in a way, because Cantonese cuisine relies heavily on the quality of the ingredients – especially the local ones. There’s a saying in Guangdong which accurately describes the philosophy behind Cantonese cuisine:
Chicken should taste like chicken, and fish should taste like fish.
Well, duh? Actually, in the postmodern world our food is often mass produced, fast grown, or even genetically modified. A lot of ingredients we have today no longer possess the same concentrated flavors as they did back then. For example, the chicken breast I had as a child was more dense and chewy with some poultry gaminess. Today, the chicken breast just tastes like whatever seasoning I put on it, and if I happen to under-season then it just wouldn’t taste much like anything.
Anyways, what the Cantonese chefs were saying is that the cooking process should not mask the intrinsic flavor of the ingredients, but rather to enhance it. This is not a new concept by any means and even in the US, the best steaks are seasoned with nothing but salt. However, the incredible part comes when a Cantonese chef heavily seasons the ingredients (if so desired) and they still retain the natural flavor! To me, the respect for the ingredients and the ability to manipulate them at will without sacrificing the original taste, are what distinguish Cantonese cuisine from the rest.
Cantonese cuisine consists of three sub-styles:
Guangzhou Style, originated from the capitol city of Guangdong province, specializes mainly in poultry dishes. It’s best known to be very picky with selecting ingredients and the ability to transform anything that’s edible into delicacies. For the most part, it’s responsible for the reputation of Cantonese cuisine to the rest of the country. The famous Dim Sum also originated there and was further extended in Hong Kong, where Western pastries are incorporated to better satisfy Hong Kong’s more diverse appetite. One of the simplest (but not easy to cook) and representative dish is steamed chicken. The small, young chicken is quickly boiled in lightly seasoned stock and then left to poach, before chopped into segments and served with a ginger-scallion sauce. The quick cooking process (but more importantly, the high quality meat) make the chicken tender, juicy and taste a lot like chicken (of course).
The mountainous region in the northeast part of Guangdong province is home to the Hakka people, a branch of the dominant Han ethnicity. It’s not easy to live in the mountains. The landscape is hilly everywhere, which makes farming activities very draining. To compensate for the lost calories and electrolytes, Hakka dishes traditionally tends to be high in fat and salt, but luckily they have been adjusted into healthier versions in restaurants. Hakka people also love to stuff meat into vegetables, such as stuffed bitter melons, stuffed tofu, stuffed chili peppers, and even stuffed eggplants. I have only had the opportunity to try two Hakka dishes: “Salt-Baked Chicken”, and “steamed pork belly with cured mustard greens”, both employ unique cooking techniques not shared by other parts of China.
If you have friends from Guangdong province who are really into seafood and the “Shacha sauce“, chances are they grew up with the Teoswa cuisine (also known as Chaoshan cuisine). Teoswa food is easily the most lavish, expensive, and extraordinary in Guangdong or even across the entire China. The Chaoshan region is located right on the coast of South China Sea, and is historically a central hub for fishing, commerce and transportation. With the abundance of seafood and produce, the locals were able to go all out with their creativity, using only the best ingredients. It’s a luxury we Dallasites can only dream of. To me, this style of cooking is only feasible in its original location and not anywhere else on Earth!
Cantonese Cuisine Restaurant Guide
We do have quite a few restaurants where Cantonese food is served, mostly around south Richardson where a large Cantonese and Vietnamese population resides. In fact, I’m quite familiar with them since for the past decade we have been dining at these places frequently during special occasions. They share very similar menus, but I will point out some unique offers by each restaurant.
My Canh: Located at the intersection of Plano Rd and Walnut St. They serve a variety of hotpot (fish, oyster, lamb, tofu and vegetables, with actual flame under the pot) and is also famous for their stir-fried beef flat noodles and roast duck. One time I ordered their steamed chicken with ginger and scallion sauce, and it was very well made.
Garden Restaurant: Located at the intersection of Jupiter Rd and Walnut St. They are best known for all-day Dim Sum, but one dish I haven’t seen anywhere else is the Hakka style “Salt-Baked Chicken”. They managed to give the chicken a smooth, crispy texture and I loved the spices used to season it.
Kirin Court: Located at the intersection of Polk St and Sherman St. It offers the most extensive Dim Sum selection out of all the places I have tried. However, the price tends to be higher than other Cantonese restaurants. For a full Dim Sum-only meal, expect to spend $15-20 per adult.
Canton Chinese Restaurant: Located in the DFW China Town on Greenville Ave. This is a simple, all-around Cantonese eatery with good execution and consistent quality for decades. Though it doesn’t offer any house specialties that stand out from others it’s a reliable, risk-free place to start if you plan to explore Cantonese cuisine.
First Chinese BBQ: They have three locations in Richardson and Plano. Their specialty is Char Siu, roast duck, roasted pork belly (similar to the Lechon), and various braised/marinaded meats. The dining areas of these locations are small and most people order takeout. We usually order their roasted or marinaded meats as center piece for our holiday dinners.
For folks from Murphy, Wylie and Allen, there’s a new restaurant on Renner Rd and North Star Road that was opened a couple of years ago. Little Kaiping Cantonese BBQ offers one of the best roast duck I have had. However, be careful with the check since they automatically charge tips for parties larger than 6.
Sichuan (Chuan) Cuisine – Satisfying Your Sensation
Sichuan cuisine, sometimes spelled as Szechuan or Szechwan, has been quite a phenomenon. It’s known for bold flavors, apt use of spice and oil, and it offers a great variety of dishes with distinct flavor profiles. This cooking style was developed under the humid, mountainous climates of the Sichuan Basin, where large amounts of spice and chili can help battling the cold and the lack of sunlight.
In recent years Sichuan cuisine had enjoyed a boom both inside and outside China. However, I don’t always see it as a good thing. A lot of people enjoy Sichuan food because it’s just so darn flavorful from all the heavy seasoning. Unfortunately it also means that the original taste of the ingredients are masked, and some restaurants even take advantage of it and sneak in low quality ingredients. Also, since it’s so convenient and cheap to create different dishes using the same seasoning and sauces and just swap out the main ingredient, Sichuan cuisine in many places has reduced to a handful of “signature” dishes, while many original delicacies are left out of the menu. For example, people often equate Sichuan cuisine with “Ma-La”, meaning spicy and “numbing” (from Sichuan pepercorn). But this style only makes up a third of all the dishes from Sichuan. There are three main culinary factions in Sichuan, each with a unique cooking style:
“Upper River” Style
These are the “Haute Cuisine” of Sichuan. Selection of ingredients, flavor profile, and cooking techniques are carefully designed and strictly follow traditions. The dishes are milder in taste and emphasize visual presentation. Alton Brown once cooked “Ants in Trees” in one of his Good Eats episodes, which is one of the “Upper River” style dish. Another famous dish from this style, which you may have tried already, is “Kung Pao Chicken”. Note that these concoctions are rarely spicy.
“Lower River” Style
These are the “peasant dishes” of Sichuan, often enjoyed by dock workers after a day of hard work. The dishes tend to be very rustic, featuring bold flavors like spicy, fragrant (mainly from Maillard reactions during a popular technique called “dry-frying”) and sometimes sour. Imagine washing down a plate of Buffalo wings with cold beer on a Friday night – that would be an apt analogy of “Lower River” style food. One typical dish is “Chicken with Chili”, which is deep fried pieces of chicken tossed in seasoned chili oil. Here’s a picture of my personal execution of it:
“Salt Mine” Style
Historically, salt has always been a hot commodity no matter where you go. Those who controlled the production of salt possessed power and wealth. The Zigong city of southeast Sichuan had a rich salt reserve, and the equally rich salt merchants crowding the city developed their own cooking style to accommodate the lavish life style. Unsatisfied with traditional, “boring” dishes, they revised cooking techniques, making them even more bold, more spicy, more numbing, more shocking to the senses, and incorporated unusual ingredients like frogs and rabbits. Most of these dishes are so peculiar that most people outside the province never even heard of them, with a few exception such as fish, pork or beef smothered in hot chili oil. The well-known “Ma-La” flavor is also originated from this cooking style, achieved by using a large quantity of dried red chili peppers in combination with Sichuan peppercorn and cooking wine.
Sichuan Cuisine Restaurant Guide
There are a good number of Sichuan-focused restaurants in Plano and Richardson, and some non-specialty restaurants also offer a few Sichuan dishes. The challenge really comes down to recognizing the actual Sichuan dishes on the menu among all the “filler” items. Try to look for names similar to these:
If you see most of these items in a Sichuan restaurant, chances are they also offer many other authentic dishes. So if you want to be more adventurous, don’t be shy – just ask the staff for recommendations. A few notable places to start:
Royal Sichuan, DFW China Town (N Greenville Ave, Apollo Rd)
Sichuan King, situated right next to Royal Sichuan
Sichuan Folk, H Mart Town Center (K Ave, Parker Rd)
Sichuanese Cuisine Restaurant, Sprint Creek Crossing (75 and Sprint Creek Pkwy)
Imperial Cuisine, 101 S Coit Rd, Richardson (Check out their dumplings menu too!)
Noodle China is great place to sample Chongqing cold noodles, a favorite breakfast and lunch item from Sichuan.
What About Hunan Cuisine?
After reading this section, you might think Sichuan food must be super spicy. However, compared to Hunan, a province east of Sichuan, Sichuan’s spice level is nothing. People of Hunan are true Capsi-vores who seek and enjoy the hottest peppers available. They are known for transforming ordinary chili into various seasoning agents for different dishes. For example, fresh hot chili can be pickled to provide a “hot and sour” taste to the dish; frying crushed pepper flakes in oil and spices yields a great condiment for salads and dumplings; chop the chili up and mix with salt before pickling, and you’ll get a “salty and spicy” paste that pairs well with fish.
Remember “General Tso’s Chicken”? General Tso is a beloved Hunanese, though he didn’t invent this dish (the Taiwanese did), those little pieces of chopped chili in the final sauce is inspired by Hunanese chili condiments. Unfortunately, due to the heat level, authentic Hunan cuisine is not for everyone. But if you decide to give it a go, try these two restaurants below. Any other restaurants labeled as “Hunan” are not actual Hunan food, since the Chinese customer base with such heat tolerance is pretty limited.
Northeastern Cuisine – Rustic Cooking, Sophisticated Taste
We all know about Beijing, the ancient capitol city right under the Great Wall. Let’s head north a bit across the Great Wall. What’s over there? Well, the Mongolian Grassland is just under 200 miles away, not much going on there. Fine, lets take a right-turn and head northeast. Pretty soon we would enter the three provinces referred to by the Japanese as “Manchuria” for the past few centuries. For most westerners, or even many Chinese, this enormous region between Zhongyuan (the central plains of China) and Russia is like Alice’s wonderland. Little about the local culture had been reflected in western pop cultures, and very few restaurants outside China serve their cuisines. Seriously, when was the last time you heard about pork stew with yam noodles?
Many people including myself have looked at a Northeastern style menu and wondered how come everything sounds like a rustic stew dish. I think once we consider the local climates and lifestyle, then everything would make sense. First of all, the Northeast is incredibly cold. It’s difficult for us Texans to fathom how cold it is in winter over there: we are talking about ice crystals forming on your eyelash kind of cold. Naturally, people need a lot of nourishment to stay warm while farming and hunting. It also didn’t help that the Northeastern natives are often tall and well built, which requires even more food. In order to feed a whole family with such big appetites, you’ll need a cooking vessel like this:
Obviously, making stews is the most convenient way to cook up a large dinner within reasonable time. But it doesn’t mean the locals aren’t creative. Who else would have thought of cooking the meat, vegetables and starch all together in the same pot?
Despite the cold climate, the Northeast is home to a tremendous variety of plants and wildlife. I’d say that the cold climate actually helped preserving the diversity by discouraging human settlement. The natives had lived on this land in great harmony with nature, and the diet clearly reflects that. For example, one well-known dish is young chicken stewed with wild mushrooms, a perfect marriage between domestication and hunter-gatherer lifestyles.
Farming is only viable for half of the months each year. To prepare for the long winter, the fresh produce from summer must be preserved through sun-drying, pickling, brining, and freezing (free refrigeration from Mother Nature!). It’s a process every rural family would start before end of summer, and they’ll be able to enjoy over a dozen different types of vegetables and fruits for the rest of the year. Out of those, pickled napa cabbages is a major player in Northeastern dishes throughout the year. They are very similar to the Korean Kim Chi, but without the red chili and can be a lot more sour. They can be cooked with pork, fish, noodles, or even inside dumplings.
Just like Japan’s Miso and Korea’s Doenjang, Northeastern Chinese cuisine has its own version of soy paste. Meet the “Dajiang”, fermented soy beans that are mixed with water and salt, and then fermented again in open air. The end product is more runny than Japanese or Korean soy paste, ideal for eating as a dip with sliced vegetables. The Dajiang is also an important seasoning for many Northeastern dishes, like this braised pork bones (with meat attached, of course):
Northeast Cuisine Restaurant Guide
We used to have two restaurants in Plano that served authentic Northeastern Chinese food: North China and Bei Wei (not to be confused with Pei Wei). Unfortunately, Bei Wei closed down in 2018. Around the same time, North China was acquired by another owner, and the name was changed to “Hunan Taste“. I only had the opportunity to visit North China twice before that happened. I still remember the grilled lamb skewers that we loved, the delicious hand-made boiled dumplings, and how the staff told me that I seemed to know real Chinese food. It was a shame that most of the Northeast dishes were taken down from the menu. However, Hunan Taste still kept the “Northeast Dishes” section on the menu, and there are a handful of authentic items I still recognize:
“Northern Style Vegetables” – it’s basically potatoes, eggplant and green bell peppers deep fried and tossed in a thickened sauce. Soy sauce contributes the most to its flavor profile. It sounds very simple, but I guarantee that you’ll fall in love with it the first time – the combination of these three vegetables together works incredibly well.
“Stewed Pork with Rice Strip” – I haven’t tried this before, but the original dish is supposed to use yam starch strips instead of rice noodle. However, if they can get the texture right, I guess it should be fine. The idea is to stew pork belly and then add the starch noodles to soak up all the flavor.
“Stewed Chicken with Mushroom” – an expert play with umami science. Chicken contains inosinate and mushroom contains glutamate – both individually contribute to our taste of umami. But when they are mixed together, the umami multiplies and goes right through the roof! I’ll just leave it as that.
“Stewed Pork Ribs with String Bean” – it’s a very simple dish, just braised ribs with green beans added near the end, but for some reason the combination of pork and green beans is just so damn tasty. When I was a kid, my dad used to cook a similar dish, but with shredded pork instead of ribs. I went crazy about it every time.
“Double Cooked Pork” – not to be confused with the Sichuanese “twice-cooked pork”! This one is actually very similar to the sweet-and-sour pork, except that the meat is cut into slices rather than strips. The pork is first deep fried until golden brown and crispy, and then tossed in a vinegar and sugar sauce.
Hey, I’m very proud of you for reading all the way through this post! So I’ll let you take a break now, and I hope you have enjoyed the journey so far. In the next post, I will cover a few more topics:
- Northwest Cuisine
- Capital Cuisine
- Taiwanese Cuisine