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Feel the Heat with Authentic Sichuan at China Garden
Even in New York, this place would be famous. The minute the first foodie walked through the restaurant’s door and reached for his iPhone, the Chowhound message boards would be buzzing. People would travel an hour each way on the subway just to eat there. China Garden has dishes on the menu that you just can’t get in New York, dishes that are rare even in Vancouver (which is perhaps home to the finest Chinese restaurants outside China). I ate one of these dishes last night, a famous Sichuan soup that made my taste buds tingle and set my stomach on fire. (It’s still burning!)
There are more restaurants featuring Sichuan (or Szechuan) cuisine than there are people who know how to spell it. Every Chinese takeout in America serves Kung Pao Chicken. But the difference between these restaurants and the real thing is like, well, the difference between New York City barbecue and real barbecue. Sichuan, a verdant, mountainous province, land of rice paddies and fast-flowing rivers just east of Tibet, is China’s most populous province. The stereotype is that the people have fiery tempers and eat fiery food. There’s some truth in that, especially about the food. But “a good Sichuanese meal is not all hot; it’s balanced,” said expert Fuschia Dunlop. “A Sichuanese banquet should have constant stimulation and excitement. You have something hot and then something soothing, then you have a light soup, then something sweet…variety is the spice of life.” Indeed there’s great variety. “Sichuan food is famous for its many flavors, and almost every dish has its own unique taste,” said another author. In other words, the food transcends all stereotypes. One interesting fact about Sichuan cuisine. In eastern China, especially the coastal region from Shandong to Shanghai and Hangzhou, the recipes were developed for aristocrats and have been around for perhaps a thousand years. In Sichuan, they were pungent stews developed by and for humble workers and were invented within the past 200 years. Hot peppers haven’t been around that long in China.
When the first sunrise of the new millenium swept across America, it shone its golden light on three or four authentic Sichuan restaurants in Flushing in New York City and didn’t hit a single one until it reached San Francisco! Within the past few years, three authentic Sichuan restaurants opened in the Dallas metro. Now one has opened in Tulsa. Treasure it.
I read about China Garden in last Thursday’s Tulsa World. Scott ordered things like salt and pepper shrimp and braised pork. “The menu didn’t have any further explanation of the dishes, so we weren’t totally sure what was going to show up.” I looked up the menu on the Internet and found that it did indeed have an explanation of every dish — IN CHINESE! That’s when I got excited. I knew this place just might be the real deal. Especially when one item had no English translation at all. It was listed, in English, as Mao Xue Wang. I’d never heard of it. No surprise. It is a famous Sichuan dish but it is, as far as I know, just not available in the United States, though it has occasionally been sighted in Washington, D.C. and Vancouver. One website in China said the dish was invented in Chongqing 100 years ago. It’s made of duck blood, pork offal, and spices. A lot of spices. The huge city of Chongqing, set on a hill atop rivers like Pittsburgh, is known for dishes even spicier than Chengdu. China Garden has quite a few Chongqing dishes.
So off we went east on 31 Street last Thursday. Stepping inside the restaurant, we noticed quite a few diners despite the early hour. All of them were Chinese. Always a good sign, and one I’ve never seen in Tulsa. Near the kitchen was a blackboard with a few specials written on it in Chinese. I could make out only a few characters, but one of the staff told me they included duck heads and pig’s feet. The staff are pretty fluent in English, and pretty friendly too, especially when I asked for that Mao Xue Wang. That delighted them.
I put the picture on top. The fiery broth was fortified with duck’s blood (made into a pudding and served in slightly tangy cubes), pig’s large intestine cut in slices, ham, tofu, bean sprouts, a lot of diced vegetables, and a ton of chili. I felt the numbing effect of Sichuan peppercorns, a rare spice unavailable in the United States until 8 years ago and not related to the pepper plant. Although this dish didn’t have the subtly layered flavors I’d come to love in New York Sichuan restaurants, it was still darn good. I ate just about everything in the bowl. My stomach burned all night.
The rare authentic stuff is contained in a section of the menu called “Signature Dishes”. I didn’t dare inflict any of them on my friends. For them, I chose tamer stuff, still authentic, from the “House Special” section. Betty got Double Cooked Pork, menu item H2.
This is also a famous Sichuan dish. It features pork belly braised in spices, cut in slices which are then stir-fried. It was delicious! Perhaps the best version of this dish I’ve ever had. Betty thought it was too spicy though. I didn’t find it hot at all. So the owner brought her an American-style version of Kung Pao Chicken that was totally unspiced, and she liked it.
For Cathe, I got Shredded Pork, menu item H4. In Chinese, this is Yu Xiang Rou, another famous Sichuan dish. Yu Xiang means fish fragrance. But there’s no fish in this traditional sauce, which is made from sauteed garlic, ginger and scallions fortified with sugar, bean paste, soy sauce and of course chili.
Again, I thought it was delicious, one of the best versions of this dish I’ve ever had… and I’ve had many. It’s on just about every Chinese menu you’ll find, usually translated as “Garlic Sauce”.
And now I’m home, looking over the Signature Dishes, dreaming. You have to know Chinese to appreciate them. I’ll try my best to translate. The restaurant translation is followed by my explanation.
T1 Watercress fish. No watercress here, this is fish slices in doubanjiang, a spicy sauce made out of 2 kinds of fermented beans. It’s a rich delicious sauce and it’s served over fish slices. They tell me that for $15 you can have it over a whole fish caught near Tulsa by one of their friends. I hope to do just that.
T2 Stir fried Pork. Pork belly stir-fried with lots of peppers. I’ve seen this called “Farmhouse Pork” and some say it originates in Hunan and not Sichuan.
T3 Stir Broth. Pig’s intestines sliced and then stir-fried with peppers
T4 Spicy Fried Cumin Lamb. What it says. This dish was brought from the West by Muslim traders and is now popular in Sichuan and other parts of China.
T5 Spicy Boiled Fish. I described this dish here: http://tulsafood.com/asian/chinese/mandarin-taste-tulsa-is-authentically-hot
T6 Spicy Chicken. That’s what it is. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicken_with_chilies
T7 Mao Xue Wang. That’s what I ate!!
T8 Tofu Pudding Beef. What it says. Beef, tofu cubes floating in a red sauce.
T9 Spicy Boiled Beef. Like T5 but with beef
T10 Sliced Beef in Chili Sauce. Another rare and famous dish I’ve heard about but never tried. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuqi_feipian
T11 Salted chicken. I believe this is plain boiled chicken, which the Chinese do to perfection.
T12 Sichuan style chicken. The name means “saliva chicken” or, more properly, “mouth-watering chicken” It is poached chicken floating in a red spicy fragrant sauce.
T13 Spicy Fried Cumin Beef. Like T4 with beef.
T14 Spicy Shrimp. Like T6 with shrimp
T15 Stir Squid. Like T3 but with squid instead of pig’s intestines.
9720 E 31 Street
Open daily from 11 AM to 9 PM except CLOSED MONDAY
Brian Schwartz: Author
Born in NYC, age 0, on my birthday. College in Oxford at age 16. Law School in New Haven, Conn. 6 years travel in Africa and Asia. Haven’t done much lately. Still, I’m the only Tulsa member of the little-known Omega Society. www.theomegasociety.com
I speak enough Chinese to order food not on any English menu. Spanish French Italian too (not fluently but food-ently) My favorite restaurant is Jean-Georges in New York. But those NYC chefs would sell their soul to get the produce available from the farms around Inola.
“A writer writes alone. His words tumble forth from a magical inner void that is mysterious even to himself, and that no one else can enter.” And yet, the most important thing to me the writer is YOU. Without you to hear them, my words are worth less than silence.