New Asian

The Devil’s Curry, or Diabo, is a very spicy dish served at Fat Rice in Chicago, made in the tradition of Macau and Malaysia, and typically served family-style.
The Devil’s Curry, or Diabo, is a very spicy dish served at Fat Rice in Chicago, made in the tradition of Macau and Malaysia, and typically served family-style. Jason Little

Regional Chinese cuisine makes its way onto U.S. menus.

Since Mexican and Italian cuisines in the U.S. have gone mainstream, melting into general American fare across the country, many chefs have taken the next step to research more specific, regional flavors and dishes from these countries to elevate the authenticity of their food.

The same can now be said about Asian food. In fact, we’re seeing a wave of “new Asian”—and specifically Chinese cuisine—on menus nationwide, with chefs going beyond the basic soy-ginger-garlic blend to experiment with the more nuanced flavors of specific countries and regions, like Burmese cuisine from Myanmar and Szechuan cuisine from China, to name a few.

“Asian has become a little passé,” says Stephen Gillanders, the current chef at Intro restaurant in Chicago, which is owned by Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and showcases a different veteran chef every few months with the menus of that chef’s choosing. “People have a stronger understanding of Asian food in general so you can’t just get away with giving someone a washed-out version of Chinese or Thai food.”

When it comes to cooking Chinese food in the U.S., the learning curve for many chefs—even veterans—continues to be steep. Of course, the same goes for consumers and their view about the cuisine. Ordering authentic dishes at urban Chinatown restaurants can be intimidating, at best, and many of these restaurants have even “washed out” regional flavors to make them more approachable.

“When people think of Chinese food here, they are mostly thinking of Cantonese food, but the cuisine goes far beyond your classic beef and broccoli,” says Chef Gillanders, who has spent a decade working with Jean-Georges Vongerichten and has traveled extensively throughout Asia.

Regional Chinese

In his research for the Intro menu, Chef Gillanders went back to Shanghai, where he opened the restaurants Mercato and Jean-Georges years ago. He also took chapters from his travels to Hong Kong, Beijing, and the Hunan and Szechuan [Sichuan] regions in the south-central and southwest parts of the country.

He explains that in Shanghai, there are many bao and noodle creations, and saltier dishes. In Hong Kong, it is more real Cantonese, sweeter dishes with thicker sauces, along with dim sum.

“Hunan cuisine uses a lot of potatoes and truffles, almost similar to French cuisine,” Chef Gillanders says. “If you were to see that on a menu at a Chinese restaurant here you might think they were trying to do fusion—but in reality, they’re serving a very authentic dish indigenous to that particular region.” He cites a popular Hunan dish of crispy, wok-caramelized garlic, onion, and toasted coriander mixed with smashed potatoes that would “rival the best bowl of French-style mashed potatoes you would ever eat, but it’s from China.”

Cooking in the Xi’an region and other parts of Northwest China involves the use of a lot of lamb, mutton, and cumin. “If you didn’t know better, you would think you were eating a dish from Morocco,” Chef Gillanders says.


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