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.
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.
And Szechuan cuisine centers on one common thread: spice. Spicy peppercorns, chilies, and chili oil make their way into many dishes, as do umami-rich soy, tofu, fish sauce, and bean paste—making for heartier, craveable dishes that are easily loved here in the U.S.
At Intro, Gillanders pays homage to Szechuan cooking by fusing it with Korean flavors in a nod to his Korean wife. Instead of traditional shrimp and pork-filled dumplings, he fills them with a Korean-braised beef cheek with the type of chili oil and soy Szechuan dipping sauce you’d typically see when traveling to the Far East.
Similarly, Ralph Scamardella, chef/partner of the TAO Group of restaurants throughout New York and in Las Vegas, has woven Hunan, Cantonese, and other regional Chinese cooking into his Pan-Asian menus. This includes a dish of steamed fish head with dried Hunan chilies, which are soaked and made into a sauce with Shaoxing wine. Spicy spare ribs are tossed in a spicy and thick Hunan barbecue sauce with soy, sesame, Chinese mustard, ginger, and double black soy. For a Cantonese fried chicken dish, he marinates the meat in a brine of star anise, nutmeg, and other spices, then uses a garnish of roasted garlic and scallions.
Regional Chinese flavors and ingredients also make their way into Macanese food, which draws influences from Portuguese cuisine and serves as the focus at Portuguese-American chef Abraham Conlon’s Fat Rice in Chicago.
Macau, located on the southern coast of China 40 miles west of Hong Kong, is a blend of Chinese and Portuguese cultures and traditions, the result of Portuguese traders who settled there in the the mid-1500s, Chef Conlon explains.
The restaurant’s namesake, arroz gordo, or “fat rice” represents a signature Macanese dish, traditionally made with a blend that includes five kinds of minced protein, along with laurel leaves, and tomato-soy-infused rice. At the restaurant, Conlon makes his fat rice with Chinese sausage, Spanish chorizo prawns, clams, and chicken marinated in smoked paprika, garlic, lemon juice, and curry powder mixed together with pickled chilies, fermented black beans, a soffrito of peppers, sherry-soaked raisins, and the rice.
The Devil’s Curry, or Diabo, is a spicy curry in the tradition of Macau and Malaysia and is typically served family-style at the holidays. At Fat Rice, Chef Conlon makes it with a blend of scorching scorpion pepper, mustard seed, chicken, braised beef, char siu (Cantonese-style barbecue pork), and fried pork chop for a sweet, sour, super-spicy dish.
With the explosion in popularity of Burma Superstar, Royal Rangoon, and other Burmese restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area, more chefs and diners are learning about Burmese food and cooking from Myanmar.
“Burmese food is heavily influenced by India on the west, China on the east, and Thailand to the south,” says Tun Lin, manager of Royal Rangoon, which is not related to Burma Superstar but was founded by its ex-chef. As such, you’ll find a few key ingredients in most Burmese dishes that overlap with classic Chinese ingredients: garlic, ginger, onion, lemongrass, and dried or fresh, long red chili, but not the overtly spicy “ghost” or Thai chili.
While Burmese food showcases classic Indian ingredients like potatoes and lentils, and spices like tamarind, coriander, clove, and fennel seed, Burmese curry differs greatly from Indian curry in that the spices are less heavy and muddled, so they end up being more distinct. At Royal Rangoon, tamarind powder is added to a stir-fry of onion, garlic, ginger, and crushed, dried red chili, and then chicken, pork, beef, and tofu might be added for protein.
For a classic Burmese catfish chowder [monk hingar], a whole stock of lemongrass is added to a fish stock made with the catfish bones, onion, garlic, and ginger, then the meat of the fish is added back in, along with thin rice noodles and rice powder, which acts as a thickener and gives the soup that reminiscent, nutty flavor so characteristic of the national dish.
For the tea-leaf salad—a classic Burmese dish—tender, Bay Area–grown leaves are tossed with fried garlic, beans, peanuts, sesame seeds, lettuce, tomato, and dried shrimp. “Burmese food is very detailed, with layers of flavor,” Lin says.
Lomo Saltado—a traditional Peruvian dish of stir-fried sirloin strips, onions, tomato, and soy sauce topped with french fries—reflects the flavors of China thanks to the heavily Chinese immigrant population in the country.
Similarly, Cuban food has seen some Chinese influence. Humberto Guallpa, executive chef of Calle Dao in New York City, pays homage to this through his nod to Havana’s once-thriving El Barrio Chino, or Chinatown.
Though he’s Ecuadorian, Chef Guallpa mixes and matches Chinese and Cuban flavors in dishes like Peking-style roasted chicken with crispy garlic and shallots, tomate de árbol, cilantro, and a parsley pistou-like sauce. He roasts a whole hog for a fried rice-like quinoa with ginger and cilantro.
Even oatmeal gets the fried rice treatment, first by being cooked and rinsed to remove the excess starch, and then dried for a grainy texture. It becomes the base for a mixture with farmers market cauliflower, pickled ginger, shallot, garlic, soy sauce, and sesame oil, and the base for a chimichurri- and adobo-marinated steak.
But the signature dish remains the 18-hour braised goat neck that is first cured in coriander seed, fennel, and cumin, and served in a whole piece of Shanghai baby bok choy and tostones with a mojito sauce.
“I try to manipulate the flavors from both cultures to bring something new to the people who seem open to experimenting,” Chef Guallpa says. “I can’t re-create authentic Chinese food because the Chinese know their food. But I can be respectful of tradition by using many Chinese ingredients and cooking techniques—like braising, preserving, and pickling—to make sure the flavors are just as intense.”
When it comes to exploring Chinese regional cooking, Chef Gillanders likens it to the way chefs have explored regional American cuisines. “To eat clam chowder and say you’ve now had American food, or to have a taco and say you’ve had Mexican food, is not enough,” he says. “Chinese food and ingredients are so ubiquitous, and we have just cracked the surface as chefs. There is definitely room to grow in our education of the application of this cuisine in America.”