Chop Suey Syndrome

Our restaurant critic travels to China to unravel the riddle: Why can't Dallas do Chinese?

"There are not enough Chinese people in Dallas," says Mike Chen, owner of Kirin Court restaurant in Richardson and Steel and Standard in Dallas. "If you want the business to be profitable, you've got to go reach the native people...Americans. Most Chinese food in Dallas is not that good; it's not authentic."

Chinese cuisine embraces four major styles, from the hearty foods of the north (Mandarin or Beijing), to the quickly cooked and lightly seasoned foods of the south (Cantonese), to the salt-preserved meats and vegetables of the east (Shanghai), to the aggressive spice and pungency of the west (Szechuan). Americanized Chinese cuisine generally has a heavier emphasis on meats rather than the rice, noodles and vegetables forming the bulk of Chinese meals. Plus, these meats are more lightly cooked in China, especially in the south of the country. "It's cooked too much [in America], especially chicken," says Mickey Luu, who founded Arc-en-Ciel in Garland in 1986. "Sometimes the fried chicken, we call it rose chicken. Americans don't want to see the blood."

True Chinese sauces are thinner, less obtrusive. Sauces smothering Chinese food in the States tend to be a thick, syrupy gruel--variations on a basic formula of soy, cornstarch and oil. Reasons are twofold: First, until recently, it was impossible to obtain authentic Chinese ingredients other than soy sauce; second, the weight appealed to American bellies conditioned to the aggressive ballast common in American foods.

Dong Ging Mei and Dong Xiu Mei make dumplings in a Dawukou apartment.
Dong Ging Mei and Dong Xiu Mei make dumplings in a Dawukou apartment.
Sheep carcasses hang in a Dawukou market.
Sheep carcasses hang in a Dawukou market.

Other differences: In China, while soy sauce is used in cooking, it is rarely supplied as a table condiment. Vinegar is the condiment of choice, along with pepper sauce. "Vinegar is good for you. We don't like to use soy," says Hui Chuan, a native of Taiwan and creator of Hui Chuan Sushi, Sake & Tapas and Parrilla Mexicana in Fort Worth. "If you drink one shot of vinegar before you go to a party, you're not going to get drunk; you're not going to have a hangover." Chuan adds that while vegetables in China are stir-fried at high temperatures in a wok, in the States they're boiled before they're tossed into the wok to save time. Yet even more than time and weight considerations, much authentic Chinese cuisine would be repulsive to most American sensibilities.

"Chicken feet, pig's ears...Most American people don't want to see it. They don't want to hear it," says Joe Chow, who founded May Dragon in Addison in 1985 and is currently mayor of that town. But you can find these delicacies if you dig. In Richardson, I dined on spicy beef tripe in plastic tubs at Jeng Chi Restaurant & Bakery, pig's ears in chili sauce and slices of marinated pig's tongue at Mandarin Café, duck's feet with bok choy in a thick, sweetish brown sauce at Maxim's and marinated pig intestine and pickled jellyfish at Joy Luck BBQ in Plano. At Cathy's Wok & Grill in North Dallas and Plano, the heavy chicken and vegetable menu is supplemented by authentic Chinese dishes, such as sea cucumber, silky chicken (small chickens from East Asia covered in fur-like feathers, with black skin and bones) and dumplings heavily infused with pork gelatin. Authentic Chinese dishes are available by special request only.

"We love sea cucumber, and Western people just cannot stand the sight of it," says Catherine Liu, who founded the original Cathy's on Coit Road in 1985. "I don't see [Chinese food in Dallas] getting authentic. The Chinese food, the authentic food, doesn't sell. You don't have enough customers to keep your business going. It's not Los Angeles or New York."

Spitting is an act of one's own will, the purpose of which is to expel unwanted fluid from one's mouth. It is a personal decision, but when it pollutes the environment one shares with other people, it becomes a nuisance...Beijing municipal government announced that it will launch a campaign from late March to address such uncivilized acts as random spitting...[It] plans to address the issue in two ways: Cans with special bags to contain spittle will be placed on streets for those who cannot control their physiological need to spit, while a maximum fine of 50 yuan ($6US) will be given to those who spit randomly.

--from a China Daily editorial titled "Spitting Is Mad in a Civilized Society," February 24, 2006

Beijing is a gritty city, one that allures while it exasperates. The city's wide thoroughfares are a nasty hive of Audis, Volkswagens, Buicks and Hyundais with drivers willfully oblivious--even hostile--to pedestrians, bicycles and especially traffic signals. Buildings blink in neon near craggy clay-tiled sidewalks strewn with crushed cigarette butts and other litter. Smog stubbornly drapes over a skyline infested with cranes.

Culinary culture in Beijing spans some 5,000 years. The Mandarin cuisine spawned two distinct strains: the imperial cuisine of the royal court featuring Peking duck, mu shu pork, phoenix in the nest and lotus prawns; and the home-style grub of its subjects who savored cabbage, wheat pancakes and baozi--buns stuffed with meat and vegetable minces.

Beijing largely assumed its role as the hallowed nucleus of Chinese imperial power in 1409, when the Yung-lo emperor of the Ming dynasty began construction of the Forbidden City, a grand palatial expanse so named because access to its imperial halls, plazas and gardens was barred to all but the imperial family and dynastic officials. The Forbidden City is an 8,706-room compound sprawling over 861,000 square yards, almost double the size of Vatican City. A stream of 9,000 concubines and eunuchs coursed through the palace's side corridors.

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