Chop Suey Syndrome

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

As I strolled through the market, it seemed the reasons Dallas largely punts on Chinese food authenticity suddenly were irrelevant. Chinese food in Dallas will never be as explicitly authentic as it is in this secluded outpost or even in Beijing. For as restaurateur Chuan says, it takes guts to serve Americans the more traditional styles of Chinese food. Americans aren't much interested in guts.

Yet just as Americans travel more and slowly drift away from Americanized ethnic cuisines, the Chinese are increasingly more susceptible to a creeping Americanization on their tables. The McDonald's outlets in the capital city are not tourist strongholds but hives of the city's residents. After a hike in the bitter cold along a decaying section of the Great Wall through abandoned military bases in rugged northern Ningxia, Kohler and I sip hot chocolate and eat fried chicken strips in a large KFC in downtown Dawukou.

One of our last meals in Dawukou takes place in the small apartment of the parents of one of our guides, a young student of English named Luke. Smoke from a tiny coal stove seeps from the window as we enter the dimly lit kitchen where his mother and aunt rapidly stuff, fold and pinch dumplings, assembling them on a platter. In the dining room a tiny round table is sprawled with bowls of carp in thin spicy sauce, barbecued chicken, spicy noodles with vegetables, zucchini in hot pepper sauce, pork ribs, garlic stem, gelatinous pork skin, marinated cucumbers, beef and potatoes, and bright dripping tomato wedges dusted with sugar to blunt the acids. A muted television in the corner flashes a soap opera set during the Ming dynasty.

Communication is a babble of fragmented English and mangled Mandarin channeled through two and three people before the destined ears are reached, along with explicit commands to "eat, eat." It's exhausting. So we resign to express ourselves via toasts of Tsingtao in paper Dixie cups. We do this until the bottoms soak out.

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