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How to Order from the Menu: Regional Chinese Cooking

by Joanne Lee

Regional Foods

Fall Volume: 1994 Issue: 1(1) pages: 19 to 21


Don't expect restaurants in Hong Kong or China to offer the same varied selections you often find in Chinese-American menus. In Asia, it is unusual to find or expect the average Chinese restaurant to feature different styles of Chinese cooking on the same menu such as Eggplant and Garlic Sauce (Sichuan) and Steamed Sea Bass (Cantonese).

In the United States, Chinese-American restaurants are increa-singly featuring dishes from different regions of China on one menu. For instance, Ta Chien Chicken, which is also known as ''General Tso''s Chicken,'' is from Hunan. But more and more, it can be ordered in establishments serving predominantly Cantonese food. The drawback is that the dish can sometimes taste like anything but the real thing. To play it safe, the key is to know the regional style of cooking a restaurant features and then order from those types of dishes. Therefore, it is best to order Cantonese style dishes in a Cantonese restaurant, and northern style dishes from a Hunan or Sichuan restaur-ant. The list at the end of this article indicates some popular dishes and where they might come from in China.

How does one know, when entering a restaurant, what type of food it serves? For me, it is a bit less difficult, because I listen for the spoken dialect of Chinese used by the waiters and captains. There is a logic to this--however strange it may sound. Generally, the waiters must communicate with the chef in placing orders. So management tends to hire Cantonese speaking waiters if the chef is Cantonese. If the help speaks mostly Mandarin, then I suspect the chef may be from Taiwan and I think it would be better to order dishes that are be from northern China. Though not always successful, most of the time this serves as a useful guide when ordering. Of course, this is great if you can speak Chinese, but not everyone does.

At the risk of over simplifying, another way to decide what to order in a Chinese restaurant is to look at the menu. If the overriding number of dishes tend to be spicy, then chances are you are in a restaurant that specializes in Sichuan or Hunan food. For instance, Twice Cooked Pork, General Tso''s Chicken, and Prawns with Garlic Sauce, are not Cantonese dishes.

The reverse is also true--if most of the dishes are not spicy but tend to be more traditional, such as Shrimp with Lobster Sauce, Beef with Oyster Sauce, Pepper Steak, or Chicken Chow Mein, it is a good guess that the style of cooking in that restaurant would tend towards Cantonese.

Sometimes the name of the dish can be helpful; for instance, dishes that are identified as ''Sichuan or Hunan style'' tend to be spicy while Cantonese style food is often prepared stir-fried and with non-piquant seasonings.

When the above tips still do not give you a sense of the type of restaurant, ask the waiter taking your order: "Does this restaurant specialize in Cantonese, or northern style cooking, such as that from Hunan or Sichuan?"

Chinese cooks in this country have varying degrees of proficiency, especially when it comes to regional specialties. A lot has to do with the dishes they are expected to know and prepare. Someone learning from the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy in this country may start out by cooking Chow Mein, then move up to more standard fare such as Pepper Steak. Others, having come from Hong Kong or Taiwan with experience in one regional cuisine, quickly find out that in order to be employed in this country, they need to have a working knowledge of dishes of the chop suey variety.

At this point, one should pause to talk a bit about regional differences of cooking. For example, 'Northern' style Chinese cooking is a relative term in the United States. For many, anything outside of the Guangdong (Canton) province--which is located in the south of China--is considered northern. Therefore, many people in this country lump Hunan and Sichuan, both of which are north of Canton, together as northern style Chinese food.

Actually, Hunan and Sichuan, which are adjacent to each other, are in the western part of China. Additionally, many use the term "Mandarin food" as "Northern food," but there is really no such region in China that serves "Mandarin" food in the American sense. It is a term used here to refer to styles of cooking outside the Cantonese variety. Chi-Ming Tan of the Sino-American Chamber of Commerce has said the "northern style Chinese cooking has, in recent years, gained in both popularity and demand among Americans, while 'old style' (chow mein variety) Cantonese cooking has been slipping."

These real distinctions evolved from differences in climate, the availability of ingredients, and the geography. History plays important roles in the development and in changes in Chinese cooking in both China and in the United States. One of the most notable examples, according to Lee, goes back half a century to the 1930's when twenty million Chinese, led by Chiang Kai Shek's provisional government, fled to Chunking to escape the Japanese invation during the Sino-Japanese war. The exodus and temporary haven provided an opportunity for cooks from various regions to learn about and experiment with different methods of cooking.

Some chefs, who trained in Mainland China, fled to Taiwan after the communist government gained control. There, regional cuisine underwent further integration. As such, "Sichuan cooking combined with Yangzhou cooking is now what is known to many as the relatively new cuisine, Chuanyang cooking," said restauranteur Phuillip Lee.

China, after decades of political strife and turmoil, during the time the art of fine eating suffered, has set up a National Cuisine Association, according to the Xinhua News Agency. The association, according to Lin Zepu of one of their committees, "will summarize cooking techniques over the centuries, do research on improving dishes and snacks, compile cookbooks and train chefs."

The art of Chinese cooking has flourished outside of China during the period in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even the United States because conditions supporting the business: labor, ingredients, demand, and popularity for Chinese cooking, have made this possible. Today, most of the chefs cooking in Chinese restaurants in the United States have either learned their skills in Cantonese kitchens in this country, or have received training in other parts of Asia such as Hong Kong or Taiwan, so many of them and of us need to know more about the various regional dishes such as:

Cantonese: Beef with Oyster Sauce Beef Steak with Vegetables Sweet and Sour Pork Beef with Green Pepper Moo Goo Gai Pan Chicken with Snow Pea Pods Lobster cantonese Steamed Sea Bass Shrimp woth Ginger and Scallion Fung Wong Chicken Cow Har Kew Egg Foo Yong

Western China: Sicuan & Hunan Garlic Eggplant in Spicy Sauce Dry-cooked string Beans Double-cooked Pork Shredded Beef Country Style Stir-fried Pork in Garlic Sauce Hot Spicy Bean Curd General Tso's Chicken Bean Curd, Home Style

Eastern China: Jiangsu, Dze Jiang, Anwei Moulded Pork in Brown Sauce Spicy Smoked Fish West Lake Fish Crabmeat with Geeen Cabbage Cabbage with Cream Sauce Paper-wrapped Chicken

Northern China: Shansi, Shantung, Hubei Peking Duck Mongolian Barbecue Chicken & Cucumber Salad Stewed Chicken with Chestnuts Deep-fried Spiced Chicken Crisy Duck, Home-style Braised beef with Brown Sauce Fried Fish in Sweet and Sour Sauce Sweet and Sour cabbage Salad _____ Joann Lee is author of Asian Americans published by New Press, 1992, and she is a codirector of the Journalism Program at Queens College in Flushing NY

                                                                                                                                                       
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