Chang­ing Chi­nese food

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US restau­ra­teurs bor­row from China to in­spire eclec­tic menus

They may not all of­fer Gen­eral Tso’s chicken and egg foo yong, but some eclec­tic Chi­nese restau­rants in the US are serv­ing the same

au­then­tic food that you would find in Bei­jing and Shang­hai, HEZI JIANG re­ports from New York.

Chi­nese restau­rants are evolv­ing in the US, draw­ing their in­spi­ra­tion from the home­land and fu­sion trends and re­ly­ing less on typ­i­cal Chi­nese-Amer­i­can fare such as chop suey and egg rolls.

While Gen­eral Tso’s and sesame chicken largely re­main, and the al­lyou-can-eat buf­fet places pro­lif­er­ate, many Chi­nese restau­ra­teurs are at­tempt­ing to re­de­fine the cui­sine in Amer­ica, ac­cord­ing to Yong Chen, pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia-Irvine and au­thor of Chop Suey, USA: The Rise of Chi­nese Food in Amer­ica.

“Chi­nese restau­ra­teurs have been try­ing to of­fer Chi­nese food as fine din­ing; but their ef­forts have re­mained largely un­suc­cess­ful un­til re­cently,” Chen told China Daily. “In the past two decades, such ef­forts have be­come more vis­i­ble.”

Chen added that “more pro­fes­sion­ally trained chefs and more af­flu­ent and more in­formed din­ers in Chi­nese restau­rants” are help­ing drive the trend.

Go­ing global

In June 1996, Wang Gang and his wife, Liang Li, opened their first res­tau­rant, Meizhou Dongpo, in Bei­jing. “Some­day we are go­ing to cook for the whole world!” they said.

Nine­teen years later, they over­see a cor­po­ra­tion with more than 100 restau­rants in China. By next year, they are go­ing to have five restau­rants in the US, with a flag­ship on the Las Ve­gas Strip.

Meizhou Dongpo opened its first US res­tau­rant in Bev­erly Hills, Cal­i­for­nia, in 2013, and kept its name ex­actly as it is in China, with the dishes se­lected from its menu in China. The chefs, though hired lo­cally, were sent to China for months of train­ing.

“We are try­ing to make au­then­tic Chi­nese food for Amer­ica,” said Wang Xiao­jing, the US gen­eral man­ager for Meizhou Dongpo.

In re­cent years, many Chi­nese com­pa­nies have im­ple­mented a rapid “go­ing out” strat­egy, buy­ing prop­er­ties around the world, merg­ing with global com­pa­nies and open­ing for­eign sub­sidiaries. Res­tau­rant brands are join­ing the move­ment.

“Fame has brought us pres­sure and re­spon­si­bil­ity, be­cause Chi­nese restau­rants who are con­sid­er­ing open­ing lo­ca­tions in the US are all look­ing at us,” said Wang. “If we make a suc­cess, they will take ac­tion. If we failed, they would be afraid of ‘go­ing out.’ ”

Cal­i­for­nia is known for au­then­tic, di­verse Chi­nese food, driven by a large pop­u­la­tion of new Chi­nese im­mi­grants. In Greater East Los An­ge­les area — Monterey Park, Arcadia, Roland Heights and other cities nearby, no mat­ter which province of China you are from, you will be able to find your re­gion’s cui­sine.

In place like Hol­ly­wood and Bev­erly Hills, how­ever, res­i­dents don’t see the va­ri­ety of Chi­nese cui­sine. There are Panda Ex­press out­lets in shop­ping cen­ters, and take-out restau­rants tucked in strip malls.

Meizhou found a rooftop din­ing deck at the West­field Cen­tury City mall in Bev­erly Hills.

To main­tain its food qual­ity, the com­pany brought a dozen of chefs from Bei­jing. They de­bated what dishes should be on the menu, spend­ing hours an­a­lyz­ing if a dish would be liked by both Chi­nese and Amer­i­can din­ers.

“We de­cided that our rule was pick­ing what Amer­i­cans would like from our tra­di­tional Meizhou Dongpo dishes,” Wang said. That way, they would not sac­ri­fice au­then­tic­ity in mak­ing dishes ap­peal­ing to Amer­i­cans.

Meizhou’s open­ing cre­ated a buzz in the Chi­nese com­mu­nity. Chi­nese stu­dents and im­mi­grants were ex­cited to see a Chi­nese brand they could re­late to com­ing to Cal­i­for­nia. It also got the at­ten­tion of Amer­i­can food­ies.

“Pop­ping fiery Szechuan dumplings on a sun-drenched pa­tio at West­field Cen­tury City is a new kind of mind blow­ing,” Los An­ge­les mag­a­zine wrote.

Some were au­then­tic­ity.

“The times I’ve been by, at least half the pa­trons were Chi­nese, and I sus­pect they would not ac­cept toned­down food,” wrote a foodie on Chow. com.

at­tracted

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The Pek­ing duck seemed to have got­ten the most love. “I have a new re­spect for duck meat de­sign, as the chef dis­played such pa­tience as he skill­fully as­sorted each piece of meat and crispy skin,” wrote Ariel Zhu in LA Splash mag­a­zine.

“Amer­i­cans like the duck the most,” said Wang. “We are mak­ing it our sig­na­ture.”

Other pop­u­lar items among Amer­i­can cus­tomers are fa­mil­iar names such as kung pao chicken and shrimp and dan dan noo­dles. The Chi­nese cus­tomers usu­ally come in for the dishes they can­not get else­where, like the pork hock.

Wang and his team have worked to please both their Amer­i­can and Chi­nese cus­tomers, be­cause each group has its own pref­er­ences.

Their own en­trees

“We re­al­ized Amer­i­cans pre­fer that all the main dishes be served at the same time be­cause ev­ery­one has their own en­tree,” he said. “Chi­nese like the dishes to be served right when it’s ready be­cause they share the dishes. Our servers would put down a mark on the or­der let­ting the kitchen know whether the cus­tomers are Chi­nese or Amer­i­can so that we can ac­com­mo­date bet­ter.”

With rev­enue up 20 per­cent over last year, Meizhou Dongpo is more con­fi­dent about what it is do­ing.

In­stead of bring­ing shifts of chefs in from China, it has de­vel­oped a sys­tem of send­ing Los An­ge­les lo­cal chefs to the Bei­jing head­quar­ters, where they un­dergo pro­fes­sional train­ing and a chal­leng­ing test be­fore grad­u­at­ing. The sys­tem raises the sta­bil­ity of chefs and food qual­ity, Wang said.

Four new lo­ca­tions — three in the Greater Los An­ge­les Area and a flag­ship in Las Ve­gas — and a cen­tral kitchen in Bald­win Park are be­ing de­vel­oped at the same time, with an Arcadia lo­ca­tion planned to open by the end of the year.

Au­then­tic vs fu­sion

“For the 18 years the chef worked here, he barely had eaten at other restau­rants. The servers had never been served prop­erly be­fore,” Jonathan Ho said, shak­ing his head. Ho is the new owner of the res­tau­rant Shang­hai Cui­sine in Man­hat­tan’s Chi­na­town.

Ho brought his chef to RedFarm, a mod­ern Chi­nese res­tau­rant owned by Ed Schoen­feld, a pi­o­neer in the move­ment to bring au­then­tic re­gional Chi­nese dishes to New York in the 1970s.

“For lots of Chi­nese chefs, the prob­lem is not their crafts or ex­pe­ri­ence, but their vi­sion,” said Ho. “Cook­ing is an art. A chef has to be aware of what other chefs are do­ing, while broad­en­ing his vi­sion by lis­ten­ing to mu­sic, learn­ing about art and more. Cook­ing is not a static ac­tion of turn­ing the food in the wok.”

Ho served the wait­ers at Shang­hai Cui­sine him­self to show them how fine-din­ing restau­rants treat their cus­tomers. With a soon-to-be up­dated in­te­rior and strict staff train­ing, he wants to keep serv­ing au­then­tic Shang­hai food and pro­vid­ing an up­scale ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Now din­ers have very high stan­dards for restau­rants. Ev­ery de­tail in my res­tau­rant rep­re­sents my at­ti­tude to­ward food,” he said.

“Two ways we can re­de­fine Chi­nese cui­sine: First, stick with the most tra­di­tional and au­then­tic Chi­nese food and make it bet­ter; sec­ond, in­no­va­tion, play with it,” Ho said. His the­ory matched with what the Na­tional Res­tau­rant As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica got through sur­vey­ing 1,300 pro­fes­sional chefs and mem­bers of the Amer­i­can Culi­nary Fed­er­a­tion.

On the 2015 Menu Trends to Watch list, “go­ing global” stands with five oth­ers, like lo­cal sourc­ing and gourmet kids’ dishes. And un­der the big um­brella of Amer­i­can restau­rants go­ing global, “mi­cro-trend­ing in this cat­e­gory is fu­sion cuisines, as well as au­then­tic and re­gional, un­der­scor­ing the breadth and depth of fla­vors be­ing ex­plored”.

Af­ter tak­ing over Shang­hai Cui­sine last Oc­to­ber, Ho met a part­ner and de­cided they could open another Chi­nese res­tau­rant to try out fu­sion cui­sine. In March, Carma Asian Ta­pas opened its doors in New York.

With Carma, Ho is aim­ing for a “a play­ful place. A lab”.

On the menu, there is the crispy wosum salad, made with lo­tus root and fresh shred­ded wosum — a veg­etable most Amer­i­cans had never tasted, and cre­ative Pek­ing duck tacos.

“Chi­nese chefs are be­com­ing much less pro­vin­cial, much more worldly. They are see­ing other kinds of foods. Now you see Chi­nese peo­ple adding all kinds of food to their reper­toire. They are feel­ing the in­flu­ence of other cul­tures,” said Schoen­feld, named “the walk­ing en­cy­clo­pe­dia of Chi­nese food” by eater.com.

“Low price, big por­tions and bad ser­vice are what Amer­i­cans think of Chi­nese restau­rants,” Ho said. “We are chal­leng­ing this im­pres­sion.”

Lo­cated in the hip West Vil­lage, Carma Asian Ta­pas has in­door seat­ing, a full bar and a beau­ti­ful court­yard look­ing like a small si­heyuan, or his­tor­i­cal Chi­nese quad­ran­gle.

On a Fri­day evening, the court­yard is packed. At one ta­ble, six ladies are hav­ing a girls’ night out. In a com­bi­na­tion of Can­tonese and English, they spoke highly of the beef noo­dles.

Sep­a­rated by bloom­ing be­go­nias, at the ta­ble next to the women, are a se­nior cou­ple en­joy­ing Xiao Long Bao and Pek­ing duck tacos. House wa­ter is served in clas­sic French res­tau­rant glass bot­tles. Crys­tal ball string lights il­lu­mi­nate the yard when night falls, and the pathos plants stretch their short veins on the wall.

Chi­na­town changes

The night be­fore the 2015 Met Gala themed China: Through the Look­ing Glass, Vogue mag­a­zine held a party at the Nom Wah Tea Par­lor, the 90-year-old dim sum res­tau­rant in Man­hat­tan’s Chi­na­town. Mod­els and celebri­ties wrapped in silks and per­fumes whirled on the padded stools with their Chris­tian Louboutins dan­gling in the air as they in­dulged the aroma and steam of soup dumplings.

“I told Vogue from day one, ‘No, I’m not in­ter­ested. It doesn’t fit my brand,” said Wil­son Tang, 36, the cur­rent owner of Nom Wah Tea Par­lor. “They were try­ing to sell me the media ex­po­sure; I was be­ing hard­headed about it. I’m more on brand with Bon Ap­pétit.

“But they kept call­ing and call­ing. It was this con­stant, al­most nag­ging, that I fi­nally said, ‘All right, all right, just do it and leave me alone.’ ”

“It ended up be­ing very good,” Tang said. “I think we’ve got a lot of ex­po­sure from it.”

Man­hat­tan Chi­na­town

is see­ing some gen­tri­fi­ca­tion but not as much as some New York neigh­bor­hoods, but real es­tate pres­sure is con­stant.

Many old timers are grad­u­ally mov­ing out to Flush­ing, Queens, or Brook­lyn, and more trendy bars and restau­rants are wedg­ing them­selves in Chi­na­town.

“It’s hard to see a place that I grew up in has such rapid change,” said Tang, who was born and raised in Chi­na­town. “But it goes back to me say­ing, ‘I need to make changes in or­der to sur­vive.’ ”

When his un­cle, Wally Tang, the pre­vi­ous owner of Nom Wah, de­cided to re­tire in 2010, Tang quit his fi­nance job at ING and took over. To re­vive the fam­ily res­tau­rant, he kept what­ever he could to hold the place’s his­tor­i­cal ap­peal and up­dated some fix­tures, like the kitchen equip­ment. But that’s only the be­gin­ning of changes.

“I’m work­ing on new menu items, how do we source bet­ter in­gre­di­ents or more healthy items,” said Tang.

“I’m hav­ing a lot of in­ter­nal strug­gles with my chefs and my cooks,” he said. “They are used to do­ing things a cer­tain way. We can’t change it overnight.”

He’s putting his vi­sion into prac­tice at a sec­ond lo­ca­tion of the Nom Wah Tea Par­lor, which opened ear­lier this year in Philadelphia’s Chi­na­town.

“We are look­ing into meth­ods of or­na­men­ta­tion,” Tang said. “I was just back from Tai­wan, look­ing at ma­chin­ery that can make dim sum.”

He en­gages with cus­tomers on so­cial media, and he’s work­ing on start­ing a food-and-bev­er­age-pair­ing pro­gram at the new shop. “It’s ei­ther you im­prove, or you get left be­hind.”

Af­flu­ence plays role

“Grow­ing” is Schoen­feld’s pre­dic­tion of the fu­ture of Chi­nese cui­sine, and he sug­gested two rea­sons for Chi­nese restau­rants be­com­ing in­creas­ingly up­scale.

First is the change in food cul­ture in China. As the econ­omy grows, and Chi­nese peo­ple are be­com­ing more af­flu­ent, they care more about what they are eat­ing, said RedFarm owner Schoen­feld, and that will af­fect Chi­nese cui­sine in­ter­na­tion­ally.

“Peo­ple have money. They spend on food. So, there is ex­cite­ment in China about restau­rants and food — tra­di­tional Chi­nese cook­ing and mod­ern Chi­nese cook­ing. I think we are go­ing to see more and more of these (up­scale Chi­nese eater­ies),” he said.

Now good Chi­nese restau­rants are pay­ing their chefs well, said Schoen­feld, so the best chefs are rarely go­ing abroad. But there is a grow­ing num­ber of ris­ing lo­cal chefs work­ing with Chi­nese food.

“Now it’s be­com­ing hip to be in the res­tau­rant busi­ness, so there are many young tal­ented chefs, like Jonathan Wu,” said Schoen­feld, whereas in the past, be­ing a chef was seen as an un­der­e­d­u­cated job, es­pe­cially in fam­i­lies of Chi­nese de­scent.

Wu is the chef and part­ner of Fung Tu, a res­tau­rant on the Lower East Side of New York, fea­tur­ing cre­ative Chi­nese-Amer­i­can food and a thought­ful bev­er­age pro­gram.

By Chi­nese-Amer­i­can food, Wu doesn’t mean sweet and sour chicken; he means food that he can re­late to.

“Things that were im­por­tant to me in term of the cui­sine were orig­i­nal­ity and soul­ful­ness,” said Wu. “I would draw from food that I ate grow­ing up, which were Amer­i­can Chi­nese dishes that my mother and rel­a­tives made.”

Born in the Bronx, Wu was ex­posed to tra­di­tional Chi­nese in­gre­di­ents from early on. There is a tree in his grand­par­ents’ yard in New Jersey.

“It’s a Toona sinen­sis. In the spring, the leaves, when they first come out, they are very ten­der. It has this spe­cial fla­vor: it’s gar­licky, earthy, bit­ter,” said Wu. “It’s very Chi­nese in its palate. My grandma would harvest the leaves, chop them up, and fold them into scram­bled eggs.”

That’s the in­spi­ra­tion for the dish “The Toon Cloud” at Fung Tu. With egg white-in­fused dashi, kombu, ginger and gar­lic, he makes a float­ing is­land. The cloud of eggs is served in the broth, and he drapes toon leaves over the top to high­light its fla­vor.

He also makes a dish called “smoked and fried dates”. A rel­a­tive from Shang­hai told him about the food they ate as a child be­fore the “cul­tural revo­lu­tion” (1966-76), and Wu found the smoked and fried dates fas­ci­nat­ing. He made the dish with Amer­i­can dates and stuffed the dates with duck in­stead of red bean paste, mak­ing them more sa­vory.

For the owner Erica Chou and chef Doron Wong of Yun­nan Kitchen, also on the Lower East Side, the goal is to show their in­ter­pre­ta­tion of a Chi­nese re­gional cui­sine — that of Yun­nan province. The dishes are known for fresh in­gre­di­ents and bold fla­vors.

“We ask our­selves, ‘ How would some­one from Yun­nan cook here?’ ” Chou said.

They look for the best in­gre­di­ents of the sea­son and start from there.

“It’s Yun­nan inspired; our in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the cook­ing, cre­ative process that’s unique to us,” Wong said.

While re­defin­ing Chi­nese cui­sine in the US, these pioneers are up against Amer­i­can’s deep-rooted per­cep­tion of Chi­nese food: Cheap and large por­tions.

Peo­ple are happy to pay $30 for pasta, but not Chi­nese noo­dles, said Tang, and they ask why the dim sums are $4, not $2. “Why can’t we charge $30? The shrimp I buy is the same.”

Chou has been asked why her dumplings are small com­pared with some sold in Chi­na­town.

“Dumplings are not sup­posed to be that big!” is her re­sponse.

Another chal­lenge they are fac­ing is Amer­i­cans’ eat­ing habits. “They like bold fla­vors, like sweet, sour and spicy. They like fried food but not boiled,” said Xiao­jing Wang of Meizhou Dongpo. These tastes limit the restau­rants when they pick menu items.

“We are try­ing to make changes,” said Wu, but none of them is giv­ing in.

“It’s hard to do some­thing you don’t be­lieve in,” said Chou.

“There are still din­ers com­ing to Meizhou Dongpo and ask­ing, “Do you have sweet and sour chicken?” said Wang.

They don’t, and they are not go­ing to carry it. That’s the case with all the restau­rants men­tioned here, although Yun­nan Kitchen gives a for­tune cookie with the bill.

Con­tact the writer at hez­i­jiang@ chi­nadai­lyusa.com

HEZI JIANG / CHINA DAILY

Cus­tomers dine in the court­yard of Carma Asian Ta­pas in New York’s Green­wich Vil­lage on July 10. Carma, which opened in March, serves fu­sion cui­sine with dishes such as Pek­ing tacos.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Chongqing Spicy Chicken is a pop­u­lar dish at the Meizhou Dongpo Res­tau­rant in Bev­erly Hills, Cal­i­for­nia. Meizhou Dongpo is a Chi­nese res­tau­rant chain that’s ex­pand­ing over­seas and plans to have five restau­rants in the US by next year.

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