Why Chinese Food Isn't Hip
I hadn't tasted anything like it in this country since the late 1970s -- the bland white chunks of tofu set off by unashamed amounts of brown Sichuan peppercorns, red-bean paste and chiles, along with a scattering of ground beef and Chinese leek.
But why did I have to make a pilgrimage to the center of Chinese immigration here in the Flushing neighborhood of New York's Queens? Why couldn't this authentic example of China's unchallenged place at the pinnacle of world cuisines, an eminence shared only by France, have been available in a grander setting in Manhattan? Why, in a period when fusion cooking has mainstreamed Japanese and even minor Asian cuisines like Korean, has Chinese food been largely ignored by young U.S. chefs hungry for new grist for their food-transforming imaginations?
Anyone worried about the rise of China on the world stage, as made clear by last month's lavish Olympics display, can take a kind of cold comfort from the almost total failure of the world's biggest culture to break into the foodie world. Yes, there are tens of thousands of places to buy second-rate pork buns and wontons in any town you might happen to be in, from Lima, Peru, to Lima, Ohio. There are also deeply rooted Chinese expat cuisines in Malaysia and the Philippines. And even these peripheral adaptations of Mother China's food can be found in modern restaurants in Manhattan outside Chinatown.
But tell me where I can find a quality, high-end Chinese restaurant anywhere in a U.S. urban center aimed at nonethnic diners and I will beat a path there. So would other gastronomes indoctrinated into the mysteries of tongue-burning Sichuan and elegant Beijing dishes during the golden era of authentic Chinese food in America, which followed Richard Nixon home from his historic visit to Mao Zedong in 1972. We remember when the arrival of a chef from the mainland to a midtown Manhattan location was headline news. Now when we want to recapture the excitement and taste of those times, we trek to Flushing, or to Rosemead outside Los Angeles.
There are a few exceptions to the decline of Chinese food in U.S. urban centers. In New York, Wu Liang Ye in the shade of Rockefeller Center and Shun Lee West near Manhattan's Lincoln Center continue to wave the flag of Sichuan. We read recently about a reputedly excellent new place in the city's Garment District, but on closer inspection, Szechuan Gourmet turned out to be a sloppy, indifferent rendition of the great, hearty food of the earthquake-plagued province, whose dishes Fuchsia Dunlop gathered there as a student chef for her book 'Land of Plenty' (2003).
The ma po dou fu at Szechuan Gourmet was muddy in flavor, beef-starved, with barely a shred of green. We are also eager to try Yujean Kang's in Pasadena, Calif., and Sang Kee Peking Duck House in Philadelphia. And we'll be glad as always to hear from readers about their own picks.
Perhaps we can blame the poor quality of virtually all Chinese restaurants outside Chinese enclaves on their patrons -- descendants of the same non-Chinese who enabled self-taught immigrant Chinese chefs to invent chop suey. But that was generations ago.
Today, a greater cross-cultural shame is the paucity of Chinese fusion dishes on the same menus that ambitious, home-grown chefs fill with Japanese and other non-Chinese Asian hybrids. Think of Manhattan's Nobu and the Sushi Samba chain, with their South American takes on sushi. Recall all the eclectic menus that don't bother to explain the Japanese ingredients ponzu, nori and uni. Or, if you eat at one of the three hip Manhattan spots of Korean-American chef David Chang, ask yourself why his splashy fusion dishes can feature Korean kimchee and the Thai hot sauce sriracha without more than a nod to the master food culture that underlies Mr. Chang's melting wok?
Maybe the reason is that Chinese cuisine is just too massive an edifice for a superchef to assault. No less a kitchen titan than Jean-Georges Vongerichten closed his idiosyncratic and widely panned 66, a pseudo-Chinese place in Manhattan's Tribeca, and handed it over to a Japanese team. Or is it that investors in glitzy restaurants think their clientele will dismiss real Chinese food as uncool?
We recently tried the Peking duck at New York's only elegant midtown Chinese restaurant, Tse Yang, an offshoot of a similar place in Paris that puts a display of wine bottles and smoked salmon on the home page of its Web site. We'd call Tse Yang's Peking duck, that great procession of crisp duck skin and duck parts, an inept homage. Like its Sichuan dishes it's neither authentic nor a fusion of edible worlds, Gallic or otherwise. Michael Chow's international Mr. Chow chain, meantime, smothers a basically Beijing menu with cosmopolitan settings and service.
In downtown Manhattan, we love to order a true French-Chinese fusion dish at Annisa, where the Chinese-American chef Anita Lo has long featured Shanghai soup dumplings empowered with foie gras. But her diverse menu is no more weighted to China than to the rest of Asia, France and her own imagination.
In California, Wolfgang Puck has been trying his hand at Chinese fusion with Chinois on Main in Santa Monica since 1983. On its surface, this ought to be what I'm seeking -- a Chinese restaurant with a name partly French, and located outside Chinatown by its Austrian creator. In fact, only about half the entrees on a current Chinois menu look to China for their inspiration. And I am including in my tally some marginal items. Ditto at Boston's much-admired fusion outpost Blue Ginger, where China plays a distant second fiddle to Japan and southeast Asia.
To improve on this, at least superficially, you have to head for the hills, the L.A. suburb of Agoura Hills, where Mandarin Express Chinese Fusion Restaurant has been playing with tofu in 36 varieties since 1988 -- from strawberry-peach to Cajun style. It also offers a vast array of 'mock' meat dishes evidently based on Chinese Buddhist vegetarian recipes. Some of Mandarin Express's entrees are for carnivores, but I don't have high hopes for many of chef-owner Dan Chang's 'signature creations': orange chicken/beef named after actor Kelsey Grammer and raspberry Captain Morgan rum chicken.
Still, I will definitely be reserving a table at Mandarin Express -- to see if there is a serious confrontation with Chinese tradition behind the fruit and flimflam -- on my way to China, where, Ms. Dunlop reports, Chinese food is evolving in new directions of its own, while pioneering European restaurants are offering possibly unintentional versions of Euro-fusion to Chinese diners.
Until then, I will be commuting to Flushing, for dan dan noodles at Spicy & Tasty or the hot pot favored by hip young Chinese diners at Golden Szechuan.
但 我為什麼要長途跋涉去紐約皇後區法拉盛(Flushing)的中國城品嘗中國美食﹖為什麼這道足以代表中國屹立在世界烹飪金字塔頂端（只有法國可以與之並 肩而立）的名菜不能在曼哈頓更高檔的餐廳出現﹖為什麼在混合式烹飪(fusion cooking)盛行的時期﹐只有日本料理、甚至影響力更小的韓國料理在美國大行其道﹐而中國菜卻往往被那些渴望從其他民族烹飪手法中吸取創新元素的年輕 美國廚師所忽視﹖
不 過﹐你能告訴我﹐在美國哪個城市的市中心能找到一家高品質、面向各類顧客的高檔中式餐廳嗎﹖如果能說出來﹐我馬上就會沖過去。和我一樣的還有當年那些沉醉 於神奇麻辣的川菜和高貴典雅的北京菜的美食家們。1972年尼克松總統(Richard Nixon)訪華歸來後﹐美國興起一股正宗中國菜的熱潮。我記得當時有個中國大陸的廚師來到曼哈頓市區﹐各大報紙紛紛刊登頭條新聞。如今﹐要是我們想再次 感受中國菜給人帶來的興奮和回味﹐只能去法拉盛的中國城﹐或洛杉磯郊外的羅斯密德(Rosemead)。
中國餐館在美國市中心的日漸衰落 也有幾個例外。紐約洛克菲勒中心附近的“五糧液”餐廳(Wu Liang Ye)以及曼哈頓林肯中心附近的Shun Lee West餐廳仍然高舉著川菜的大旗。最近我們聽說紐約製衣區開了一家不錯的中餐館﹐但去那兒一看﹐這家名叫朵頤食府(Szechuan Gourmet)的餐廳並沒有讓人耳目一新的感覺。四川前不久剛剛遭受地震災害﹐但那裡的美食卻讓人讚不絕口。扶霞(Fuchsia Dunlop)曾以廚藝學徒的身份在四川為其《天府之國》(Land of Plenty)一書（2003年出版）搜集了多種菜式。
朵頤 食府的麻婆豆腐口味不佳﹐沒有牛肉絲﹐青蔥也很少。我們很想找機會品嘗一下加州Pasadena市的“Yujean Kang”中國餐館以及費城“生記北京烤鴨館”(Sang Kee Peking Duck House)的菜餚﹐也很希望讀者能踴躍來信﹐談談你們自己中意的中國餐館。
今 天﹐在跨文化飲食方面一個更為令人遺憾的現象是﹐在很多雄心勃勃的美國本土廚師的菜單上﹐有日本和亞洲其他國家的菜餚﹐美式中國菜卻寥寥無幾。想想曼哈頓 的Nobu餐廳和森巴壽司連鎖店(Sushi Samba)﹐那裡帶有南美風味的壽司卷﹔想想所有那些異國情調餐廳的菜單﹐上面對一些日本食材根本不必多加解釋﹐比如ponzu、nori和uni。或 者﹐如果你去韓裔美籍廚師David Chang在曼哈頓開的三家熱門餐館中的任何一家吃飯﹐不妨問問自己﹐為什麼這位廚師在用韓國泡菜和泰國拉差辣醬做出融合式料理時﹐可以完全不用理會作為 其烹飪之本的中國菜文化呢﹖
忽視中國菜的一個可能原因是﹐中國菜對外國大廚來說像是一座難以逾越的大山。舉例而言﹐國際著名廚師Jean -Georges Vongerichten關掉了風格獨特、備受矚目的“66”餐廳﹐一家位於曼哈頓Tribeca區的中式風格餐館﹐轉而交給一個日本團隊經營。或者還有 另一個原因﹐高檔餐廳的投資人覺得提供原汁原味的中國菜會讓食客們難以接受﹖
最近﹐我們去紐約市區唯一一家比較上檔次的中餐館Tse Yang吃北京烤鴨。這是巴黎一家類似餐廳的紐約分店﹐其網站宣傳圖片展示的是很多支紅酒和煙熏三文魚。北京烤鴨應該皮脆肉嫩﹐但Tse Yang的烤鴨只能說是差強人意﹔那裡的四川菜不中不洋﹐也不好吃。與此同時﹐國際華人餐飲業巨子周英華(Michael Chow)開的Mr.Chow中餐連鎖店﹐雖然提供的大多是北京菜﹐但用餐環境和服務方式基本上都西化了。
在 加州﹐主廚沃爾夫岡•帕克 (Wolfgang Puck)自1983年以來﹐就在聖塔摩尼卡(Santa Monica)的Chinois on Main餐廳嘗試中式風格的菜餚。從表面來看﹐這家餐廳正是我在尋找的那種─一家名字帶有法語的中餐館﹐不在唐人街附近﹐老闆是奧地利人。但事實上﹐菜單 的頭盤只有約一半帶有中式料理風格﹐而且其中幾道算成中國菜實在有些勉強。在波士頓熱門的異國情調餐廳Blue Ginger﹐中式菜餚屈居在日式料理和東南亞菜餚之後。
要想品嘗更多的中國菜（至少表面看來是中國菜）﹐你得前往洛杉磯郊區的亞哥拉山 (Agoura Hills)﹐那裡的“Mandarin Express Chinese Fusion Restaurant”從1988年起就有36道豆腐做的菜－－從豆腐做的草莓和桃子﹐到阿卡迪亞風格的豆腐等﹐此外還有不少根據中國佛教素食菜譜烹制的 “素”肉菜餚。有好幾道頭盤是給愛吃肉的食客準備的﹐但我對老闆兼主廚Dan Chang的這些“自創招牌菜”大多不抱太高期望﹕比如以男演員凱爾塞.格拉莫(Kelsey Grammer)命名的橘汁雞肉/牛肉﹐以及樹莓“摩根船長”(Captain Morgan)郎姆酒雞肉等。
在出現更好的中餐館之前﹐我還是會長途跋涉去法拉盛的中國城﹐在Spicy & Tasty川菜館點上一碗擔擔面﹐或者去年輕人愛去的“金四川”餐館點一個熱辣辣的火鍋大快朵頤。