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Sep 2, 2001 02:24 AM

Chinese food

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What's the difference between Szechwan, Hunan, and Madarin style Chinese food?

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  1. Anyone - please correct me.The types of ingredients, the cooking styles and the flavorings.
    My best source, is a Chinese language guidebook called something like Zhongguo Luyou Shoutse, published in Beijing in 1981. Of the six "classic" Chinese cuisines it mentions, two are Szechwan and Shandong - Mandarin (they differentiate between Shandong and Beijing).
    The characteristics of Szechwan food that the book cites are a strong attention to color in presentation, a palate of seven flavors - sweet, bitter, salty, sour/acid, sesame-flavored, piquant, and "strange". Szechwan is noted for several subtle types of boiling, (zhu, firepot), and Gan-shao, or dry cooking (cooking in a hot pot until most moisture is removed, leaving a chewy texture). There's more, use of fresh water fish and prawns, several classic dishes like Ma-po Tofu, Szechwan versions of Kungpao dishes, hotseed dishes, twice cooked pork, Sesame-spicy firepot.
    Mandarin dishes are a difficult term. It's a western term. If it's used for "northern chinese", then the only major classic cuisine is Shandong, and some famous dishes of Beijing. Carp, seafood, esp. prawns and sea cucumber as a delicacy. Strangest beasts include camel (hoof and hump) and bear (paws), very expensive and about as common as fresh caviar or shad milt in the west. Peking duck, mu-shu dishes, yellow river singed carp, etc. In Beijing, some dairy in suan-nai, and in Moslem butter cookies. Seasonal variation in food, winter foods differ from summer foods - it snows. Many dishes with green peppers, eggs. Roasted maize is also eaten. Shandong and Beijing food has many wheaten dishes, like mantou and wheat doughs stuffed with forcemeat, etc. Instant-boiled mutton and mongol based dishes have been assimilated, as have turkic shashliks (yangrou zhuan). Greater consumption of lamb because grazing areas are nearby (in contrast the cantonese kitchen has little lamb or even beef).
    Elegant cuisine in north esp. Beijing is strongly influenced by Qing dynasty court cuisine. Beijing is its own thing though as it was the capital from just after 1400 to 1911, so cooks and dishes from around the country influenced the city's cuisine (more rice was eaten in Beijing itself than in all of Hebei/Zhili province). Also, the shandong kitchen uses fruits more common in temperate regions like apples, pears, and Western-Chinese melons as opposed to the tropical and sub-tropical fruit found in Canton and Taiwan. Sauces in the north are either quite light, or may have sesame flavorings. Most Pekinese I met thought that Szechwan food was much too hot.

    The book I have treats Hunan food as a minor subset of the complex Szechwan kitchen. There are some specialties like the Hunan ham, certain teas, etc. There seems to be a more liberal use of oil in the Hunan kitchen. But Hunan is also seen as the birthplace of the Tan Family cuisine, which was brought to the capital and is kind of a Chinese equivalent of the Escoffier tradition, in that the chef and his dishes are noted by name.

    BTW, most restaurants here aren't big sticklers. You'll find mu-shu (sometimes even called mu-hsi) dishes on menus with mostly Cantonese dishes, and you'll find sweet and sour pork on Mandarin menus here (although honestly, Gu-lao rou which is sweet and sour pork is considered by the guidebook to be a great dish of Canton, along with Long-hu Dou, dragon tiger struggle - [civet] cat meat with three kinds of snake, stir-fried).

    4 Replies
    1. re: Jerome

      Hunan food is NOT a subset of Sichuan food, at least not in taste. Having lived in South Central China for a few years, I ate a lot of Hunan food, as well as Sichuan food. Hunan does use a lot more oil, but the defining ingredients are fresh, hot, green peppers, while Sichuan food uses a lot of smaller, dried red peppers (there are exceptions, of course). Also, Hunan food uses douban, a spicey black bean paste. This is NOT the Lee Kum Kwa (or whatever) spicey black bean paste -- that stuff is made by Taiwanese or Cantonese who do not understand Hunan food at all. Also, I have NEVER had huajiao (Sichuan Peppercorns) in Hunan food.

      I find Hunan food to be much more savory and oily than Sichuan food, which tends to be just damn hot (in a good way). I think you'll find that most Chinese Food "experts" will dismiss Hunan food, since it is "peasant" food and has little of the royal history that Mandarin and Sichuan have behind it. Let me tell you this, though -- real Hunan food absolutely rocks! I have yet to find an authentic Hunan restaurant in LA, Boston, SF, or Seattle (or a decent Sichuan one, for that matter).

      I think out of all of the Chinese food I have had (lots), the cuisine most suited to American palates is Hunan. Sadly, very few have tried it in its authentic state. I have yet to meet an American who has had Qiezi Bao (a black bean eggplant dish served in a clay pot) and not crowned it as some of the best damn Chinese food ever invented.

      I really wish a respectable chef would write about Chinese peasant food, which I find to be superior to most of the Mandarin dishes so often rehashed by "experts." It is like a discussion of American food focusing solely on four-star haute cusisine and ignoring pizza, fried chicken, and apple pie -- while they may be done badly a lot of the time, done right they are exquisite.

      Thanks for listening to my rant.

      1. re: Nick Z

        Thanks for the correction. The book I've got just didn't consider it one of the six classic cuisines. I've had great Shaanxi dishes like a lamb soup with bits of bread broken into it, but you're right, it's not a Chinese haute cuisine.
        It would be great to have more authentic regional Chinese restaurants, like a place to get Shanxi crispy duck,or even a first-class high level Sichuan restaurant here, where the food is not just hot.

        1. re: jerome

          Yes! I totally agree. The homoginization of Chinese food in this country (and most others outside of China) really stinks. The almost unreal variations and variety is what makes eating in mainland China so exciting.

          The only good Hunan food I found in China was in Hunan -- unlike Sichuan, Cantonese, etc. I was lucky enough to spend considerable time in Changsha (capital of Hunan) where the food was great. Otherwise I probably would have missed out entirely. I think Yunnan food is also very underrepresented (and poorly done) in the US, but it seems like there are a couple of good places in Montery Park.

        2. re: Nick Z

          Yes yes a thousand times yes. It would be a joy to have a real Hunan restaurant in NYC. Have yet to find one.

      2. Hunan food and Sichuan food both use lots of chile, but Sichuan cuisine also uses a spice called "ma" in Chinese, often translated as Chinese peppercorn. Ma is not spicy; in fact, it acts as a kind of anesthesia: your tongue will get kind of numb. It is very common in Sichuan hot pot (which is similar to Japanese shabu-shabu, but the water is seasoned instead of plain, and there are more types of ingredients).

        As far as Mandarin cuisine, it is pretty much an invented term: all kinds of restaurants will call themselves "Mandarin." It can refer to Beijing style food - of which Beijing duck is the most famous. It could also, I suppose, embrace other Northern style Chinese cuisines (since "Mandarin," conceptually is associated with Northern China). Large crescent-shaped boiled dumplings are typically Northern-style Chinese food. Cold noodle dishes are also northern style, as are a variety of heartier style "peasant" dishes often associated with the north, and occasionally including potatoes (and similar to dishes you might get in Koreatown). In Los Angeles, one of the best northern (Shandong-style) dumpling houses is in Jonathan Gold's book: we just ate there today: Dumpling House on Rosemead, in Temple City. I recommend the huge (the only dumplings I've never been able to fit whole into my mouth) steamed vegetable dumplings. The "pi" (shell) of the dumplings are chewy and thin: you won't find those thick, pasty dumplings you get in Brentwood or Beverly Hills.

        8 Replies
        1. re: Rob

          Sichuanese food is complex and varied, and Sichuan peppercorns do not turn up in every dish, but they are quite distinctive. The Chinese word "ma2" simply means "numbing" (as in "ma2 la4 huo3 guo1," a hot and tongue-numbing hotpot); "hua1 jiao1" (literally "flower pepper") is the Chinese for Sichuan peppercorn, one of the few capsicums thought to be native to Asia.

          1. re: Samo

            I was looking for sichuan Peppercorn, hua jiao for the past few weeks. I was told at three markets and at two herbal shops that the fda was put a ban on importation of sichuan peppercorn, hua jiao (Xantho-whatever). Checking out the FDA website, there seems to be some question over a compound present in the peppercorn, naturally, but the stores and herbalist led me to believe this was a temporary ban.
            Sansho, Japanese prickly ash is taken from bark and leaves of the same (or very similar) plant and I think you can still that.
            Does anybody have any info?

            1. re: Jerome

              I have a huge supply, not altogether fresh, but you are welcome to a cup or two.

              I wonder where the chefs from places like Best Szechuan are going for their peppercorns. Have you asked?

              1. re: Samo

                I'm just assuming that people are bringing it in from Taiwan or from Vancouver.

                1. re: Jerome

                  A while ago I asked my favorite Sichuan restaurant where they get their extremely numbing hua jiao and despite our earnestness, they wouldn't give us a direct answer (this was after my parents tried cajoling them by pulling out their Sichuan dialect). We suspected covert activity.

                  Anyhow, we eventually found our supply of fresh tingly pepper - in Shanghai (and undeclared). The woman selling us the precious sachets stopped and asked us what we were going to do with so much pepper. The point of the digression? - we could only find it overseas, sigh.

                  In case anyone is curious about the restaurant mentioned above with the [almost] killer hua jiao, it's Maxim's/Long Chou Sho in Roland Heights at 18438 Colima Road #106, inside the shopping mall. 626.810.7818.

                  Some dishes exemplifying this wondrous spice: fu chi fei pian (spicy thin-sliced beef and tendon), sui zhu niu rou (water-cooked-beef -- but it's actually oil)

              2. re: Jerome

                it is now readily available online and in Asian stores.

              3. re: Samo

                Ma2 can often mean sesame, zhima. On the mainland both the sesame and the hemp/numbing ma are written the same way.

              4. re: Rob

                I am under the impressions that "Ma" is a "taste" not a spice. the Sichuan peppercorn (not really a peppercord) is a spice which produces Ma.