Ming Tsai opened the doors of Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, Massachusetts, more than 10 years ago. Since then, he's earned two James Beard Foundation Awards, hosted three Emmy-nominated cooking shows, authored four cookbooks and competed on Season 3 of Food Network's "The Next Iron Chef". Before that young Tsai could be found in the kitchen with his mom and dad at their family-owned restaurant, Mandarin Kitchen, in Dayton, Ohio.
On the eve of a state dinner honoring Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to the White House Nicole Dow spoke with Chef Tsai about regional Chinese cooking, the role of authenticity and how an American eater can up his or her chances of scoring the good stuff.
What do you wish Americans knew about traditional Chinese food?
A lot of Chinese food is eaten towards texture, and that does not really exist that much in Western cuisine. For example, jellyfish is a traditional first course in a Chinese banquet. It’s part of a plate that has cold salads - like a cabbage salad and a jellyfish salad.
Jellyfish has no flavor. You usually get it treated with lots of salt, and you have to rinse it. The most traditional way it’s prepared is with chili oil, garlic and sesame oil and a little soy. You taste this flavor with a great crunch - like cartilage in a chicken bone. To the American palate, why would you want to eat that? To the Chinese palate, it is a delicacy.
Tofu is another great example. It's not made to be flavored, but it's all about how you cook it. With good tofu, you are eating it for its texture. There is something called "dou fu hua" which is twice as delicate as silken tofu. It melts in your mouth, and that texture is unbelievable.
Then there's sea cucumber. It has a hard gelatin texture and what you cook it with is what makes it so good.
There are a lot of great things that the Western palate would find strange, but is better if you understand that texture is the key to great food.
In Szechuan cuisine, there’s a term called, “ma-la,” which means, “numb spicy.” It’s a specialty of the Szechuan region that comes from the Szechuan peppercorn. It numbs your mouth a bit, and the numbness prepares your mouth to take more heat from the spice, without ruining the flavor of the food you are eating. It’s different from what you would eat in Beijing or Shanghai.
Does Chinese-American food stand as its own cuisine?
I don’t think so. Chinese-American cuisine is “dumbed-down” Chinese food. It’s adapted for the wrong reasons, to be blander, thicker and sweeter for the American public. Chinese cuisine was the rage in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In the ‘80s it was Japanese food. In the 90s, Thai food. Now Indian cuisine and Korean food are huge. I just would not go to a restaurant that says it is Chinese-American.
What are some giveaways that it’s a Chinese-American restaurant?
If you look at a menu, you see 3-5 different Chinese regions, this restaurant is trying to be one restaurant for all people. It’s a red flag to me that it is a Chinese-American restaurant. If you see the chop suey, turn around. It’s fried vegetables and some protein in a thick sauce That’s not authentic anywhere in China.
If there are eight different sweet and sour dishes or If there is a whole page of 20 different chow meins or fried rice dishes – authentic restaurants have a couple of different variations – it’s catering to an American palate. Huge restaurants in New York and San Francisco have four chefs, each one doing specific food. That is not very common. But most Chinese, when they go out to eat have a specific style of food in mind.
What are some indicators that you’re in the right place?
The great way of serving of Chinese food, the family way, and it’s always like that - a beautiful platter in the middle of the table that everyone shares. Obviously, rice is always served. Nowadays, there is brown rice, which is something I love. There are going to be classic dishes, versions of Peking Duck or crispy chicken. Each should be specific to the restaurant’s region.
In this country, especially in the major cities, there are tons of restaurants that serve specific Chinese cuisine from a specific region. My biggest tip for anyone, especially if you are in a town with a Chinatown, is look for restaurants that specialize in region, like Szechuan or Hunan.
If you think about it, compare it to the U.S. If you are in the South and you do a great barbecue and also great New England clam chowder – how can that one chef be adept enough at both? How could one Chinese chef do fantastic Cantonese food, with the subtlety of ginger, soy, and scallion and the fiery heat of Szechuan food, or Mandarin or Cantonese? A Mexican chef can’t do great French food and vice-versa.
If you are calling, ask if they have a Chinese menu, if they do, it means they are catering to Chinese people. Also, if you walk in and see Asian people, that is also a good sign.
Does authenticity matter?
Absolutely. People are well-traveled these days. With the power of the web, you can get authentic recipes. With modern transportation, you can get any ingredient any time. You can enjoy authentic flavors that a lot of Americans do want. When people go to Hong Kong or Beijing, they don’t want Chinese-American food, they want to eat the food that Chinese people are eating.
People go to China in a tour group and say that the food is okay. The food is okay because they are in tour group and going to tourist restaurants. The food they are eating is kind of “dumbed-down” Chinese food in China. The Chinese people figure that tourists don’t want traditional food.
I’ve been to China four times in the last eight years. You can’t go in a tour group. It’s fine for travel and hotel, but you have to take the risk and eat where the locals eat.
If you are in China, go to where the Chinese eat. In this country, when I walk into a restaurant, I want to see only the locals there or the smart non-locals. I would go to a place that has mostly Chinese patrons.
Call up the restaurant and ask, “Do you have a Chinese menu?” That means, is there a menu that is written only in Chinese? If they have that, a lot of Chinese go to that restaurant.
What are some of the essentials of traditional Chinese cuisine? What are the dishes people should know about?
Royal Food/King’s Food: Mandarin
What is your favorite?
That’s tough because my grandmother is Szechuan, and they use ma-la in most of their cuisine. There’s a famous fish head soup - the whole fish is chopped up, skin bones, and all, placed in a fiery broth. You can see the chili oil on top. Scoop into your bowl, take one sip, and you really … wow, it is really spicy.
By the second sip, the Szechuan peppercorn starts numbing you, it’s no longer spicy. The peppercorn plays its part. I think it is just delicious.
Equally special is Hunan cuisine. It does not use Szechuan peppercorn, so when you eat the red chilis, the heat stays with you. It’s fiery, delicious, and tasty,
My favorite thing is to eat the spicy food. My favorite thing to cook and serve is the Peking Duck because it’s a labor of love, a 48 hour process and the most outrageous cooking technique I have ever seen. You’re essentially giving a tracheotomy to a duck. It really works. The fat does cook all off, and you’re left with a delicious, lacquered crispy skin and then the meat.
What is the best way for people to get a handle on traditional Chinese food?
The best way, get a Chinese friend (laughs). Same with any other type of food. In all seriousness, they know what to order, and if they speak the language, it helps so much. You will get more authentic food right off the bat.
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