Posts tagged: Sichuan

Just for Fun: Hunan Manor – New York Restaurant Review

By , July 18, 2013

Diners at Manhattan’s new Hunan Manor

For the past few years, Sichuan restaurants have opened in New York City like no one’s business , with over six being clustered in just a few blocks of Manhattan’s midtown east.  But if you are like me – you are Sichuan’ed out.  In fact out of all of China’s various cuisines, Sichaun probably has the least versatility.  Eventually that spicy, tingly feeling and taste after every dish gets a bit repetitive.

That is why I was excited to learn that a new cuisine had moved into the Sichuan barrio – Hunan Manor.  Hunan Manor boasts of an equally spicy cuisine – that of Hunan province – but with a lot more freshness, flavor and diversity.  Hunan food relies less on the chili paste and peppercorns of Sichuan cuisine and instead incorporates greater use of garlic, fresh chili peppers and shallots.  Hunan food is usually a treat.

Unfortunately that was not the case at Hunan Manor.  Hunan Manor is the Manhattan sister restaurant of perhaps one of Flushing’s bests, Hunan House.  I had eaten twice before at Hunan House in Flushing and both times thought the food was amazing.  So I was looking forward to trying out Hunan Manor.

But perhaps because Hunan Manor does not serve an exclusively Chinese clientele, its food was bland and ultimately uneventful.  In fact, the menu itself demonstrates that Hunan Manor must serve two masters – the first two pages of the menu are filled with traditional American Chinese food, an option that is missing in Flushing’s Hunan House.

My dining companions and I ordered five different dishes and only one was particularly outstanding, the eggplant and string bean dish.  The

Sauteed Eggplant and String Bean

dish was extremely flavorful and fresh with the string beans appropriately crispy and the eggplant not too soft.  Also the garlic flavor was pronounced in a good way – while noticeable, it did not over power the vegetables .

Unfortunately from this dish it was pretty much downhill.  The Hunan fried noodles were far from spectacular.  The flavor was bland and ultimately it tasted too much like take out.  But not good take out; more like 1 AM hangover take out where nothing better is open.  The braised pork Mao style, which is perhaps one of my favorite dishes in the Flushing restaurant, lacked the flavor and the richness of Hunan House.  And the sizzling tofu with shrimp was nothing to write home about.  It was good but nothing great.

Although there was only one stand out dish out of four, my dining companions and I decided to continue to venture the further down the menu, with the hope that things would get better.  As a result, we ordered one of my favorite dishes – a dish that I don’t understand why more Chinese restaurants in America haven’t realized that this dish would be a big hit: zha mantou (pronounced ja man-toe).  Zha mantou is basically fried bread dipped in sweet condensed milk.  Just thinking about it makes my mouth water.  The zha mantou redeemed Hunan Manor a bit – the mantous came out hot which makes the dish even more divine.  It could have been fried a bit less but ultimately I ate three of these little guys.

Sizzling tofu and shrimp

Strangely, we were served no tea at Hunan Manor.  At first I thought this was an oversight, but many of the other tables lacked any teapots.  This itself should have been a sign.

My ultimate take away – skip Hunan Manor and instead make the venture to Hunan House in Flushing.  The food is more authentic, fresh and flavorful there.  It does justice to the amazing cuisine which is Hunan food.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

Hunan Manor

339 Lexington Ave (at 39th Street)
New York, NY 10016
(212) 682-2883

http://www.hunanmanornewyork.com/

Book Review – The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up

By , October 10, 2012

Too often Westerners’ views of China are shaped through the eyes of a select few – Ai Weiwei, Han Han, and in the legal world, He Weifang, Xu Zhiyong, and Chen Guangcheng.  How they see China is often how we see it.  China is far from an open society and these individuals are educated, media savvy, and maintain a good rapport with foreign reporters.  Make no mistake, they have important stories to tell.

But it is rare to know what the average Chinese person thinks and feels about his own history; what is important and what shouldn’t be forgotten.  Although China has a history that spans more than 2,000 years, it doesn’t have the same respect for the individual history and experiences of the everyman.  There is no Library of Congress that attempts to collect the stories of former slaves before they die or a StoryCorps project where anyone can go to a recording booth and interview a friend or family member.  In some ways, there are likely stories that the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) would rather forget.

Fortunately for China and for us, there is LIAO Yiwu and The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up.  In his way, Liao Yiwu is trying to be the Library of Congress, interviewing average people before their histories are forgotten.  In The Corpse Walker, 27 of Liao’s interviews with average Chinese people are translated into English, giving the reader a more democratic view of China.

Three of the first four of Liao’s  interviews – The Professional Mourner, The Public Restroom Manager, and The Corpse Walkers – paint a picture of a China that is long gone.  But Liao is able to capture these  dying professions and the men who filled them.  And while they tell the stories of China’s past, their stories are still familiar.  The public restroom manager is still bitter from an incident with a young punk who teases him because of his work, but ultimately he is just happy to have a job.  The corpse walker discussing how to “walk a corpse” and tells his story with the nostalgia of an old man thinking back to other times.

But in each of the 27 interviews, not a single person has been left unscathed by the CCP’s various campaigns and politics.  Liao doesn’t have to delve deep to get these stories.  For each person, the Land Reform Movement, Great Leap Forward, the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Cultural Revolution, or the Tiananmen crackdown, have shaped their lives.

It is particularly poignant in The Yi District Chief’s Wife.  The wife – Zhang Meizhi – and her family did not fare well during the Land Reform Campaign.  As members of the highest caste of the Yi minority, a caste-based ethnic group in southwest China with land being owned primarily by the highest caste, Zhang and her family were major targets of the Land Reform.  After witnessing her husband’s execution and the subsequent cutting of his tongue from his mouth,  Zhang’s struggle was far from over.  Her eldest son became a target, forcing him to live in a hole in a ground for years to avoid the same fate as his father, all the while degenerating into a wild existence.  Today, Zheng has not forgotten; she has forgiven to a degree, but she has not forgotten.  Unfortunately, as she points out, the children of those who want to forget already have.

In The Retired Official, Liao interviews Zheng Dajun, an official who headed a government work team in rural Sichuan during the Great Leap

Rural residents and victims of China's Great Leap Forward

Forward.  Zheng eye-witnessed a country descending into one of the worst famines in modern history and a people spiraling to a state of nature in the rural areas.  Slowly the starving people moved from eating white clay and drinking castor oil to cannibalism.  Although Zheng repeatedly informed higher officials, nothing was done to stop the export of needed grain from the rural areas to the cities.

Perhaps the most moving of all of Liao’s interviews is The Tiananmen Father.  As poor workers in Sichuan province, Wu Dingfu and his wife felt lucky that one of their sons excelled in school; both were ecstatic when their son passed the college entrance exam and attended college in Beijing.  Wu tells the story of his son, a young man who believed in something and then like many college students, got in over his head.  But before he could get out, he was killed by the troops on their way to Tiananmen Square.  In Wu’s interview, you can feel not just the ache of a father bringing not just his son’s body back to Sichuan, but the collapse of a dream that his family could do better.

The Corpse Walker is an important read since the voices of China’s average person are finally heard.  And what’s remarkable is that while their stories are different from ours, the emotions are not: the bitterness of working a menial job; the need to forgive to go on living; the anger of a former government official who tried to do the right thing; the emptiness of a father who has to bury his son.  If just for this reason – for showing the humanity of the average Chinese person – The Corpse Walker is an important read.

But The Corpse Walkeris vital as a depository of China’s history, the history that the people – not the Party – wants to tell.  The Chinese Communist Party is in denial of its past; it does not want to recognize the divisions and violence that has been a result of its rule and it hopes

The author, Liao Yiwu

that China’s economic miracle can serve as bread and circuses for the young, causing them not to even ask about the past.  But as Liao makes clear in some of his more prescient interviews, the past is often the catalyst for the future.  Can it be forgotten or more importantly, should it be?  For Liao, the answer is no, but for the rest of China, the answer is much less clear.

Not all of Liao’s interviews are as remarkable as the ones mentioned here.  Some are boring and at times, Liao can be rather didactic in his questioning of those that he has less sympathy for which detracts from the stories he is trying to tell.  But the interviews mentioned here, especially The Tiananmen Father, must be read.  Because to understand China’s present, we must understand how the victims of China’s past live today.

Rating: ★★★½☆

The Corpse Walker, by Liao Yiwu (Anchor 2009), 352 pages.

Just for Fun – London Restaurant Review – Chilli Cool

By , October 2, 2011

London's Chilli Cool

Is it possible to go to a foreign country, live there for a number of years and remain completely unchanged?  In the case of British cuisine, the answer is a resounding yes.  Although England ruled countries with the world’s most flavorful food, the Brits never thought to incorporate any of the newly found spices into their own cuisine.  But while British food has remained unchanged, major cities in the U.K. are filled with foreign restaurants, which have a good number of British customers.  By choosing not to create a fusion cuisine, the Brits have guaranteed that cities like London have some of the most authentic ethnic restaurants;  arguably the best Indian food outside of India can be found in London (major props to Masala Zone – yes it’s a chain, but it was phenomenal).

But what about Chinese food in London?  For over 100 years, England ruled the island of Hong Kong and made significant inroads into the Mainland prior to the Communist takeover, with major concession areas in Shanghai and Canton.  But unfortunately, the number of good Chinese restaurants in London is scant.  In speaking with a London friend  who spent many years in China, she noted that there were only around three good Chinese restaurants in London, a disappointment indeed.

And that is how I found myself at Chilli Cool (the misspelling of “chili” is intentional), one of the recommended three, in the Kings Cross area of London.  From the moment you open the door to the restaurant, Chilli Cool is unmistakably Sichuan, with the smells of the region engulfing you- a very promising sign.  Additionally, Chilli Cool compromises two restaurants, one that serves Sichuan hotpot and one that serves appetizers dishes.  My friend and I opted for the main restaurant to try the dishes.

Savory Hot Spicy Chicken

The first dish we ordered, Sichuan Savory Hot Spicy Chicken (No. 6), a traditional Sichuan appetizer where the Chinese literally translates to “mouth-watering chicken”, was not just dead-on authentic but delish.  The chicken, served in a bowl drenched by a Sichuan hot sauce and sesame seeds, was tender and although the dish is filled with a canopy of spices, the flavor of the chicken (which is served cold) is not lost.  Instead, the spices only enhance the flavor. The chili is the main flavor of the dish, but the subtle smokiness of the black pepper serves as a wonderful compliment.  Any trip to Chilli Cool is incomplete without ordering the Sichuan Savory Hot Spicy Chicken – Chilli Cool offers the best version of the dish that I have had outside of China.

To shake things up, we then ordered the Hot & Spicy Spare Ribs (No. 29) and the Dry Fried Chicken with Cumin & Chili (No. 37).  Unfortunately that is where our culinary adventure began to go off course.  Aside from the meat selection – one with chicken, one with pork – the dishes were exactly the same.  Neither the English description nor the Chinese

Two of the Same - Dry Fried Chicken (near) with Hot & Spicy Spare Ribs

name of the dish signaled that two dishes would be virtually identical and our waiter did not let us know that perhaps choosing two of the same dishes was not a good idea.

Fortunately, the chicken version came out first and was amazingly good and flavorful;  if one had to choose between the two dishes (which one should otherwise it is repetitive), the chicken version is by far superior.  The chicken was lightly fried and breaded, giving the dish a lightness that is often not found in fried Chinese food.  For those with a more delicate palate, the dish was not overwhelmingly spicy and was bursting with flavor.  The scallions, onions and peppers were fresh and perfectly complemented the mild chili flavor.  However, the dish likely could have used a touch more cumin as that flavor went largely unnoticed.

As for the pork version, the spare ribs were a bit dry.  Additionally, the flavoring of the dish tastes better with chicken.  Arguably other pork dishes on the menu would be a better choice.

As our fourth and final dish, we ordered one of my favorites, Shredded Potato with Spicy Dried Chili (No. 18).  When I lived in China, this dish was a staple for me and when made right, is a good carbohydrate alternative to

Shredded Potato with Spicy Dried Chili

rice.  Unfortunately, Chili Cool could not have made it more wrong.  The dish, which is usually very lightly fried, came out drenched in grease.  If made right, the potato slices should be firm; in the Chilli Cool version they were soft and soggy.  For some reason, Chili Cool added cloves to the dish which was weird and messed too much with the flavor.  Our Shredded Potato dish remained untouched during our meal.

Although one of the dishes was largely inedible and we were not properly warned that two of our dishes were twins of each other, I would still recommend a visit to Chili Cool when in London.  Two of the dishes were pretty amazing and could easily compete with the Sichuan chefs of Chengdu or Chongqing.  However, it might be best to stick with the traditional Sichuan “appetizers” (like dan dan noodles and Sichuan dumplings).

However, do note that Chilli Cool is no where near “Chinatown cheap.”  With four dishes and one beer, Chili Cool set us back 40 pounds (approximately $63), a lot of money considering two of the dishes were not that great.  Chilli Cool holds promise to be an amazing experience but a more careful selection from the menu is necessary.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

Chilli Cool
15 Leigh Street
London, UK WC1H 9EW
020 7383 3135
Nearest Tube Station: Kings Cross
http://www.chillicool.com/home-eng.html

Panorama Theme by Themocracy

%d bloggers like this: