Saturday, February 09, 2013

Szechuan Chef, Portland - a review

For the sake of continuity,  Chinese characters are written three ways,  拼音 pīnyīn pinyin without additional punctuation. For example, 川 chuān river. Focus on the terms you can understand.

不要味精 búyào wèijīng don't need MSG!

Just a note about 五香粉 wǔxiāng fěn  five fragrance powder, or five spice. It is a common ingredient, with:
八角 bājiǎo star anise
丁香 dīngxiāng clove
肉桂 ròuguì Chinese cinnamon or cassia-bark
花椒 huājiāo prickly ash seeds or Szechuan peppercorns
小茴香 xiǎohuíxiāng fennel (foeniculum vulgare)

China Moon's "ten spice" adds coriander, cumin, black peppercorns, turmeric, and ginger.

SzechuanChef **** (4/5 stars)
川霸王 chuān bàwáng River Overlord
featuring many dishes of
四川菜sìchuāncài Szechuan cuisine

Sun. - Thur.: 11am - 10pm
Fri. & Sat.: 11am - 10:30pm
Lunch 11:00am - 3:00pm
Reservations accepted.

PORTLAND OR 97239-6104

We enjoyed six different dishes in our first visit to Szechuan Chef:
  1. 西湖牛肉羹xīhú niúròu gēng West Lake beef soup
  2. 干扁四季豆 gānbiǎn sìjìdòu Dry flat green beans
  3. 麻婆豆腐 mápó dòufu pock-marked old woman's tofu 3 chilies
  4. 鱼香茄子 yúxiāng qiézi fish flavor eggplant 2 chilies
  5. 孜然羊 zīrán yáng cumin lamb 3 chilies
  6. 干锅肥肠 gānguō féicháng dry pot large intestine 5 chilies
All were presented beautifully, a pleasure to look at, to smell, and to eat.

Please note that images are from the web, not from the restaurant; I tried to find images of dishes similar to those served to us.

  1. 西湖牛肉羹 xīhú niúròu gēng West Lake beef soup 

    West Lake beef soup $9.95

    This soup is a traditional dish from the South, a famous recipe from Hángzhōu, the capitol of Zhèjiāng province. It is said that the color and texture of the soup, with its egg whites and broth, recall the rippling surface of West Lake.

    Traditional ingredients include beef, egg whites, white pepper, sesame oil, and a dash of Shaoxing rice wine. This style of soup, (gēng), is a thick broth made hearty with cornstarch, or even better, jellied meat broth. The version of this dish at Szechuan Chef was quite delicious, with bits of tasty ground beef, clouds of egg white, and a satisfying chicken broth that coated the tongue, a refreshing complement to the spicy food of Szechuan.

  2. 干扁四季豆 gānbiǎn sìjìdòu Dry flat green beans 

    2 chilies Dry Cooked String Bean $9.95

    My Chinese friend, Tang Yu, writes, 
    煸炒是炒的一种,为中餐的一种常见烹调方法。 煸炒的操作是先将炒锅内放少量底油,烧热,加入原料快速翻炒至熟透,调味而成。

    This kind of frying is a common cooking method for Chinese food. The frying method is to first put a small amount of oil in the wok, then heat, adding raw materials quickly fried until cooked and seasoned.

    At Szechuan Chef, this dish of seared green beans, with bits of minced pork, dried chili, diced green onion, ginger garlic, sesame oil, and rice wine was delicious and just spicy enough. The sweet vegetable flavor was nicely contrasted with the flakes of pepper and sesame oil on the outside of the bean. There was more than a hint of heat, but the delicate fragrance of the pepper added depth to the flavor. The aromatic perfume of the spices and oil lasted until the last bite.

  3. 麻婆豆腐 mápó dòufu Pock-Marked Ma's tofu 

    3 chilies Mapo Tofu Szechuan Style $8.95

    Legend says that the pock-marked old woman (má pó), Fuchun Chen's wife, was a widow who lived in the Chinese city of Chengdu. Due to her condition, her home was placed on the outskirts of the city. By coincidence, it was near a road where traders often passed. Although the rich merchants could afford to stay within the numerous inns of the prosperous city while waiting for their goods to sell, the poor workers would stay in cheaper inns scattered along the sides of roads on the outskirts of the ancient city. These poor workers, or heavers, earned their living by transporting edible oil from workshops to restaurants. Often they brought some tofu and beef and ask the pock-marked woman to prepare it for them. As time went by, the pock-marked woman created a special and unique way to cook tofu and her restaurant became well known for her tofu. Someone then named the tofu she cooked as Mapo tofu, which means tofu cooked by the pock-marked women.

    Another less widely accepted explanation stems from an alternative definition of , meaning "numb": the Szechuan peppercorns used in the dish numb the diner's mouth. According to Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook: "Eugene Wu, the Librarian of the Harvard Yenching Library, grew up in Chengdu and claims that as a schoolboy he used to eat Pock-Marked Ma's Bean Curd or mapo doufu, at a restaurant run by the original Pock-Marked Ma herself. One ordered by weight, specifying how many grams of bean curd and meat, and the serving would be weighed out and cooked as the diner watched. It arrived at the table fresh, fragrant, and so spicy hot, or la, that it actually caused sweat to break out."

    "Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook" is still available:

    True mapo doufu is powerfully spicy with both conventional "heat" spiciness and the characteristic "mala" (numbing spiciness) flavor of Sichuan cuisine. The feel of the particular dish is often described by cooks using seven specific Chinese adjectives: má(numbing), là(spicy hot), tàng (physically hot), xiǎn(fresh), nèn(tender), xiāng(aromatic), and sū (crisp). These seven characteristics are considered to be the most defining of authentic mapo doufu.

    Many Szechuan dishes contain the phrase 香辣 xiānglà (fragrant & spicy). This is essential in mapo dofu. The authentic form of the dish is increasingly easy to find outside China today, but usually only in Sichuanese restaurants that do not adapt the dish for non-Sichuanese tastes. I found the dish in Chengdu considerably hotter and spicier than its Beijing cousins.

    The most important and necessary ingredients in the dish that give its usual flavor are chili broad bean paste (salty bean paste) from Sichuan's Pi county, 郫县豆瓣酱 píxiàn dòubànjiàng Pi County thick broad-bean paste (made from fermented salted broad beans and pepper, which gives the dish its characteristic deep orange-red color), fermented black beans, chili oil, chili flakes of 朝天辣椒 cháotiān làjiāo 'heaven-facing or skyward' pepper [this really does grow pointing up], Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, green onions, and rice wine. Ginger is a not-uncommon addition.

    This dish was very satisfying, with plentiful cubes of soft tofu swimming in thick sauce, bits of meat throughout. It also had the traditional blend of peppers, “三椒 sānjiāo three pepper”( 辣椒 làjiāo chili、花椒 huājiāo prickly ash、 胡椒 hújiāo pepper), adding to the enjoyment. It took quite a while for the complex flavors to unwind in one's mouth, with delicate crunches of prickly ash, the lip-numbing spice, the fragrant perfume of pepper blending with the tang of fermented broad beans, adding almost a hint of almond in the finish.

  4. 鱼香茄子 yúxiāng qiézi fish flavor eggplant 

    2 chilies Eggplant in Hot Garlic Sauce $8.95

    This is a common Sichuan dish. The fish flavor is imbued into the eggplant, but its flavor is not from fish , but a combination of red pepper , onion , ginger , garlic , sugar , salt , soy sauce and other condiments.
    This method is derived from the unique method of cooking fish seasoning in Sichuan cuisine, with a salty, sour, sweet, spicy, fragrant, fresh taste and rich onion, ginger, and garlic characteristics.
    This was a delicious dish, served piping hot, spreading its perfume across the table, rich in pepper, garlic, and ginger. Fragrant and satisfying.

  5. 孜然羊 zīrán yáng 

    3 chilies Cumin Lamb $12.95

     Eating is a very social event in China, and proper enjoyment of food is an important aspect of daily life. 

    Xinjiang-style food – Uighur food- is some of the most delicious cuisine I have eaten in China and amplified my enjoyment of the social experience many times over every time I had the opportunity to eat it. I first had Muslim food like this in Xi'an, and sought it out repeatedly after that. It is always thrilling, delicious, and even refreshing.

    I came to appreciate this especially in the summer, when the workday seemed to stretch to the horizon. And after that long day of work, the grad students and I would head out to the closest Xinjiang-style restaurant and consume mountains of skewered chicken, beef, and lamb, with more than a few bottles of cold local Yanjing beer. This cuisine was so different from what I had thought of as traditional Chinese cuisine, and its complex flavors so astonishing. I was drawn to its exotic blend of Middle Eastern herbs and spices with Chinese ingredients. It always made for enjoyable eating. Even in winter, if I had time during the day, I would stop at an inexpensive snack shop for a couple of mutton sandwiches, (about 3 yuan for two). When I think of Muslim food, I think to myself, “This will be delicious.”

    A recipe I have created myself in an attempt to duplicate the food I ate in Xi'an and Chengdu uses lamb (in China, it would be mutton), red pepper, onion parsley, cumin powder, pepper, chili powder, cooking wine, mutton broth for de-glazing, soy sauce.

    The name of this dish comes from the spice's name in Uighur:
    孜然(學名:Cuminum cyminum),又名安息茴香或阿拉伯茴香,中文种名孜然芹,“孜然”一词是来自维吾尔语(维吾尔语:زىرە Zire)。亦有譯作“枯茗”。安息古时是中亚,现属伊朗一带。中国的孜然产于新疆、甘肃、内蒙古等地。孜然并不是小茴香。
    Cumin ( scientific name : Cuminum cyminum), also known as cumin or Arab fennel, the Chinese species names cumin, cumin term is from Uyghur (Uighur: زىرە Zire).  also translated as "cumin. The rest ancientCentral Asia , now in the case of Iran the vicinity. Cumin produced in China's Xinjiang , Gansu , Inner Mongolia and other places. Cumin is not fennel .
    Of course, I was thrilled to see Uighur food on the menu at Szechuan Chef. And it was indeed delightful. This dish was everyone's favorite: the rich flavor of cumin, the delicious lamb, crunchy on the outside but tender on the inside, onions beautifully transparent and fragrant, the sliced peppers intermingled with the lamb and onion slices. It was a joy to look at and to eat. I felt a wave of nostalgia for life in Beijing sweep through me with each bite. This is a dish to enjoy over and over again.

    6. 干锅肥肠 gānguō féicháng dry pot intestine 

    5 chilies Dry Cooked Pork intestine hot pot $12.95

    This very hot dish was similar to dishes of this nature I had eaten in Beijing; its Chengdu relatives were considerably hotter and literally took my breath away. I remember eating this dish at a small shack in the hills outside Chengdu on a blistering hot summer day. The hot spicy food was actually soothing and relaxing. 

    At Szechuan Chef, we were presented with a sizzling pot of 肥肠 féicháng slices, mixed with green pepper, a sea of chili peppers, and scallions bathed in a light coating of prickly ash, rice wine, and soy sauce. The féicháng were delicious: tender, flavorful, and nicely contrasted with the sauteed vegetables in the pot. This was quite hot, but not searingly hot as I had eaten in Chengdu. Because some Americans are a little squeamish about eating things like 肥肠 , I asked the waitress not to tell the others at the table what was in the dish; she was discreet. My adventuresome friends who tried it enjoyed it.

    Overall, we found the food quite delicious. The service was excellent. The staff were attentive without hovering. When we first arrived the restaurant was mostly empty, but within fifteen minutes it was bustling and noisy with the sounds of people enjoying their food. Food arrived quickly, piping hot. Just like Mr. Eugene Wu eating Pock-Marked Ma's Bean Curd in old Chengdu, by the end of the meal, we all were steaming, my face was crimson, and we were all in a blaze of glorious euphoria induced by麻辣 málà. I can't wait to go back.

    Please note: comments are moderated.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

mellifluous prosody as name James "White Beard" Diamond, Portland food legend. Thanks, looking forward to next gang of however many we are eat-up there. So is there, a la Spinal Tap, an 11-spice powder so powerful the head spontaneously combusts upon eating?