The distinctive tastes of Chinese cooking
By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Restaurant Critic
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 9, 2000
When Chi Fai Kemp and her husband arrived from Hong Kong, she made sure that the sign on her six-table restaurant said "Gourmet."
They are mere words, of course. Hin Lee's crackling salted shell-on shrimp and Chi Fai's homemade noodles with eggplant speak louder to the Nibbler and made the same point. Both are attempts by restaurateurs to announce that their places are more than the average Chinese restaurant.
Or rather less, because they choose to specialize. China and the Chinese cooking that feeds 1-billion people are such broad entities that few Chinese restaurants, no matter how endless their menus, can render it all with any distinction. That is one reason Chinese food has fallen from the forefront of America's favorite ethnic foods; simple fatigue and familiarity and the competition of more recently arrived Asian foods are also at play.
Chinese food may have been exciting for an older generation that had their first foreign food and vegetarian meals, possibly their first rice, in Chinatowns or chop suey houses on the highway.
To regain that excitement, smart restaurants and cooks are digging deeper to specialize in a more narrow corner of Chinese cooking, whether in a neighboring country or in an interior region.
If you think there's only Hunan and Szechuan to choose from, head to Chi Fai. Although Kemp came to Dunedin from Hong Kong, her heritage is from Shanghai, and she has a penchant for the wheat flour of the north. She renders their regional flavors with such authenticity, the host warns/brags that this is not the Chinese food you know.
It is different, thank goodness, and the pride is understandable. Chi Fai makes and sells all its sauces, from black-bean garlic to cooking wine, as Chi Fai special sauces. (Chi Fai also imports Chinese teas and artisan clay tea pots.) The authenticity of ingredients and technique behind the sauces is tangible. Even table soy sauce is thick and rustic, with a woody flavor.
The crucial test is in the prepared food. Although the small wall-papered room feels like an occidental parlor, the dishes smack more of the old China reflected in vintage photographs around the room.
My favorite was Lion's Head, a clay pot dish from Shanghai, of marinated pork balls, bean-thread noodles and cabbage. In this case, it was baby bok choy, as bright green as I've seen in a Chinese restaurant, with a sweet, warm broth. Dry-fried beef followed traditional presentation, no mixture of vegetables, just the meat carefully cooked down and infused with a thousand flavors from hot pepper to sweeter aromatics. Steamed rice served with both showed distinction, a few grains of wild rice and sprinkles of cumin and other herbs; whether this is regional Chinese or chef's whim, it has the delicate perfume of curry. Charming.
Pot stickers, another wheat dish Chi Fai makes in-house, are disappointing with an all-vegetable stuffing. Next time I'll have them with shrimp or chicken.
Barely a mile away at Hin Lee, the taste is different because the owner's version of Chinese was born 2,000 miles to the southwest of Shanghai on the Malay peninsula in the crosscurrents of Chinese, Thai and Indian cooking. But after 20 years of cooking in Chinese restaurants, David Yong wanted to prepare some of his own Malaysian favorites when he finally opened his own place.
The dishes are not highlighted on the menu, most of which is familiar Chinese-American fare, including a lunch buffet. But if you ask, the servers are thrilled to round up their specialties.
Satay, skewers of meat with a punchy peanut sauce and crab angles, pasta pillows with a crab and cheese filling, will seem familiar; others will be impressively different.
For a more distinct taste of Malaysia, ask for crispy shrimp or calamari, in which the seafood comes out crisp and bursting with a five-spice salt that tastes of the seven seas.
These are small, beginning steps in a long journey to rediscover the many authentic tastes of a cuisine that feeds a billion people. It's not all the same, and much of it is better than we know.
Give us more. And not just here. Dunedin shouldn't have all the fun.
Chi Fai's Gourmet
Hin Lee Malaysian-Chinese Restaurant
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