Saturday, May 18, 2013

Eating "Chinese" in Seattle

Gene Balk of the Seattle Times has observed that Seattle's “patronage of Chinese restaurants is surprisingly low.” Perhaps the sad truth that Seattle still thinks in terms of “Chinese restaurants” has something to do with the city’s lack of enthusiasm for “Chinese food” That “Seattle foodie circles” are excited about the opening of a Taiwanese food chain that specializes in Shanghai soup dumplings points out exactly how unsophisticated these foodies are about food from China.

In a city that prides itself on its Northwest cuisine, as opposed to Southern or East Coast or Tex-Mex or Cajun, it seems bizarre that “Chinese food” is still a category. Sichuan, Hunan, Beijing, Uighur, Yunnan, are only a few of the regional cuisines found in China. None of them are to be found in Seattle, a city where dim sum, barbecued pork and poultry, chow fun, potstickers, and hotpot--oh and rice too, lots and lots of rice-- are what people eat when they eat “Chinese.”

I live in Seattle’s Chinatown and I like to eat out, but I stopped going to Chinese restaurants in my neighborhood years ago, There’s a limit to the amount of chow fun I can choke down with any enthusiasm at all; as for dim sum, if I want to eat it, I’ll wait until I’m in Hong Kong—or perhaps San Francisco.

Restaurants who claim to serve Sichuan food ignore the key ingredient, Sichuan pepper, in favor of drowning the dishes in chili oil. Hunan food? Well, people tell me, there was a place out on Aurora, but it’s not there anymore. Restaurants that try to give Seattle something different from the usual “Chinese” menu usually suffer the same fate as that Hunan place on Aurora. The China Club Bistro across from Kinokuniya Books on Weller Street served a nice little Shanghai soup dumpling, aka xiao long bao, as a bar snack. The past three times I’ve gone there, the place has been closed; “on vacation” the sign said. My guess is it was just a little too “Chinese” for Seattle, certainly every time I went there, it was usually quite underpopulated.

There’s a spot up on 10th and Jackson called Uway Malatang that cooks with Sichuan pepper, but if you aren’t Chinese, you have to be sure to let them know that you want it. It’s a condiment that makes your tongue tingle, moving on to your lips—it’s not pepper in any sense that you might already think you know. It’s the happiest spice I’ve ever eaten, and if you want to try it, you’d better hurry before Uway Malatang also goes “on vacation.”

Today I passed half a dozen “Chinese” bakeries that all sell the same things—Cantonese buns, egg tarts, and slices of cake with elaborate fillings (durian anyone?)—and as I walked, I wanted nothing more than a Beijing bakery. Delicate little cookies like shortbread, but not too sweet; round, flaky pastries filled with something savory, others containing a sweetened date paste; flatbread and circular bagel-like rolls—these were exactly what I wanted and can’t get in this city. But then if one opened here, it would be hard to convince people that it was truly “Chinese.”

Seattle is thrilled that they are getting a Taiwanese soup dumpling chain; meanwhile, across the border in Vancouver, a dingy looking diner on Seymour Street has a handwritten sign pasted on its window saying Xiao Long Bao. Cities get what they want.

Me? If I want to eat soup dumplings, I’ll put my money on a dive in Vancouver rather than a chain in a shopping mall. And if I want to eat food from China, you won’t find me in a “Chinese” restaurant; in fact I’ll probably be eating somewhere in China. But then in Beijing, “American” food is found in a Kenny Rogers Roaster, or at a pastry counter in a Starbucks. Yes, imperialist running dogs, that’s what your cuisine is to the people in China. Funny, isn’t it? How unsophisticated--don't "they" know better than that?

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