As the sun sets over Beijing’s Gui Jie, crowds throng what’s known as Ghost Street, posting up on short stools, surrounding eatery entrances and clutching numbers doled out by aloof hostesses. The rising chatter is punctuated by blaring microphones as restaurants call in parties and men with megaphones accost passersby, trying to convince them to sit down in other spots. If you’re lucky, you might catch a dance routine by a line of servers while you wait; if you’re luckier still, you’ll spy the pigs that live under one of the street’s restaurants and occasionally peer through the glass windows. Later in the evening, it will be almost impossible to maneuver these sidewalks, which are lit by glaring neon signs and red lanterns. That’s when diners, rosy and inebriated, will spill into the streets, blocking pedestrians and cabs and raving about their dinners, which almost always included one of two things: tingly, spicy crayfish sold by the piece or bullfrog hot pot, laden with angry red chiles and served either soupy or dry.
I’ve written about Chinese food here in America for more than five years, but one week after touching down in Beijing, where I spent a year researching Chinese food and sustainable agriculture, I realized that I knew almost nothing about the cuisine. Or, more accurately, almost nothing about the collection of cuisines that makes up the Middle Kingdom’s culinary canon.
At some restaurants in China, menu items looked surprisingly familiar. My Chinese teacher told me that Chinese families often ask for kung pao chicken when they don’t know what else to order. And you can find versions of nearly every American Chinese standard in places that offer Imperial Cuisine — a collection of dishes from all over China that slowly migrated to the capital under the directive of past emperors and now forms the basis of culinary education in the country.
But even that pan-Chinese collection is really a hodgepodge of regional favorites, and it’s the regional cooking that makes eating in China so different from eating Chinese food in America. I soon learned, for instance, that rice is really only a staple in the south. Northerners are wheat people, and flour forms the basis of spicy pork and lamb noodles from Shaanxi province, the flat, griddled breads of Xinjiang, and the crepe-like pancakes that wrap Beijing duck.
There are eight celebrated regional cuisines, all very diverse and each distinct. Sichuanese, as most American diners know, is spicy and numbing; neighboring Hunanese is hot and sour. Cantonese, also familiar in America, is light and sweet. The Shandong palate skews saltier, and the region is celebrated for its seafood. Outside of the main eight, there are regions like Yunnan, whose bright spice is more aligned with Southeast Asia than with the rest of China, and Inner Mongolia, where nomadic herders survive mostly on lamb, cheese and bread.
And so within one week of landing in China, I’d managed to eat fried potatoes, pineapple-laden rice and herb-and-lime-showered cold chicken salad from Yunnan; fish head in spicy broth and green chiles mashed with salty thousand-year eggs from Hunan; flatbread chopped and fried with cumin-dusted lamb from Xinjiang; and face-numbing noodles laden with yellow peas and ground pork from Chongqing. All of those dishes were Chinese, but comparing them is a little like comparing a New York-style pizza with a Tex-Mex burrito: They’re both American foods, but with totally different histories.
Even after a year in China, I still felt like I was discovering new sub-regions and dishes that I’d never tasted before. And one question continued to nag me: Why had so few of these cuisines migrated to the States?
Back on the ground in Denver, I called Edwin Zoe, proprietor of Zoe Ma Ma, hopeful that he’d be able to point me to a secret stash of regional Chinese eats in the Mile High City. Zoe’s parents came to America from Taiwan; his father had moved to Taiwan from Shandong province during the Communist revolution.
During Zoe’s childhood, his parents ran an American Chinese restaurant, but they never ate that food at home; instead, Zoe’s mother made specialties from her native Taiwan and her husband’s native Shandong. A few years ago, after Zoe’s father died, he convinced his mother to cook his childhood favorites at his restaurant in Boulder; they were so popular there, he opened a second Zoe Ma Ma at Denver’s Union Station in 2015.
Zoe Ma Ma has gained a reputation for its Sichuan-style beef noodle soup, and for good reason. “Sichuan beef noodle is one of the dishes that really defined how I viewed my culinary culture shock,” Zoe told me. “In Taiwan, it’s a really popular dish. The level of reverence is like pho is to the Vietnamese. I thought, I can’t find Sichuan-style niu rou mian [beef noodles]; what is wrong with this country? We have to make this dish — there’s nowhere else I can get it.” The soup at Zoe is actually made in the Taiwanese style, incorporating mustard greens and anise. Zoe explained that the Sichuan moniker pays homage to that dish’s migration to Taiwan; Sichuan chefs brought it to the island during the revolution, and it’s been adapted a bit since.
Zoe Ma Ma also makes what may be my favorite bowl of zha jiang mian on the planet. This simple noodle dish comes generously topped with stewed pork and shreds of raw cucumbers and carrots. Although it’s available at just about every noodle shop in the city of Beijing, Zoe’s is better because his mother uses high-quality ingredients and the thin noodles have ample chew. “I’m a noodle freak,” Zoe admitted.
Although Zoe didn’t spill any secret stash of authentic dishes around town, he did have an explanation for why there’s little diversity in Chinese offerings in most cities in America. There have been three major Chinese migrations to America, he noted. The first, in the nineteenth century, was mostly from the south; that’s why you see a lot of Cantonese influence in American Chinese dishes today, because that’s who was opening Chinese restaurants for most of the last century. In the 1970s, many immigrants came from Taiwan, but the restaurants they opened were often in the American-Chinese vein, too. We’re currently witnessing a third wave of immigration: The Chinese are the third-largest foreign-born group in America, and people are coming here from all parts of China — but they’re not opening restaurants. They’re taking highly skilled jobs.
Luckily, the Cantonese influence means that you can find excellent dim sum in Denver, and Zoe pointed to the Empress, which has a wider range of dim sum offerings than the nearby Super Star or Star Kitchen. Here waitresses push trolleys full of the staples — don’t pass up the pork-stuffed shu mai or shrimp-filled har gao, the crispy turnip cakes or the peppery pork buns — but you can also order other specialties off the menu. Ask for a plate of custard buns; the doughy puffs crack open into sweet, eggy centers. Just avoid the gummy soup dumplings — which aren’t Cantonese, anyway; they’re best in Shanghai and Taiwan.
Still, I was bent on finding a Sichuan restaurant — or at least a place that offered the tingly spice famous in Sichuan — and finally stumbled on Yum Yum Spice, a tiny spot tucked into a strip mall near the University of Denver. In addition to a fairly pedestrian Chinese-American menu, the place offers a run of dry-pot hot pots, including one with bullfrog. I was immediately nostalgic. One of those two staples of Gui Jie, bullfrog hot pot is part of that Beijing dining rite of passage. At Yum Yum, order your pot Sichuan-spicy, and you’ll get a taste of the numbing heat that region is famous for, the same heat that fills hot pots on Ghost Street.
This is one of the few true regional Chinese specialties available in the Mile High City, a rare glimpse of a broad cuisine that we see only a sliver of here in the States.
And it makes me hungry for more.
Laura Shunk was Westword’s Cafe critic from 2010 to the summer of 2012, when she moved to New York City — then on to China for a year. She’s now back in Denver.
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