CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. Just off two interstate highways north of Pittsburgh, behind the Bed Bath & Beyond and directly next door to Panera Bread, sits a nondescript storefront called the Dynasty International Buffet.
Inside, the centerpiece of a 250-seat dining room is an enormous buffet nearly as sprawling as the parking lot outside. Its steam tables brim with the familiar names of Americanized Chinese food: lo mein, fried dumplings, hot and sour soup, pepper steak, General Tso's chicken. On the tables are Chinese-zodiac place mats; on the far wall, a backlit picture of the Great Wall looms.
In the suburbs and exurbs, Dynasty International is of a piece. This sort of locale is the most recognizable face of Chinese food in America today a monolith, abundant and often delicious but with only faint echoes of China's culinary regionalism.
The reality of eating in China is far more varied and subtle, as will become obvious next month to any American visitor to the 2008 Beijing Games who ventures past the confines of the globalized Olympic juggernaut.
The old joke goes like this: What do you call Chinese food in China? "Food." But behind the punchline is an important notion: "Real" Chinese food is a compelling crazy-quilt of cuisines as diverse as the world's most populous nation itself. Your taste buds will never be bored.
You probably won't find in much of America, for example, the sweet, malty Hunanese dish called hongshao rou, or red-braised pork belly, which was said to be the favorite dish of the region's sometimes-favorite son, Mao Zedong. Far fattier than the meats to which Americans are accustomed, it is an explosion of flavors and porky liquids.
Spicy cuisines from Hunan and its saltier, more vinegary neighbor to the west, Sichuan (you see it on American menus as "Szechwan"), have joined Cantonese food as the most popular Americanized styles of Chinese eating. Rare is the takeout menu that lacks some kind of vaguely defined "Szechwan beef" drenched in brown sauce or the syrupy-sweet General Tso's chicken, loosely linked to a real 19th-century military man who lived in rural Hunan province.
The actual Sichuan provincial capital, Chengdu, is studded with eateries from holes in the wall to serious banquet halls that serve up some of the country's most incendiary dishes.
The seriously misnamed "water-boiled pork slices," for example, is a bowl of fire thin pork filet slices completely submerged in red-hot oil and buried in cilantro, garlic, scallions and both scarlet and tingly flower peppers. Hotpot is even angrier, and the fabled pockmarked mother's tofu with bits of minced pork is another taste-bud assailant.
Many American Chinese restaurants are run by Fujianese immigrants, who come from a coastal province not far from Hong Kong. That's great if you're craving food from that southeastern region and Cantonese fare from nearby Guangdong province has certainly been America's oldest crowd-pleaser when it comes to Chinese food. The staples of old chow-mein houses, including moo goo gai pan, came (very circuitously) from the Cantonese tradition.
But if you're looking for other regional eats in America, the search is more arduous.
Many Americans assume that all Chinese know how to "cook Chinese," but when a southeasterner tries his hand at whipping up, say, a Sichuanese dish for a buffet in Idaho, it's akin to being served New England clam chowder by a West Texan somewhere in Botswana.
Inadequate renditions of regional cuisine are only one of the pitfalls facing Americans who want to eat Chinese cuisine as it really is in its homeland. In fact, some of the best regional food in China is rarely considered for American menus.
Few realize, for example, that the Chinese-food tradition can include complex lamb dishes laced with cumin that fill the street stalls in Kashgar, an ancient city in the far western and predominantly Muslim Chinese region of Xinjiang, nearer to Mecca than to Beijing. Or the bready delights of Tibetan barley dumplings, a delicious hangover killer. Or the fragrant hams of the southwestern province of Yunnan, which will give any country-cured Tennessee hock a run for its money.
Shanghai's "soup dumplings" Titleist-sized morsels of ground pork and flaked crab that burst forth with savory broth and burn your mouth are as related to those bready American takeout dumplings as modern humans are to the gibbon. In the northern province of Shanxi billed often as the cradle of Chinese culture wheat noodles shaped like cat's ears are stir-fried with tomatoes, hardly a Chinese staple, to create a dish that manages to taste at once Chinese and Italian. Or journey south to Hainan Island, where blazing yellow chili paste made from local peppers makes the freshly caught shrimp crackle on your tongue.
Chinese young and old remain attuned to these regional cuisines, and the malling of their urban areas with Big Macs and buckets of KFC has not dulled the fervor for culinary explorations of their homeland. Many a food court in major Chinese cities is effectively a gastric tour of the country, with patrons purchasing a smart card and then ranging from stall to stall, choosing a hot dish from Guangxi, a cold dish from Gansu, an appetizer from Anhui, dim sum from Hong Kong.
For Americans visiting Beijing during the Olympics next month, the best advice is the most Chinese of all: Be omnivorous. Try that duck webbing, that sea slug, that deer tendon, that pigeon wing. Be open to tastes and textures and sensations you've never sampled. And please, please don't loudly summon the waiter and ask for sweet-and-sour pork.And for those of us staying behind in America? If your palate is motivated, look for Chinese restaurants filled with Asian faces, put aside the menu and ask the waiter to bring you his favorite regional dish. Otherwise, wipe the brown sauce off your Chinese-horoscope place mat, crack open your fortune cookie and hope the message heralds a more varied culinary tomorrow.
• Please don't make it too spicy: "Bu yao tai la" or "Wo bu hui chi la."
• Please go ahead and make it spicy: "Wo bu pa la" (literally, "I do not fear spiciness").
• Could I have a glass of cold water?: "Ma fan ni lai yi bei bin shui."
• Do you have some rice?: "Ni you mi fan ma?" (pronounce "you" as "yo," as in "Yo, Adrian!")
• Do you have a fork?: "Ke yi lai cha zi ma?"
• I'm full: "Wo chi bao le."
• I'm still hungry: "Wo hai e" (pronounce "e" as "uh")
• Where's the washroom?: "Xi shou jian zai na li?" (pronounce "xi" as "see")
• Thank you this was a great meal: "Fei chang hao chi, xie xie."
• Check, please: "Mai dan."
And, if you must ...• Do you have sweet-and-sour pork?: "You tang cu li ji ma?" But expect the unexpected.
Shanxi food, from the northern Chinese region that many credit as being one of the cradles of "Chineseness," is hearty, heavy and grainy. Dumplings and breadstuffs are everywhere, and noodles are a staple; one delicacy, "cat's ear noodles," are worry not named for their shape, not their ingredients.
BRAISED BEEF FROM SHANXI REGION
Start to finish: 25 minutes
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
3 bunches scallions, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups chopped)
1 pound lean boneless beef (such as top sirloin), very thinly sliced
1/4 cup corn starch
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup sesame oil
Generous pinch fennel seed
1/2 cup chicken broth
2 teaspoons rice wine
In a medium bowl, combine the soy sauce and scallions. Add the beef and mix to coat.
In a small bowl, mix the corn starch with the water until dissolved. Add to the beef mixture and stir well. Set aside.
In a wok, heat the oil over high. Add the fennel seeds and cook, stirring constantly, until the oil starts to smoke. Add the beef mixture, with the marinade, and stir-fry until barely cooked, about 2 to 3 minutes.Add the stock and rice wine. Cover the wok and boil for 1 minute. Add the ginger, stir and serve. Recipe adapted from Cuisine-China.com
Yunnan province is filled with ethnic minorities, and because of that has a cuisine that can defy description. Some dishes have undertones of the cuisines of Southeast Asia, which the province borders, and Yunnan hams are renowned through China for their subtle tastes. Spiciness makes frequent appearances but is far from predominant. Yunnan is also famous for its teas.
ACROSS-THE-BRIDGE NOODLES FROM YUNNAN PROVINCE
Start to finish: 30 minutes
1/2 teaspoon rice wine
1/8 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon rice vinegar
4 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 ounces fish filet (such as mahi mahi), skinned
2 ounces raw, shelled shrimp
5 ounces Chinese egg noodles
6 cups chicken broth
5 tablespoons chicken fat
1/2 small bunch fresh cilantro
Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil.
Meanwhile, to prepare the marinade, in a small bowl whisk together the rice wine, ginger, 1/8 teaspoon of salt, soy sauce and vinegar.
Cut the chicken, fish and shrimp in paper-thin slices, then arrange the slices on a serving platter. Drizzle with the marinade and let stand.
When the saucepan of water has boiled, add the noodles. Return to a boil and cook until soft, about 4 minutes for dried noodles and 2 minutes for fresh. Transfer the noodles to a collander to drain.
In a large saucepan, bring the chicken broth to a boil over high heat. Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and the chicken fat.
Return to a boil and let boil for 1 minute. Quickly but carefully transfer the broth to a serving tureen and bring to the table along with the platter of meats and seafood and colander of noodles.Pour the meat, seafood and noodles into the the boiling hot broth. They will cook instantly. Stir and serve in individual bowls, offering carrots and cilantro sprigs for garnish. Recipe adapted from Chinavoc.com
Hunan is in southern or central China the argument over which still rages and its food reflects the dichotomy. While most Americans think of Sichuan food as the spicier cuisine, Hunan dishes can be even more pyrotechnic; fresh peppers instead of preserved ones are often used, increasing the kick. While stir-frying is certainly present in Hunan, methods such as braising and simmering also have produced some of the region's most memorable dishes, such as this one enjoyed by Mao Zedong, who grew up in rural Hunan.
CHAIRMAN MAO'S RED-BRAISED PORK FROM HUNAN REGION
Start to finish: 1 hour
1 pound pork belly or salt pork (skin optional)
2 tablespoons peanut oil
2 tablespoons sugar, plus more for seasoning
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
3/4-inch piece fresh ginger, skin left on, sliced
1 star anise
2 dried red chilies
1 small cinnamon stick
Light soy sauce, to taste
Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Add the pork belly and simmer 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the meat from the saucepan and set on a plate to cool. When cool enough to handle, cut into bite-size chunks.
In a wok over low heat, combine the oil and sugar, stirring until the sugar melts. Increase the heat and continue stirring until the sugar turns a rich caramel brown.
Add the pork and Shaoxing wine. Add enough water to just cover the pork, then add the ginger, star anise, chilies and cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 40 to 50 minutes.Toward the end of the cooking time, increase the heat to reduce the sauce. Season with soy sauce and sugar. Add the scallion greens just before serving. Recipe from Fuchsia Dunlop's "Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook," W.W. Norton, 2007
Xinjiang, a predominantly Muslim region of western China, is home to an ethnic group called the Uighurs that has more in common culturally with Central Asia than with most of China. Lamb is an exceedingly popular dish, and food often is seasoned with cumin and other spices rarely used in the cooking of China's more central and eastern regions.
LAMB KEBABS FROM XINJIANG REGION
Start to finish: 2 1/2 hours (30 minutes active)
1 medium yellow onion, quartered
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 cup pomegranate juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
3/4 teaspoon cayenne
In a food processor, chop the onion until it forms a paste. Transfer to a medium bowl, then stir in the vegetable oil, pomegranate juice, salt, black pepper, garlic and cayenne.
Add the lamb pieces and stir to coat. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours.
Meanwhile, if using bamboo skewers soak eight of them in water for at least 30 minutes.
Prepare a charcoal grill to medium-high or heat a gas grill.
Thread the meat onto skewers, taking care not to crowd the meat. The pieces should barely touch.
Place the skewers on the grill and cook for 2 minutes. Turn and cook for 7 to 8 minutes more, turning periodically to ensure good color and even cooking. Recipe from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's "Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China," Artisan, 2008