Pea Tips and Spicy Pig's Ear
The ABCs of Chinese food in Ann Arbor
by Sally Mitani
General Tso's chicken doesn't get much respect these days. Those deep-fried chicken nuggets with their brown, sticky sauce have taken chop suey's place as the most mocked item on a Chinese restaurant menu--the way people talk, you'd think the General was the Colonel.
Thirty years ago, General Tso's heady dose of ginger and garlic and crisp, flash-sauteed broccoli was an exciting change from the pale, bland, slimy chop suey and chow mein that dominated Chinese menus. Now they're all in the same boat, dismissed with a sniff by food sophisticates as "Americanized."
As long as I've lived in Ann Arbor, I've heard rumors that you can get authentic off-menu Chinese food here if you know where to look. Though my editor reminded me that what one culture considers authentic does not necessarily align with what another culture considers tasty, I decided the time had come to finally chase those rumors.
So where do Chinese people go for Chinese food in Ann Arbor? And what do they order and why?
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a self-described ABC--American-born Chinese. Bilingual in Chinese and English, and well traveled in Asia, she writes and speaks widely on Asian-American issues and Chinese culture, including contributing reviews of family events to the Observer.
She suggested meeting at Asia City on Washtenaw one Sunday. One of Ann Arbor's Chinese high school classes would be there for lunch and a lecture by Yu-Jin Kung, a formidable woman of a certain age who once taught Chinese table manners to American diplomats. Her talk was in Chinese, but Frances whispered a simultaneous translation in my ear, and a few items struck me as not only easy to remember but delightfully arbitrary.
Mrs. Kung says: "Eat from the front of your plate to the back. Only dogs eat from the middle. Also, don't shake your chopsticks, and don't ever put your chopsticks in your mouth." If this seems like an odd rule for an eating utensil, she delicately demonstrated that your chopsticks are
meant to convey the food to your mouth. Once they're knocking on the door, your mouth is expected to do its part. (The adept Mrs. Kung also demonstrated how to drink from a glass without smearing it with lipstick, which--if you're wearing lipstick--is not easy.)
She ended on a grand, philosophic note: "Use your very best manners, all the time, even when you're all alone. That way, when you are out in company, you will be relaxed and natural."
So let's eat!
Americans, and probably Chinese too, come to the Asia City buffet for the crazy, all-you-can-eat bounty--fried rice sits next to mashed potatoes and gravy, gloopy broccoli-and-cheese casserole next to something that looks like chop suey.But it also includes well-rendered Chinese classics--and Frances led me to a few oddities that were certainly not put there for Americans.
Specifically, check out the first table on the left. Along with Jell-O, you'll find some rubbery-textured things such as seaweed salad and sliced pig ears. Frances calls these Chinese cold cuts: "In China you would eat them as a late-night snack or at the beginning of a banquet." She continued to wander the buffet with a practiced eye, quickly picking up her favorites and ignoring the rest: "these wide rice noodles are very good, and they do a pretty good mapo tofu, as well as these sesame balls."
We finished with two soups, red-bean-and-taro and white-fungus-and-date. Courtesy of Mrs. Kung, I knew to eat these with a spoon, because both are cold and sweet; hot, savory soups are drunk from the bowl.
Frances teaches a Beginning Chinese class at WCC. At the end of the semester, she always takes her students to TK Wu, where their final exam is to order a meal in Chinese. In April, she let me join them.
Everyone ordered one dish, and we passed them all around. Some students had asked Frances for recommendations, and she wasn't shy about giving them, so we ate a lot of her favorites from the menu section labeled "authentic Chinese dishes": roast duck, shrimp/eggplant/tofu hot pot, chicken and jalapeno, TK Wu's Special Pork ("very fatty and not very good for you--it's like stewed, uncured bacon," she smiled), and pea tips with garlic. A "pea tip," she explained, doesn't even have a standardized translation, sometimes showing up on menus as "pea greens" or "pea leaves." You can also find these leaves and tendrils trimmed from young pea plants in area Asian markets, and quickly saute them yourself. At TK Wu, they're so green you can taste the chlorophyll.
Wei Bee laughed in recognition when I told him I was pursuing rumors of off-menu Chinese food. Born near Beijing, he lived some years in Korea before his family moved to Saginaw to work in the Chinese restaurant industry. Eventually, Wei's father would own several restaurants in Ann Arbor, and he still owns the building that now houses Ypbor Yan.
As a student, Wei worked at one of the family's restaurants: "At the end of the evening, the cooks would make two or three things for themselves to eat, and [Anglo] customers would often approach the table and say 'Hey, that looks good, why don't you put it on the menu?'"
Wei met his wife, Lisa--an ABC from a Chinese-restaurant-owning family in Cleveland--a few decades ago, while they were students at the U-M. The founders of Sweetwaters Cafe, they are self-assured navigators of restaurants in general, but they're peerless when it comes to local Chinese.
The Bees suggested meeting for dinner at Kai Garden on Main, which, unlike many local Chinese restaurants, doesn't claim it specializes in Hunan and Szechuan cooking. This alone is a tip-off that it might be a good place to eat actual Chinese food, Wei noted: very few Chinese immigrants are from the provinces of Hunan or Szechuan, and the place names themselves "aren't recipes for anything. You don't know what you're going to get."
Kai Garden's main menu resembles other local Chinese menus, but there's a second menu of Hong Kong and Taiwanese specialties. Anglos usually have to ask for it, but it's handed out automatically to anyone who looks Chinese, and that's the one we ordered from.
"Pigs' feet are considered a delicacy. They're so inexpensive here, Chinese go crazy over them," said Lisa. We began with a first course of "delicious pork hock with jelly fish" and "beef tendon"--the kind of chewy, gelatinous "Chinese cold cuts" Frances had pointed out to me at Asia City. Though "pork hock" suggested huge knucklebones, the meat was sliced wafer-thin in cross-section and fanned out over loops of opalescent skeins of chewy jellyfish, with a vinegary dipping sauce. The beef tendon, sliced in lozenge-sized bites in a garlic sauce, was still another species of chewy.
We also could have chosen cold shredded pig stomach or spicy pig ear, which in fact, I did order another day. The pig's ear was like the pig's ear at Asia City--cold, about the size and consistency of a sliced dried apricot, here in a slick red-pepper-flecked sauce. Like all of the cold cuts I tried, it was, above all, cold and rubbery.
At Asia City, Frances had raved over the spicy duck feet, which unfortunately they didn't have the day we were there. Nor did I get to try chicken feet, which, she told me, are also a bargain in the U.S. In fact, I concluded that chewy, cartilaginous animal parts are so popular in China, and so unpopular here, that this is by far the most reliable way to bypass "Chinese-American" and get straight to the real stuff--if it appeals to you. But that's an "if" some can't cross, and there are plenty of other options.
Wei remembers that "ants on the tree" (vermicelli in a sauce flecked with pork) was one of the things that his father's staff made at the end of the day. It's on the menu at Kai Garden, so we ordered it. Oily and deeply flavored, it's spicy, soul-satisfying comfort food if you like the slightly viscous texture of bean thread noodles. We also sampled a hot pot of salted fish and diced chicken. Hot pot is Chinese pot roast: meat, bones, gravy, and some well-stewed vegetables; and it's a pretty good bet in a Chinese restaurant--hard to screw up, and hard to imagine anyone really hating it, though it might not be the most exciting thing you've ever eaten. Waitress Tina Yin, who's worked at Kai Garden for years, says she recommends hot pot as an entry-level dish for Anglos who want to taste real Chinese food. During their spring season, Tina also highly recommends water spinach and watercress, sauteed with (optional) shrimp paste.
Lisa chose our third dish, black mushroom with Shanghai bok choy. Black mushrooms are considered "lucky" in China, but they've never caught on with Americans--hence, they're unlikely to appear in dishes reinvented for American taste buds. Be forewarned: they're large, dense, and chewy--one nearly throttled me as I struggled to reduce it to something I could swallow.
Wei and Lisa tried to come up with some rules for ordering good Chinese food (my own rule No. 1 would be "invite Wei and Lisa out to dinner"). Wei noted an exception to his rule that geographic names are meaningless: "Mongolian beef actually is a classic Chinese recipe--although I don't know what they mean by it here," he said, scanning Kai Garden's regular menu with amusement--he'd never seen it: "I've seen this moo goo gai pan in other restaurants too. Gai means chicken," he says, then thinks a minute, "so I guess this means something like chicken and vegetables." Not a ringing endorsement of authenticity, despite the Chinese name. Also, he advises, "don't order anything with broccoli"--it's not a Chinese vegetable.
Lisa, after thinking a bit, says: "whole fish, that's pretty Chinese." And, broccoli aside, big piles of sauteed vegetables are very Cantonese, "but you don't often see them on a menu--it's too plain for most people." Her family is originally from Canton. She looks slyly at Wei: "In Beijing, they stew all their vegetables. You never see green ones there."
"You're right," Wei says mildly. "Personally I like Cantonese food the best. We do overcook our food in Beijing."
Lisa says poor execution particularly bedevils Cantonese food. "Wonton soup is wonderful, but I don't know of any place in town that makes a good one. Egg foo young is kind of like a Cantonese omelet. We make it at home, but restaurants here tend to turn it into kind of a deep-fried thing." And she explains the lobster-less "lobster sauce" that has been on Chinese restaurant menus for generations: "a very good Cantonese sauce made from egg and pork, and it's meant to go with lobster. Chinese restaurants in this country are where people go for inexpensive food, so they rarely offer the lobster that's supposed to go with it!
"You know what?" adds Lisa thoughtfully, "There's nothing wrong with American Chinese food. I long for it sometimes--the chop suey, the chow mein. I'm thinking a lot of other Chinese Americans, and just older Americans, long for it too. I've often thought a restaurant that did it right could be a great success."
Greg Guo emigrated from Beijing twenty-five years ago and owns the Evergreen Restaurant in Plymouth Mall. He knows three generations of customers by their distinctive preferences in food. "Seniors still ask for old-style Cantonese food, like chop suey, egg foo young, so forth. This food is a hundred years old." It's sometimes called Toisan, or Taishan, after the region near Canton that exported nearly all of the Chinese workers who built America's western railroads.
Middle-aged eaters order "Szechuan" and "Hunan" dishes. "When we opened our restaurant in 1992, things like kung pao chicken were popular. It's Chinese food, but with lots of changing." Strict health regulations and the unavailability of true Chinese produce explains some of it, but also: "Chinese food is salt-based--it doesn't have much sugar. Recipes here add sugar" for the American sweet tooth.
About five years ago, Greg started to see a third wave of customers: "When we opened twenty years ago, there weren't many Chinese students, and those who were here couldn't afford to eat in restaurants." Now Chinese students form enough of a constituency to make real Chinese cooking worthwhile, and it's easier to provide because American farmers are now growing Chinese produce. Though, paradoxically, the new Chinese generation is so worldly that "they want not only Chinese, but food from Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan."
In addition to old-style Cantonese for older seniors and Hunan/Szechuan for baby boomers, Evergreen has added a "traditional Chinese menu" for the new generation. Greg called over a waitress, and she quickly circled the most popular items on it: Shanghai-style pork buns, spicy beef tendon, spicy tripe, lamb stew, cumin lamb, jalapeno beef/pork, meatball casserole, salt-and-pepper baby ribs.
She hesitated a bit over pork intestine, conceding that intestines are popular with the Chinese but a pretty tough sell to Americans.
Later that day, over at Great Lake Seafood Restaurant on Carpenter, I was hoping to have a conversation like the one I'd had with Greg Guo. The waitress allowed that whole fish, and fresh lobster and crab from the live tank, were particularly popular with Chinese customers, but she wasn't interested in an extended conversation about who orders what.
She did say, though, that she thought General Tso's chicken had been kicked around enough: "We Chinese like it, too."
[Originally published in June, 2013.]