Food & Dining Magazine is a quarterly. For many years, I’d wait until the newest issue came out, then share my previous beer column with blog readers, whether here or at Potable Curmudgeon.
I haven’t written a beer column for a while because the magazine’s publisher John White has had me doing feature-length articles. However, my format for sharing remains the same, and so here is the complete text of my profile of Oriental House and Jasmine, published in May 2017.
There actually was a blog preview of sorts, a May review of a book I read in preparation to write the profile.
BOOK REVIEW: Chop Suey – or how Chinese food came to be taken for granted in America.
It can suffice to say that between this May feature and the August one currently on the newsstand (a profile of August Moon’s owner Mimi Dabbagh), my knowledge of Asian food and history has increased exponentially.
Food & Dining Summer 2017 May/June/July
Authentic Chinese Regional Cuisines: Exploring “The Other Menu”
It was a pivotal moment in 20th-century geopolitics.
America’s collective jaw dropped as President Nixon appeared on television wielding chopsticks during a banquet with the Chinese communists in Beijing. Mrs. Nixon was particularly adept with the utensils, having practiced diligently beforehand.
It wasn’t clear whether ideological negotiation or table manners was the major takeaway from the telecast, or the trip. Change was in the air in 1972, but there was no way of foreseeing China’s quantum leap from economic basket case to influential world power.
Nor was there any indication that the legacy of indistinct Chop Suey houses and La Choy Chow Mein in cans (it still exists) would eventually yield to 41,000 Chinese eateries across America.
More than 70 of them do business in Food & Dining’s metro Louisville readership area. Their very ubiquity is key; since significant numbers of Chinese began arriving in California in the mid-19th century, their hot pots have yielded to our melting pot.
A diverse culinary heritage many millennia in the making has proven perennially re-adaptable, and today it’s clear that Chinese buffets, egg rolls and General Tso are as much a part of “real” American eating as burgers, barbecue and fried chicken.
45 years after Premier Zhou Enlai introduced the visiting Nixons to pot stickers, perhaps it’s time for a culinary reboot. Without leaving Louisville, how might we sneak a peek behind the Bamboo Shoot Curtain for a more realistic taste of an ancient land and its varied regional cultures?
A local expedition of rediscovery begins at two restaurants with long and successful tenures in Louisville, each complementing a core lineup of tried and true Chinese dining options with supplemental “authentic” menus filled with regional specialties: Oriental House, emphasizing Cantonese and an all-day array of Dim Sum, and Jasmine Chinese Cuisine, which specializes in classic Szechuan dishes.
At Oriental House, Cantonese and Dim Sum are all in the (Chiu) family.
It was lunchtime at Oriental House, and to my ears it sounded like many of customers were making precisely the same order.
I chatted with one of these regulars, who was waiting at the counter for his carry-out, gossiping with the help.
“Happy Family is my favorite,” he said, “but I like Mexican food, too. Chicken Fajitas and Happy Family, for sure. One of these days, I’m splurging on a whole Peking Duck.”
Concurrently, Jonathan Chiu has a firm idea about what makes his Oriental House family happy. The secret ingredient can’t be found on spice racks or in cookbooks. It’s togetherness.
“Our family works as a unit.”
Bai He Chiu and his wife Fannie, both natives of China, came to Louisville from San Francisco. They bought Oriental House in 2003, becoming the restaurant’s third owners since its inception in 1964. These days mom Fannie patrols the front of the house with the assistance of his Jonathan’s sister Melissa, who also hires, schedules and runs the company office.
California-born and educated in Louisville (Bellarmine and Spalding), Jonathan has visited China only once. For the past six years, he has been alongside his father in the Oriental House kitchen, gradually absorbing his elder’s life lessons about Cantonese cuisine as a whole, and specifically, the venerable art of Dim Sum.
“Every family has their own flavors and tastes,” Jonathan told me. “My father learned in China and California, over time, from different chefs. His mind created this menu from the best of everything he has learned. It’s what my dad envisioned Louisville wanting.”
It’s what Jonathan wants, too, and he is delighted to be helping the family business cater to heightened demand, because even when the work is hard and you’re lost in the weeds, there’s no better place to be than right in the middle of it, alongside your father.
“These past six years I’ve been in the kitchen, just learning from my dad. When I was growing up, he was always working, and I couldn’t spend much time with him. After college, I decided I was going to learn the family business. This is what I want to do. The work isn’t easy, but I get to hang out with my dad all day, with my family, and at the same time make his workload less.”
The Chiu family’s recipes at Oriental House are variations on the culinary tradition of Cantonese, as referring to the food and dining ethos of Guangdong Province in southeastern China. The famous island cities of Hong Kong and Macau lie adjacent to the province. Taken together, these areas have a staggering population of 116,000,000 persons in an area slightly smaller than Kentucky and Indiana combined.
Two centuries ago, western visitors sailed to China and docked in Guangzhou, formerly Canton, and today the capital of Guangdong Province. Most of them remained in the foreigners-only zone, eating roasts, potatoes, puddings and other meals packed from home. However, a few traders, sailors and missionaries experienced Cantonese dishes for the first time – and some overcame their culture shock to appreciate the differences.
A foodie cultural migration had begun, split into two distinct paths. The more familiar of these routes is documented in Oriental House’s standard everyday menu, with its Americanized offerings on the historic Cantonese model, from the aforementioned Chop Suey, Chow Mein and General Tso’s Chicken, to Moo Goo Gai Pan and Moo Shu Pork.
According to Jonathan, longtime customers who grew up with these choices tend to stick with them, and their patronage is steady and reliable. The second, more exotic face of Oriental House can be found on the “Authentic Chinese” laminated menu card, which Jonathan recently augmented with colorful pictures in a binder, all the better to depict his father’s artistry.
The authentic menu includes more obscure Cantonese renderings of pork, beef and seafood, as well as seldom seen offerings like Tong Choy (water spinach), Hong Su Tofu, and a dish described as “sauteed fish filet rested on its crispy bones,” in which the filet is shaped to hold steamed vegetables, with the bones serving as a base for display.
There was a time when many Chinese restaurants retained just such an authentic special menu, albeit one written in Mandarin only, and usually intended for Chinese customers. This way the contents wouldn’t require explanations in English, and it was unlikely that Americans would glance past the egg rolls, anyway.
By placing a renewed emphasis on its authentic Cantonese options and making them fully intelligible to non-natives, Oriental House is riding a wave of curiosity about food and drink.
In Jonathan’s memorable phrase, the authentic Chinese menu is growing in popularity for a reason: “We have adventurous people who’ll eat chicken feet.”
He’s absolutely right, and I’m one of them. The chicken feet were delicious – fried, braised and steamed to yield buttery skin with plenty of tender meat and cartilage there to vacuum from the bones, just so long as you’re willing to put forth the effort and get messy in the process.
We eat chicken wings and think nothing of it, so why not feet?
One afternoon my wife and I enjoyed a late lunch date at Oriental House, and our friendly server seemed delighted with her order of Singapore-style rice noodles, accompanied by an assortment of Dim Sum: Pan-fried Buns with Pork, Tofu Skin Rolls, Steamed Spare Ribs, Taro Cakes and Turnip Cakes.
Then our server turned to me.
“I’ll have number 14, please – the braised Sea Cucumbers with Shiitake Mushrooms.”
She smiled, albeit a tad quizzically.
“Have you had this dish before?”
“No, but I’m going to have it now.”
“All right, that’s fine. You know, not many people order this!”
The sea cucumber assuredly comes from watery depths, but it is an animal, and not recommended for use in Greek salads. From time immemorial this echinoderm, an otherwise undistinguished ocean-floor bottom feeder, has been craved by status-conscious Chinese diners, along with equally offbeat foodstuffs like bird’s nests and shark fins.
Oriental House prepares its sea cucumber in a subtle oyster sauce with shiitakes, ginger, carrots and pea pods. I found it delectable, with the sea cucumber itself somewhat reminiscent of escargot’s texture.
18th-century American sailors tepidly dipping their toes in Chinese waters were completely flummoxed by these and other mysterious gustatory specialties, although their confusion didn’t prevent them from scouring the Pacific Rim for bizarre (at least to them) foods the Chinese would accept in trade.
Indeed, Cantonese cuisine always has embraced genuine diversity in sourcing, an omnivorous quality for which Guangdong province is celebrated within China itself. It’s a polite way of saying they’ll eat just about anything, although at the same time, a discerning Cantonese chef emphasizes gentle and restrained methods of preparation, as sufficient to showcase the original flavor of the meats and vegetables.
At Jonathan’s suggestion, I ordered a slightly more conventional Oriental House entrée, Sweet and Sour Pork Chops. The brownish-red sauce is as you might imagine, but the sweetness is savory, not cloying. There is a slight balancing tartness from the use of rice wine vinegar, and the pork flavor shines through, undiminished.
One-third of Oriental House’s “Authentic Chinese” menu is taken up by Dim Sum, totaling 27 types in all, and available throughout the day. Dim Sum alone sets the restaurant apart from the Louisville norm, and yet Jonathan stressed to me that these varieties represent a mere sampling compared to the wider selection to be found in China and San Francisco, the American hub of Dim Sum mania.
Dim Sum is a term capable of translation in a bewildering variety of ways, some of them intriguingly abstract. Literally, it means “to touch the heart,” and perhaps can be viewed as widely varied little somethings for nibbling.
After the Gold Rush, Dim Sum gradually evolved from Cantonese origins as a brunch-like morning snack, penetrating American consciousness as both sweet and savory dumplings, pastries and cakes enjoyed during afternoon tea service.
In essence, these were stylish tapas long before small plates became cool, and have evolved into contemporary edible art, with modes of preparation, mutable forms and a detailed lexicon all their own.
The Dim Sum list at Oriental House includes congee, an ancient and foundational form of rice porridge that Jonathan likened to chicken noodle soup in the arsenal of western home health care.
“When someone in China isn’t feeling well, we’re told to go eat some congee, and it will make us feel better.”
Dim Sum is as much a philosophical quest as sustenance, and it’s no exaggeration to suggest that Bai He Chiu, patriarch of Oriental House, someday will conclude his long career as chef, engaged in what by necessity must remain the unfinished study of Dim Sum theory and practice.
Perhaps the safest bet of all is that when dad’s finally ready to retire from the kitchen, his son Jonathan will be waiting at the intersection of culinary art and commerce. It’s something to think about as we await Oriental House’s 100th anniversary in 2064.
4302 Shelbyville Road
Louisville, KY 40207
The diverse seductiveness of Szechuan food pairs perfectly with Jasmine Chinese Cuisine.
Strictly speaking, Jasmine Chinese Cuisine is separated from Oriental House by ten miles of busy Shelbyville Road asphalt, and while the “regular” Sino-American menus at each of these essential Louisville restaurants are similar, their “authentic” regional bills of fare might be said to lie approximately 975 Chinese miles apart – the distance between Chengdu, Szechuan Province and Guangzhong, Guangdong Province.
It’s almost the exact space between a crock of clam chowder in Portland, Maine and our own bowl of burgoo in Louisville, or paella in Madrid and Bavarian schnitzel.
I’m a devotee of the midday lunch bustle. When I walked into Jasmine for the first time, dozens of carry-out bags were headed out the door for delivery by van, as a table of six crisply dressed professionals dug into identical Sweet & Sour Chicken lunch specials.
Soon I was seated in a nearby corner booth, savoring a plate of Beef Maw and Tendon paired with a steaming bowl of Sour Pickled Fish Soup. They were ordered from the separate “Chinese Menu,” as labeled at Jasmine. It features specialties from Szechuan Province, which lies in south-central China, northwest of Macao, Hong Kong and the huge coastal metropolis.
Home of the giant panda, Szechuan borders Tibet and is a watershed of the Yangtze River. The province is a prime agricultural area long renowned throughout China for honest, spicy, elemental cuisine. Appropriately, in 2011 the capital city of Chengdu was named a World City of Gastronomy by UNESCO.
Lan Zhang and her husband (and chef) Lin Lin own Jasmine Chinese Cuisine. When I met with Lan in early April, Lin was abroad on a trip home to Chengdu. She eagerly unspooled a series of delicious mobile phone photos showing the food he was diligently “researching” while on the road.
“It has been a pretty good experience for us,” said Lan about their decision to include a sizeable component of distinctive Szechuan cooking in the restaurant’s repertoire. She estimates that 35 to 40% of Jasmine’s sales are from the Szechuan menu.
“Our motto is fresh and simple – no MSG, nothing artificial,” she said, adding that in China itself, Szechuan cooking enjoys a widespread reputation.
Hearing this, I was reminded that Kong Qiu – the thinker we know as Confucius – was among history’s first locavores. 2,500 years ago, he was writing about things that remain topical: the superiority of food prepared with fresh, seasonal ingredients; moderation in dining and drinking; and respect of the environment, among other observations.
Confucius is but one in a pantheon of ancient philosophers whose teachings inform Chinese culture to the present day. I’d argue that it makes perfect sense for such doctrines to include deep thoughts about food, and to foster spiritual approaches and respectful rituals. After all, China’s long history is a story of so many mouths to feed, interrupted by periods of too little to eat. Food has not been taken for granted.
Throughout the country, attitudes toward eating often have been shaped by relative scarcity; today, China possesses 40% of the world’s population and only 7% of its arable land. Elderly Chinese remember all too well the ravages of famine, and as you’re reading, farmland is being gobbled up by the sort of unrestrained industrial sprawl that tends to pollute what’s left over.
Perhaps at one time “living to eat” was an indulgence in places where “eating to live” proved a challenge, but as rational responses go, it might also represent a spur to creativity, and the triumph of soulfulness. Surely Szechuan cuisine amply illustrates these qualities. One detects communal peasant origins, notched up but hardly abandoned.
According to tradition, Szechuan cooking marries spicy, sweet, bitter, sour and salty, deploying an arsenal of preferred seasonings, including Szechuan peppercorns, cassia bark, black cardamom, garlic, chili peppers, ginger, star anise and broad bean chili paste.
Their kaleidoscopic use justifies the famous Szechuan saying: “Each dish has its own style, and a hundred dishes have a hundred different flavors.”
Lan agrees. “Our Szechuan food has all the essential character,” she told me. “We’ve cut back only a little bit, and it’s not quite as spicy or strong as in China.”
However, even the natives can find themselves surprised.
“We had a group from China come in, and they asked for authentic Szechuan. My husband said sure.”
Lan made an exaggerated face, as though contorted with shock. Seems the group’s own homeland credentials were tested.
“Maybe it was too much for them,” she laughed.
Irrespective of the accumulation of Scoville heat units, Szechuan meals are selling. “Tastes change,” Lan said, recalling that in the past, eateries like Red Pepper (a restaurant on Brownsboro Road) didn’t survive.
“People come here from the Highlands. We’re creating and changing all the time so they’ll keep coming.”
Lan has the requisite sweat equity, entering the restaurant business since 1995 with a standard Chinese carry-out restaurant in Middletown. In the early 2000s, Lin arrived in Louisville looking for work. They proved to be a perfect mix personally and professionally, founding Jasmine together according to the proven General Tso’s template, but with a small number of Szechuan dishes, gradually expanded. It may not be Chengdu, but the authentic menu is expansive.
During two dining sessions at Jasmine, I was able to put just a small dent in the celestial Szechuan lineup. Two classic dishes that stood out for me were Ma Po Tofu and Dan Dan Noodles.
Ma Po Tofu, known colloquially as “pockmarked granny” (supposedly named for the inventor) is bean curd cooked in a characteristic sauce of red oil, chili peppers and beans, with little bits of Szechuan peppercorn that can leave a tingling, numbing sensation on the tongue.
A similar sauce is the base for Dan Dan Noodles, or “noodles carried on a pole,” referring to their origin as street food – one bucket of sauce and another of noodles, on opposite ends of a pole riding the vendor’s back.
Dan Dan Noodles are served with scallions and minced fried pork on top, reminding us of Szechuan cooking’s rural traditions; accordingly, Jasmine serves pig’s ear, intestines and kidneys prepared the old-fashioned way. It is this rustic element of Szechuan that provides a common link with agricultural communities everywhere, because nothing should be wasted.
Confucius probably wrote a treatise about it.
Accordingly, I enjoyed Twice Cooked Pork Belly; the meat is boiled, then stir-fried, with bean paste and greens. Like the other dishes I tried at Jasmine, its flavors were varied, rich and assertive without being overpowering.
There’s also a small section on Jasmine’s authentic menu called Xiao Chi, which is translated as “little eats.” For a westerner, Xiao Chi is a conceptual mélange. These are dishes too small to be a stand-alone meal, although like tapas and Dim Sum, they might be combined to suffice. Appetizers? That’s close, too.
In cities like Chengdu, little eats might imply a “Fourth Meal,” pinch-hitting for what Louisvillians know as a White Castle run, after revelry, late in the evening – or early in the morning. The intent of Xiao Chi is that of street food in quick bites, not formal dining.
Jasmine’s small selection of Xiao Chi include Szechuan-style Won Tons in a vinegary sauce with garlic and chilis, Chicken Dumplings and Scallion Pancakes.
As for the hundred dishes of Szechuan legend, my tally shows eight down and 92 to go, and I like those odds.
Jasmine Chinese Cuisine and Oriental House have inherited the mixed legacy of the Chinese experience in America. If you think times are troubled now, recall that in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited all Chinese laborers from coming to the United States.
This piece of legislation was the first ever in America to formally ban immigration by a particular ethnic group, and was repealed only in 1943 in the midst of war against Japan, China’s and America’s common enemy.
Lately I’ve been thinking about my grandparents, born a half-century after the Opium War of 1840-42 “opened” China to western dominance, initiating a chain reaction that culminated in the Chinese economic miracle, albeit after considerable suffering.
It is absolutely impossible to imagine them sitting down to a meal of Kung Pau Pork; they’d have preferred the very same meat and potatoes demanded by the sailors in search of sea cucumbers in route to Guangzhang. Nixon’s tricky chopsticks would not have convinced my grandfather, who fancied himself a Yellow Dog Democrat but was no friend of a Commie Red, either.
But here I am, within a 25-minute “virtual” drive of Szechuan and Guangdong, able to get vivid impressions of faraway lands by exercising taste buds alone, thanks to intrepid immigrants.
I thank them profusely.
While tea remains a serviceable beverage, perhaps a bottle or three of Tsingtao beer is better for an afternoon of Dim Sum- or Xiao Chi-fueled reflection – on the souls of Chairman Mao and Henry Kissinger, or more appropriately, about the way that food has been the mutually intelligible basis of Chinese-American relations for 225 years.
Jasmine Chinese Cuisine
13825 English Villa Drive
Louisville, KY 40245