Tag Archives: chinese

IMG_1204

First Time Making Pipa Tofu

Pipa tofu is a dish rarely found on a typical Chinese restaurant menu. I know this because if it were on the menu, I’d order it all the time. Mashed soft tofu — often mixed with ground shrimp or pork — formed into an oval shape and fried. Served with a light sauce over mixed vegetables. That my friends, is good eating.

After wolfing down the excellent pipa tofu at Chalin’s recently, I was inspired to make it for myself. A quick Google search turned up several recipes, including this one, and this one. My version was sort of a combo of both, based on what I had in my kitchen.

The first step was to steam some bok choy.

While the bok choy steamed, I mashed up a block of soft tofu with chopped scallions, a pinch of salt, a little cornstarch and about 8-9 minced shrimp.

Then I heated up canola oil in a wok, formed the mashed tofu into oval shapes (the name comes from the shape of the pipa, a traditional Chinese instrument), and carefully lowered them in batches into the hot oil. This part’s a little tricky because they’re so delicate and easy to break.

Only took a few minutes for the tofu to turn golden brown. Out they came onto paper towels to drain, and in went the next batch.

You can see that I mishandled a few and deformed their oval shape.

Threw some baby corn and peas into the steamer with the bok choy, put together a light sauce of soy and chicken stock, thickened with a cornstarch slurry, and dinner was ready.

Chinese comfort food.

IMG_0504

Ping Pong’s Starter Dim Sum

Ping Pong Dim Sum is to dim sum what P.F. Chang’s is to Chinese food.  That is to say, a safe introduction to an ethnic cuisine, but nowhere near the realm of authentic. (The fact that “P.F.” stands for founder Paul Fleming should tell you all you need to know about P.F. Chang’s.)  Like Mrs. Costanza screeched to Donna Chang in “Seinfeld,” You’re not Chineeese!

Ping Pong Dim Sum is brilliant in its execution: start with a catchy, cute name (that skirts awfully close to offensive), create a sleek and chic decor with a large bar area, put the restaurant in two prime locations (Chinatown and Dupont Circle), build a menu around a popular ethnic food style, water that style down for mass appeal, jack up prices and watch the customers come rolling in.

Don’t get me wrong, Ping Pong is a perfectly good place for a happy hour.

And as happy hour food goes, it’s mildly successful. But let’s call a spade a spade and classify this as “dim sum lite.”

My friend Charmaine and I sampled several dishes, like these two kinds of spring rolls, one vegetarian and one chicken.

Solid but unremarkable.

Even less remarkable were the flavorless seafood cakes.

The baked chicken puff with pineapple wasn’t bad. But then, there’s not much to dislike about pastry.

Ehh (with shoulder shrug) on the scallop and shrimp dumplings.

They sort of resembled the steamed dumplings you’d find in a dim sum restaurant, but the flavors weren’t quite there.

A big miss on the crispy shrimp wontons.

Tiny and practically all wrapper, just nothing going on here. And $5 for six miniscule wontons? Honestly, I can make better wontons at home.

By far the biggest success of the night, the char sui (roasted pork) buns.

These came closest to tasting like an honest to goodness dim sum dish. The buns even had that thin piece of paper on the bottom that you have to peel off. Nice fluffy and chewy buns with tasty pork. These were good.

Charmaine is going for dim sum at Oriental East in Silver Spring on Saturday. I’ve heard good things about the place. I’ll be very curious to hear how their dim sum compares with Ping Pong.

Ping Pong Dim Sum
1 Dupont Circle NW
Washington, DC
202-293-1268

IMG_3125

Chalin’s: The Two Menus at a Chinese Restaurant

Last week, during the Q&A portion of author Jennifer 8. Lee’s talk at the National Archives about the history of Chinese food in America, an audience member asked her what dishes would be considered “authentic” Chinese fare. Ms. Lee had just spent her lecture explaining the distinctly non-Chinese origins of General Tso’s chicken, chop suey and fortune cookies.

Her response to the question? That clear and jiggly foods tend to be authentic (think jellyfish); that Americans are averse to connecting food with a living animal, making heads, eyeballs, tongues, feet, claws, etc. on the menu another sign of authenticity.

That answer reminded me of the lunch I had recently with my Mandarin language class at Chalin’s near Foggy Bottom.

Chinese restaurants are unique in that I can’t think of another ethnic restaurant where two menus exist, one for Americans and one for customers from the country of origin. I’ve never seen someone walk into an Italian restaurant and say, “”Yeah, the eggplant parm looks great, but give me the real Italian menu.” And yet that’s what happens at some Chinese restaurants. Most likely you’ll be handed a menu with the Chinese-American staples like beef with broccoli, crab rangoon, and yes, General Tso’s chicken. But, if you’re with a Chinese person, there’s a chance you’ll also receive a very different menu, including dishes featuring the animal parts that Americans tend to avoid.

On our class lunch trip we were with our teacher and were given both menus. Each person ordered a dish (some stuck to the American menu) and we shared family style. I couldn’t snap pics of everything, but I grabbed a few.

This was beef in a spicy chili oil sauce. From the shimmering red color you can tell it’s spicy on sight.

Pork with cellophane noodles.

A dish that’s shot up close to the top of my favorite Chinese dishes, pipa tofu. It’s tofu that’s been mashed and formed into a ball or oval shape, then fried until golden brown. The outside becomes slightly crispy while the inside stays soft. And because it’s right out of the fryer, the tofu is piping hot. With a light sauce and vegetables, it’s really delicious.

I believe this was twice-cooked pork. My classmate had ordered it off the regular menu, and then the manager asked if he wanted to try the Chinese version instead. She explained that the pork belly used there would be a little fattier and more flavorful than the Americanized version.

How right she was — the thinly cut pork had a taste almost like bacon. So glad he took her suggestion.

Ma po tofu. Better than the one I had at Great Wall Szechuan House. Not quite as heavy on the Szechuan peppercorns, giving it a more balanced flavor.

Another tofu dish in soy sauce.

Here’s what I ordered: shredded pork with firm, seasoned tofu, called tofu gan.

And remember Jennifer Lee’s statement about animal parts? Well then this must be authentic — it’s tripe (aka cow stomach).

Tripe has never exactly been at the top of my priority list. Now it can be crossed off.  It’s actually not bad — spongy and a little chewy, like calamari of the land. And like tofu, it’s rather neutral in taste, making it a good vehicle for sauce.  Can’t say I’ll be rushing out for tripe again any time soon, but at least I know I can stomach it. Get it? Stomach? Never mind.

My advice is this: when in doubt, ask for the Chinese menu. The restaurant just might have one. Try it and you’ll be treated to a world of Chinese food beyond General Tso’s chicken, which as Jennifer Lee explained, “Is sweet, is chicken and is fried. That’s why Americans love it.”

Chalin’s Restaurant
1912 I St. NW
Washington, DC
202-293-6000

IMG_3120

For a Numb Tongue, Go to Great Wall Szechuan House

Among the people I’ve talked to who know Chinese food, there’s a general consensus that the DC food scene, for all its strengths, is not a hotbed of Chinese cuisine. (Not counting Maryland or Virginia, where all the good stuff seems to live; I’m referring to within the District itself.)  I just haven’t heard anyone getting worked up about Chinese food here the way they do about Ethiopian, Thai or Mexican.

So when I do read or hear anything positive, I make a mental note to check the place out. Which is what happened last weekend after my first Chinese language class. I was already in Chinese mode; eating the food seemed like the next logical step. It was also a nice day for a walk from Foggy Bottom to Logan Circle, although anyone spotting me on the street would have thought I was a crazy person, since I was practicing my Chinese phrases out loud over and over: “My name is Doug. And you?” and “I’m very glad to meet you!”

Great Wall Szechuan House has numerous raves on Yelp for its special ma la dishes, which are extremely spicy and made tongue-numbing by Szechuan peppercorns.

Ma po tofu is perhaps my favorite Chinese dish, so ordering that was a given.

The dan dan noodles also caught my eye.

Three points about eating ma la: 1) Set a whole packet of tissues on the table, because you’re going to need them; 2) Your tongue will start going numb almost immediately. It’s a strange feeling, a little like being at the dentist, but you’ll adjust to it; 3) You’re going to want a lot of rice. A lot.

In retrospect, I didn’t need two dishes off the ma la menu. One would have been plenty. The flavor of the Szechuan peppercorn is so prominent that after a while it can become overwhelming. But boy was it a relief to eat some honest to goodness fiery Chinese food.

I couldn’t quite work up the nerve to try my Mandarin out on the restaurant staff. Not sure how they would have reacted to a badly accented, “Hello. My name is Doug. And you?” Later in the semester though, I’ll give it a shot. Maybe I’ll say this: “Your ma la dishes are very good. And very spicy! Would you happen to have any tissues?”

Great Wall Szechuan House
1527 14th St. NW
Washington, DC
202-797-8888

IMG_2998

China Garden: Venturing into Rosslyn for Dim Sum

What do Asians look for in an unfamiliar Chinese restaurant? We look for other Asians. The theory being, Chinese wouldn’t patronize a crappy Chinese restaurant.

Based on theory alone then, China Garden in Rosslyn was already in the plus column. My parents and I stepped into the large dining room for dim sum several months ago (yes, this post is long past overdue), and looked out over a sea of black hair, with more customers arriving en masse (I think there was a group that got off a bus or something). It was encouraging.

One of the factors that influences the quality of dim sum dining is the timing: arrive too early and the food is fresh and plentiful, but the dining room is a chaotic, crowded, noisy headache; arrive too late and the selection dwindles with fewer carts circling around. And then because turnover slows and items have been sitting longer, they’re not as fresh.  The goal is to find that dim sum sweet spot.

We got there probably just past peak — busy when we arrived, slowing down by the time we left. Here’s a look at what we ate.

One of my family’s favorites, turnip cake. It’s pan fried and has little bits of ham in it.

Steamed shrimp dumplings.

Spare ribs. I’ve mentioned this before, but these are all for my dad. I find them too fatty.

Chinese greens in oyster sauce. Having some greens with dim sum helps cut the heaviness of all the dumplings and fried items.

Springs rolls. A staple, and always reliable.

Shrimp-stuffed peppers.

Clams in a spicy black bean sauce. These arrived cold. They weren’t supposed to be that way. We asked that the dish be reheated, and that improved them immeasurably. The sauce was especially tasty.

Pot stickers.

I love these — shrimp-stuffed tofu.

Veggies and pork wrapped inside tofu skins.

And another favorite, fried glutinous rice balls stuffed with bbq pork. The rice is sweet, the pork is salty, it makes for a perfect yin yang.

As I’m writing this and reviewing the pictures, my mouth is watering like a dog begging for scraps at the table.  I’m suddenly starving and I already had dinner. Dim sum cravings are brutal.

China Garden
1100 Wilson Boulevard
Rosslyn, VA
703-525-5317