A while back I had written a bit about my love of Chinese food of all types ranging from Chinese-American to authentic Chinese and more. While you should eat whatever you like, I have to tell you that there's more than General Tsao's, my friend! I was recently in NYC for a wedding and had the pleasure of enjoying a banquet for the celebration. In most US urban cities, authentic Chinese cuisine will fall under Cantonese style. A fairly mild cuisine that's heavy on seafood, stir-fry's and such. So if you ever wondered about real Chinese food, read on!
A group of about fifteen of us showed up at Mulan in NYC for our 11 course meal. Family get-together before my cousin was getting married and we were ready to eat! The menu spanned a variety of meats and seafood with no white rice in sight... The first thing you need to understand is most Chinese restaurants will have round tables available for larger groups. It makes it much easier to see others and chat across the table. And usually the food is served family-style: a large plate with serving spoons for individual portions. In this situation, we had two servers working the room which meant for easier eating and no self-serve.
Our first course was a Chinese cold platter of meat with a little bit of everything. Thin cold sliced beef, chicken, roast duck, crisp suckling pig, marinated shrimp along with some tofu and jelly fish. So when I say everything, I MEAN everything! It's a very simple, tasty starter with very subtle marinade and preparation. Lots of flavors, colors and textures which is key to a lot of Chinese dishes. The roast suckling pig is a classic favorite with crisp skin and succulent meat underneath. The tofu was also quite good but more like a tofu skin marinated in a savory sauce. Overall this cold plate is a great way to get the meal started!
We moved on to a lobster salad with diced avocado, cucumber, and melon in a light mayo marinade. Tasty, fresh and probably not classic Cantonese cuisine it played well nicely against the previous meat-laden dish. Also a quick reminder to me on how available lobster is on menus in the Northeast, one thing I miss after moving from New England!
Our next dish was also in the seafood vein: a ginger-scallion crab stir-fry! This preparation is very traditional Cantonese and is usually paired with lobster pieces. In this case they used a meaty Dungeness crab which makes for a manual and messy meal! Crack the claws a bit, suck out the sweet crab meat and the sticky sauce coating the crab makes for a taste and texture sensation. Dungeness crab is more of a West coast seafood but it was nice to have it for this plate!
The next course is a bit easier to enjoy, a tenderloin with black pepper! Tender beef filets cooked medium with a pepper gravy and served with marinated veggies in the middle, I've seen variations of this dish over the years and I'm not sure if it's a really "classic" Chinese dish or more of a tip of the hat to Chinese food in the US. But it works for me, the beef pairs off well against the peppery sauce.
Next we move on to a golden fried crispy chicken, chopped with bone in, the meat is tender and juicy but not your traditional "Southern fried chicken". What you'll notice in traditional Chinese food is that there's no aversion to bones or meats served whole. The extra work in terms of eating crab, shellfish, meats or fish in its natural state means a lot more flavor and a bit more work. Leaving the food intact means getting all the different textures and flavors all at once. White chicken breasts?! Bah! Where's the flavor?!
Our next dish is a bit classic, bright braised mustard greens with glistening shitake mushrooms. It's a visual feast and while I enjoy the greens I'm not a huge fan of mushrooms so I pass there. But it makes for a beautiful dish that I can certainly appreciate. And also a nice change of pace after all the meat!
Our next dish was definitely a bit of work: steamed whole stone fish! I had never seen this before and I did my research but stonefish is not often served but it has firm, white flesh with ugly looking spiky fins all around! A traditional Cantonese preparation with any whole fish, the stone-fish was a bit of work with a lot of small bones but contrasted against the savory sauce and pungent scallions makes for a flavor sensation. Definitely not for the weak-hearted and you will earn your eats here! But again, the fish is served whole with its skin for maximum flavor. Quite an ugly-looking dish but very tasty.
And finally some carbs to the meal: golden fried rice and lo mein with roast pork. But as you'll notice, even these two dishes are slightly different than its Chinese-American counterpart. No soy sauce in the fried rice, it's just stir-fried rice with scallion, scrambled egg, and roast pork. It's a tasty plate of carbs and I'm happy to see it. The lo mein noodles are also stir-fried with tender pork slices and cabbage bits. A bit greasy but of course, yummy.
We end up with some sweets for dessert: sliced fruit (watermelon, honeydew, cantaloupe, grapes) along with a sweet soup made of red dates, lotus seed and white fungi. Yep you heard that right, white fungi! While the fruit plate is not unusual, Chinese desserts are a bit different and often revolve around soups. This translucent finisher has some texture from the fungi along with a slightly sweet broth and healthy dates. There is definitely no emphasis on sugars and creams in Asian desserts, I'm not a huge fan of them but I'll always give em a try!
So there you go, a traditional Cantonese Chinese dinner buffet and probably near impossible to find in the Triangle area. If you want food like this, you'll have to hit up an urban Chinatown to give it a whirl. But I guarantee you that you'll get a flavor and texture profile to the meal that's far different than your usual Chinese-American fare in the suburbs. And yeah, sometimes I do miss it this way. I pretty much like any Chinese food cause it's what I grew up with but sometimes, you gotta get the real deal! And Queens in New York City has some of the best Asian food in the country, don't miss it if you're visiting the area...
13617 39th Ave, Floor 2
Flushing, NY 11354