Best Bites: Authentic Chinese Flavors in the Valley

In the mid-1950s, my mother, Sue, convinced her parents to try Chinese (or, indeed, Chinese-American) food for the first time. They lived in the suburb of Boston, in Sharon, and the restaurant was called China Villa. My mom had first been taken there by one of her high school friends, and from her first bite, it was a revelation. The recipes and seasonings were bold and new, and the prices were so low that high school kids could sometimes afford to eat there with the few dollars they saved from their allowances or after-school jobs.

My mom’s equally thrifty parents loved the place, and Chinese food quickly became a regular tradition in her family, as it did in many others across the country.

The main dishes on the menu at China Villa, as in the first Chinese restaurants in America, were chop suey, egg foo young, chow mein and sweet and sour pork. These, along with some fried dishes like General Tso’s Chicken and Basic Meat and Vegetable Stir-Fry with Soy Sauce, were invented (or seriously modified) by Chinese immigrants to America to satisfy bland American tastes. It wasn’t authentic Chinese food – even the fortune cookies were actually Japanese – but it was authentic Chinese-American food, its own thing, and it was cheap, delicious and a hit. spectacular.

All this phenomenon deeply threatened competing white restaurants. Backlash quickly came in the form of racist scare campaigns over monosodium glutamate (MSG), a completely healthy form of glutamic acid that is a staple ingredient in cuisines across Asia. The idea that MSG is harmful was debunked in the scientific literature long ago, but a certain anti-MSG xenophobia still lingers in the popular consciousness. I recommend avoiding any Chinese restaurant that advertises “no MSG” – they might as well hang a sign saying “less flavor”.

Over the past decade or two, American palates have rapidly evolved toward a sense of adventure and open-minded curiosity, and authentic Chinese cuisine – dishes that people in China would actually eat – have begun to appear, sometimes in places with ordinary Chinese. American menu and a second “gourmet” or “authentic” menu available only on request.

While there will always be a place for General Tso in our culture, and we should never be ashamed to order cream cheese fried wontons (if you can still find any), I’m happy to report that authentic Chinese cuisine has spread to western Massachusetts. There are several great places in our area where you can sit side by side with Chinese students and families in the Five Colleges area and taste the real flavors of their home country.

Oriental flavor, Amherst. I think I could eat at this downtown Amherst gem of a Chinese restaurant just about every day. That’s how deep and intense the flavors are here.

There is not just one Chinese cuisine. There are hundreds of them, and they vary widely across China, from Uyghur Muslim cuisine in Xinjiang to seafood in the South China Sea. Authentication of Chinese cuisine in the 21st century across America has focused on one particular region: Sichuan province, where hot, spicy, salty, and sour flavors explode on your palate, and fragrant ma ( Sichuan peppercorns) leaves your whole mouth tingling with one of the most wonderful taste sensations in the world.

Oriental Flavor isn’t purely Sichuan, but that’s where its greatest talents lie. Sichuan-style dry-braised beef is served in a sizzling, steaming mini wok, adorned with mushrooms, leeks, bamboo shoots, lotus roots, onions and ma la. Beef slices are shaved as thin as possible to absorb the most flavor per square inch.

The cumin lamb, sautéed with onions and peppers, has a totally different range of equally intense flavors. “Special Spicy Chicken” is a delicious Chongqing specialty consisting of diced and breaded pieces of chicken, expertly fried with tons of dried red chillies.

Sour dishes are an underrated dimension of Sichuan cuisine, and Oriental Flavor’s boiled fish fillet with pickled cabbage, soft tofu, vermicelli noodles, in a milky white broth works as a great counterpoint to the meats. and peppers.

If you’re not in the mood for spicy, this restaurant also does a great job with small plates of dim sum like translucent “crystal prawn dumplings” (hargow, a Cantonese dim sum favorite), pan-fried turnip cakes with sweet jerky and jerky steamed shrimp or baby ribs in a black bean sauce.

Chez Lili, Amherst. This bright, simple and friendly lunch (or dinner) counter offers authentic regional dishes from Xi’an, in China’s Shaanxi province. You can take out or eat at one of the few simple tables. The specialty here is the hand-pulled noodles, which you can enjoy dry-cooked like biangbiang or submerged in noodle soup (best with cooked pork). Roujiamo, a classic Xi’an street food, is described as a “pork burger,” but it’s more like a pulled pork sandwich, with chewy shreds of pork belly stuffed into a rich, lightly flaky bun. I also love their cold noodles, which get their bite from cucumbers and springy wheat glutens, the crunch of bean sprouts and the refreshing acidity of rice vinegar.

Oriental taste, Northampton. Easily the best Chinese restaurant in Northampton, it’s a simply decorated space with high ceilings. I like the tables near the front windows where you can watch the bustle of Main Street.

The menu’s real firepower is found in a section called “Chef’s Specials.” A great celebratory dish that feeds two or three people is the “Spicy Grilled Whole Fish,” which comes to the table bubbling in a giant metal tray with a burner underneath, swimming in a red-colored broth with generous helpings of cabbage. , lotus, and other Chinese vegetables.

The kitchen makes great use of ma la, and you can’t go wrong with a menu item that includes the word “Sichuan.” Beef in a sweet and sour pickle broth and dry-braised dishes are in the spotlight, as is red-cooked pork, a Taiwanese specialty of rich, fatty belly meat slowly braised and deeply infused with flavors of soy sauce. and five spices.

Oriental Taste is also one of the best lunch options in town. Each “Chinese Lunch Special” rings in at less than ten dollars, including soup and rice; pork or beef with wild chilli. There are plenty of great vegetarian options on this list, including tofu ma po with Sichuan peppercorns and shredded potatoes with chili – China’s answer to hash browns.

Panda Garden, Williamsburg. A small strip mall along a rural stretch of Route 9 in Williamsburg is an unlikely spot for great Chinese food. The room is warm, with the occasional round lazy-susan table, and the staff is chatty and welcoming.

There’s one important rule for ordering here: you must ask for the semi-secret, bright yellow “gourmet menu,” a mix of authentic regional specialties you might find in China. The chef is from southern China (Guangdong province and Hong Kong), so his cuisine is particularly adept at southern preparations.

My favorite starter is the sliced ​​pork with garlic sauce, served at room temperature. It’s pork belly, about half meat and half fat, topped with a deeply caramelized garlic-chili sauce. Main courses are silken tofu stuffed with pork in a thick brown sauce, glassy bean noodles with ground pork, and deeply flavorful clams with fermented black beans. Hot Chili Beef Tendon has rich ribbons of gelatinous, intensely flavorful meat hiding in a forest of green peppers that give off intense heat. Pair your protein with what’s described as “stir-fried pea stalks,” aka pea shoots, aka dou miao, the sweetest and most complex of all Chinese greens.

Ginger Garden, Amherst. At this freestanding structure on Route 9 at the Amherst end of Hadley, you’ll find a variety of well-executed Szechuan in a large, open space that resembles the Chinese-American restaurants of yesteryear. In one side room is a sleek bar straight out of a luxury cruise ship from the early 90s, and beyond that is a sushi bar. To start, a salad of lively, springy ear mushrooms in a complex vinaigrette of vinegar, fresh red chili peppers, cilantro and mouth-stinging Sichuan peppercorns. The ma po tofu is gloopy but excellent, richly and generously flavored. Green beans, with little clusters of deeply caramelized garlic, are an explosive version of one of my favorite vegetable dishes in the world.很好吃 — hen hao chi!

Robin Goldstein is the author of “The Menu: A Restaurant Guide to Northampton, Amherst and the Five Colleges Area”. He sits remotely on the faculty of agricultural economics at the University of California, Davis. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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