A few months back, I came up on this online article on the Cooking Light website simply entitled "The Four Schools of Chinese Cooking" and as the title suggests, it talked about 4 different types of Chinese cooking based on schools or more likely "regions": East, West, South and North. Given the fact that I'm lucky enough to live in the San Gabriel Valley where the breadth of Chinese cooking is unparalleled, I thought I'd start a new dining series for Pleasure Palate where we would dine at restaurants representing each school, starting with the Western School.
Taken directly from the article, "The Western School [is] acclaimed for its spicy dishes, includes Sichuan, Hunan, and Yunnan provinces." Look below for more info.
What the West is known for: Fiery Dishes That Will Perk Up Your Tastebuds in a Big Way.
Styles of Cooking: Seasonings and Condiments Combine for Mouthfuls of Hot, Sour, Sweet and Salty All in One Bite.
Common Seasonings: Chiles (Fresh, Dried and in Pastes), Peppercorns, Ginger, Garlic, Water Chestnuts, Bamboo Shoots, Mushrooms and Nuts.
Representative Dishes: Kung Pao Chicken, Twice Cooked Pork, Szechuan Beef and Mapo Tofu.
To represent the Western school, I chose Yunchaun Garden in Monterey Park to be the first dining experience in this series and I tried to choose dishes, with the help of the staff, to best showcase what the Western School was all about. For our meal there, we shared 11 dishes. The dishes ran the gamut from awesome to good to okay to "What were we thinking?"
The absolute highlight of the meal for me was the Chongqing Spicy Cold Chicken. Sitting on a flaming red pool of chili oil, it was both vibrant looking and vibrant tasting. This chicken definitely packed some heat while the slight nutty-grassiness of the peanuts and green onions added some great flavor to this dish. Also a favorite was the Chongqing Special Flavor Boiled Fish. The fish itself was delicate and tender and it definitely absorbed the hot kickiness of the chili peppers and the spicy red broth it was cooked in.
Another really tasty dish was the fried lamb with cumin. The bite of the cumin, the spiciness of the red chili pieces beautifully flecked all over the meat's surface and the distinct bold flavor of the lamb really combined into a dish that was definitely a palate pleaser. Some of the other dishes were good, if not outstanding.
Everyone enjoyed the Kung Pao Shrimp. The Won Tons in Chicken Soup and the Sauteed Snow Bean Leaf helped in cleansing the palate in between bites of the spicier foods. I thought the Ma Po Tofu was okay, but needed improvement. After taking a bite, you could feel a little bit of heat on the tip of your tongue and maybe, the back of your throat, but compared to the other three, it lacked depth and dimension. It felt like it was hot just for the sake of being hot.
Dishes I wouldn't order again include the Twice Cooked Pork and the Stir-Fried Duck with Ginger. In both cases, both the pork and duck were chewy while the dishes in general were just really bland. The Yunnan Yam Cake also wasn't to my liking. I'm not even sure how to describe the texture. It reminded me of a firm tasteless jell-o.
In general, I enjoyed my meal and would come back for a return visit. I do prefer my food, while not necessarily mind-numbing hot, to be bold in flavor and my dinner at Yunchaun Garden certainly did provide that and sometimes more. I'm sure that I've barely cracked the surface of what the Western Style of Chinese Cooking is all about, so if anyone has any recommendations for what I can order for a future visit, I'd love to know about them.
To see pics, go to:
301 N. Garfield Avenue
Monterey Park, CA 91754