We talk much about the term "authenticity" on this forum. It is a common thread in nearly all food forums, actually - and the word is fodder for much heated debate. I am of the belief that many cuisines taste best when the dishes served are exemplary and "authentic" - which to me simply means - the food is prepared in the same manner as in its native locale.
Certain dishes and entire classes of cuisines have evolved outside of this criterion. For example, Ginger Beef, a delicious Calgary invention, is an attempt at a Sichuan-style dish that took on a life of its own and is now part of the canon of "made in Canada" cuisine. Sichuan-Taiwanese and Sichuan-Cantonese food are relatively common off-shoots of Sichuan cuisine that have a large following in North America with large Chinese populations. They are all delicious and familiar to our collective palates. However, when I have a particularly authentic Sichuan meal, I am still struck by its bold, exciting, and un-muted flavours.
Chuan Xiang Ge provides a contrast to our meal at S & W Pepperhouse (Burnaby). Chuan Xiang Ge prepares Sichuan food with a lighter, more refined touch to S & W Pepperhouse. All the diners at the table last night all agreed the food was delicious and authentic - to a degree. But we all also acknowledged that S & W Pepperhouse's more rustic style of Sichuan food was closer to the Sichuan ideal - unabashed, unadulterated flavours and textures.
"Unabashed" and "Unadulterated"? This Chowdown group has been eating a lot of Sichuan food lately. As a group, we can confidently talk about the nuances which make Sichuan food truly authentic. I'll just outline some of the topics that have come up in our round table discussions:
The presence of "ma la" - the numbing sensation caused by Sichuan Peppercorns is the most obvious indicator. The next indicator is "heat" - usually the presence of copious amounts of chili peppers (both pickled and fresh) and fermented bean pastes (where peppers are a key component). The next indicator is the balance of sour and heat. "Sour" typically comes from rice vinegar in certain dishes and pickled vegetables in others.
"Sweet" - Westernized Sichuan food is often characterized by a syrupy sweetness. That isn't what we are discussing here. This type of sweetness is a more nuanced application of sugar - it is the sweetness in the curing of the smoked meats, the selection of vegetables to complement the rest of the dish...that kind of thing.
We have talked about "Cantonizing" of Sichuan food (a common effect here in Vancouver where the Cantonese are the predominant Chinese) through adulterations and preparation styles. "Adulterations" are commonly - starchy thickeners, meat broths, an unbalanced use of soya, etc. We also make note of additions of "foreign" vegetables (broccoli, large white onions, bell peppers, etc).
Then we get into nuances in preparations - the way the vegetables are sliced, the balance of protein to vegetables (too much of one and it becomes "filler", not enough and the dish loses much of its aesthetic appeal).
Are we being picky? No, IMO. The food is delicious at Chuan Xiang Ge, and I recommend it. It is more upscale in terms if ambience and service. The food is certainly delicious.... however when we compared it to the "real deal" at S&W, it was just missing some excitement. The flavours were muted and the textures (due to the use of thickeners) often detracted.
We had the Water-Boiled Fish (the white fish looked like basa, it was nice fresh tasting fish despite that), the Dan Dan Noodles (excellent, chewy noodles in a sesame-chili oil broth topped with ground meat), the excellent Shredded Potatoes in Vinegar (lots of toasty "wok hei" in this dish...very good), the Twice-Cooked Pork (the flash fried pork slices had some nice crispiness, again with lots of wok hei. I personally prefer the softer, whiter pork slices in the supposed "Chengdu" style of preparation), the Pork Slivers on Puffed Rice (this dish was good...but was thickened with starch), and the Pork with Pickled Chilies (again with thickener).
The food, once again, was good despite the compromises - a couple of the dishes were fantastic. For those who want to take baby steps to authentic Sichuan, I recommend this restaurant as an approachable alternative to the more authentic restuarants like S&W.
Chuan Xiang Ge "Mascot Enterprises"
8211 Westminster Highway Richmond
(not in CH database)