Monday, January 08, 2007

The Szechuan Seventies

In the early 1970s Szechuan food took New York by storm, along with other Chinese regional cuisines like Hunan and Mandarin. Some very upscale places opened in midtown, trumpeting the arrival of authentic Chinese cuisine, and more humble ones began to spring up in Chinatown. The food was revelatory to a populace that had only known highly Americanized Cantonese fare. It was not long before Szechuan cuisine became the basis for a newly dominant bastardized Chinese-American cuisine.

This flowering of authentic Szechuan cuisine was actually fairly brief, even if many of the dishes became standard menu items at every neighborhood Chinese restaurant. Among the best of the early Chinatown Szechuan places were Szechuan Taste and Hwa Yuan Szechuan Inn, both on East Broadway. At these restaurants we were introduced to dishes like hot and sour soup, double cooked pork, kung pao chicken and ma po tofu (though usually called bean curd Szechuan-style). The best of the bunch, which opened a bit later, and was even more authentic, was Ting Fu Garden, on Pell Street. Among their specialties were freshly baked, sesame-coated flat breads stuffed with aromatic beef or pig’s ear, cold diced tripe in chili sauce, steamed spare ribs with a spicy rice flour coating, and an amazing spicy lamb dish whose name I can’t remember. One dish that I never ordered, but which caught everyone’s attention when they read the menu, was “boiled tripe and things.” The menu also included congee, but it was given the ascetic moniker “plain gruel.” Perhaps they were planning a Chinese production of “Oliver!” I believe Ting Fu closed in the mid-80s, and by that time most of the Chinatown Szechuan restaurants were gone. Ironically, Szechuan-influenced dishes dominated the menus of every bad Chinese restaurant by that time, yet there was a period from the mid-80s to the mid-90s when you couldn’t find any real Szechuan cuisine in New York.

A few places serving authentic Hunan food also opened in the ‘70s, but they too eventually disappeared. Szechuan and Hunan are distinct cuisines, but because they are both heavily reliant on hot-spicy dishes, the provinces are used interchangeably in the names of Chinese-American restaurants.

Also debuting in the seventies were Mandarin restaurants, though I think the term was used loosely, and they did not necessarily specialize in Peking court cuisine. The Mandarin places tended to serve a mix of Northern, Shanghai and Szechuan dishes. Among the Chinatown choices were Mandarin House and Peking Tung Lai Shun (named for a famous Beijing Muslim restaurant, Donglaishun, which specializes in mutton hot pot).

Fried dumplings, or jiaozi, or pot stickers as they’re known in some places (but not New York), also became popular during this time. One of the best places for them was 4-5-6, on Chatham Square, which had an eclectic, but mostly Shanghai menu. Though fried dumplings were served in Szechuan restaurants, jiaozi is a Shanghai specialty (and the etymological parent of the Japanese variant, gyoza).

Shanghai cuisine, which is now one of the greatest culinary strengths of New York’s Chinatown was not ubiquitous in those days. There were a few standouts, however, the best one being Little Shanghai, on East Broadway, which had a long run. It was one of Calvin Trillin’s favorite restaurants. Also on East Broadway for a brief time was Petite Soochow, which served Suzhou cuisine, a close relative of Shanghai-style.

Chinatown’s Szechuan period was a brief one, less than fifteen years. Every one of the restaurants I’ve named is gone now, and except for a branch of Grand Sichuan International there is no Szechuan food to be found in Chinatown (though thankfully there are a number of excellent places in midtown and Queens). By the 1980s Chinatown had changed, and I changed with it.


Blogger Richard said...

I always remember the time in the early 70s when a friend from Brooklyn College told me he'd eaten for the first time at what he pronounced a "Suh-ZEE-chee-un" restaurant.

8:53 PM  
Blogger Lex said...

Nice writeup Peter. You should add the oddly named House of Taiwan to the list. From the late 1970s until the early 80s they served up some very nicely prepared Szechuan dishes. It was located in Chinatown. Pell St? Bayard? Anyway, they're long gone.

Whoops. Also need to add that in the late 1980s the Flushing branch of Hwa Yuan was outstanding - I much preferred it to the Manhattan venue.

11:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Peter. I also was a big fan of Ting Fu Garden on Pell St. Loved the szechuan noodles and prawns with garlic sauce. Was sorry to see it leave.

3:03 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I went to NYU and my Chinese drill instructor in my Chinese language class recommended Szechuan Gardens on the Bowery in Chinatown. They also opened resataurants in Manhassat. The food was excellent and one my favorite dishes was "aunts climbing the trees" Cellophane noodles in a browm sauce with pork and black bean. Four of could eat and get stuffed for $15.00. It was cheap then and boy to I miss that restaurant.

3:28 PM  
Anonymous Jay said...

Boy do I miss Hunan House on Mott Street and Szechuan Cuisine on East Broadway. The latter had a fish dish that's causing salivary eruptions as I type...

8:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still miss Ting Fu 25 years on. The name of the lamb dish was simply Hunan Lamb. I googled Ting Fu because I'm looking for a good Hunan Lamb recipe on the net. I've never found a resturant that does that dish anything like TFG did. The other dish I miss from them was the Szechuan Dumplings. Absolutely fabulous. There is a place in midtown that makes dumplings that are somewhat similar, but not quite as good.

I did some asking around in C-town when TFG closed. I wanted to find out where the chef went to. No luck there, but I did find out that they closed because their lease ran out and the renewal was going to be for triple the previous rate.

9:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are the first person I have come across who knows about and was at Ting Fu Gardens. It used to be our go to spot for Sunday evening dinner after a weekend of partying with my girlfriend at the time. To this day I am trying to find a Szechuan restaurant that serves a dish they had at Ting Fu, Steamed Intestines. Sounds gross, but was really tripe that was coated in a thick, spicy and over the top, flavorful coating and steamed till melt in your mouth tender in a bamboo steamer. You mentioned rice powder coated spare ribs and I think it was the rice powder that was used in the steamed tripe dish .

Also I remember making humorous comments with my GF about the Tripe and "Things"

I don't remember details about the other dishes but I recollect that everything ever ordered was so good.

Lastly the owner who I believe was also the chef, had two really pretty daughters who were the waitresses there. He would look out from the kitchen area at me to see who it was that was ordering a dish that probably mostly Chinese people ordered….. And now that I am thinking of it…..LOL!! He also used to wear a leather belt that was about 7 sizes too big for him and let the end wave around almost to his knees, while he walked. Maybe he had stopped eating his own cooking and lost a lot of weight and wanted to brag about it.

5:40 PM  
Blogger vickybippart said...

I heard Ting Fu moved to the Bronx...but I never found it. Does anyone out there know the recipe for the sesame noodles? The sauce was thin and dark, not sticky with peanut butter.

8:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I miss the sesame noodles . the dumplings in hot oil, shrimp in chili sauce and the hunan lamb.

8:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some of the restaurants in midtown that featured Szechuan/Hunan cuisine were also quite good, most notably, Hunam on 2nd Avenue and Uncle Thai's Kitchen up around 63rd and 3rd. Over this time, Shun Lee Palace was getting started and was quite good for a short time before being totally Americanized.

8:26 PM  
Blogger missy moo said...

I still miss ting fu, thirty years later. The best cold noodles with sesame sauce ever.
The best Kung pao shrimp, and I remember those rice flour ribs.
No one makes cold noodles even close to ting fu...

6:27 PM  
Blogger vickybippart said...

Does anyone know the recipe for the cold sesame noodles? Even close to it?

3:00 PM  
Blogger missy moo said...

I actually found in that was close. I made it once, and meant to do it again with tweaks I think will make it more like ting fu. Let me see if I can find it. The key to it is when you grind the sesame seeds, only use shelled seeds. Seeds with the shell made it very gritty. Chinese markets sell sesame seeds both ways. With the shell, and without . Also realized adding a tiny bit of tahini might be the key to making it the proper consistency. Hold on. Let me try to find it

3:52 PM  
Blogger missy moo said...

This is it. It's very close.
I didn't use any of the vegetables she does though. I used cucumber bean sprouts and carrot shreds, just like ting fu did.
It wasn't as sweet as ting fu. I want to try it again with a little bit a tahini, maybe some mirrin. Def use SHELLED sesame seeds . no shells.

3:58 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

looks yummy...nice recipe...with all the ingredients i am sure its yummylicious.
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7:45 AM  
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4:50 AM  
Blogger Pedro Puckerstein said...

Well, it was Ants (not Aunts) climbing tree. The owners of Tung Lai Shun (upstairs) closed and opened Hunan House, downstairs on Mott.
4-5-6 had two places, one was good, the other not so good. Lets not forget Pings Dried Beef on Bayard, since moved to Mulberry? The Italian place on Mott and Mulberry, and some of the downstairs places for snails.

10:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up as a young teen in Manhattan in the late 1960s and early 1970s. My family's regular Chinese restaurant was a Szechwan restaurant on Broadway around 95th and 96th Streets. Was it called "Peking"? It, forever, formed my notion of what Chinese food should be. Today, Wa Jeal Sichuan Chili House is the closest I can find to what I remember. Tonight, I've got take out from Grand Szechwan. Yes, I'm an New York Minnesotan.

11:05 PM  
Blogger Moshe said...

Wonderful to see some love for the much lamented Ting Fu Gardens. We discovered it late one night when it appeared to be the last place serving dumplings. It became our regular Chinese food hangout because of many dishes mentioned above, most especially the best Cold Noodles in Sesame Sauce I’ve ever eaten and a dish we learned about there called Fried Rice Cake With Shredded Meat [pork] and its variations with chicken, pickled vegetables, etc. Because I'm lucky enough to live in Flushing, I can now get that dish locally, but I still haven’t found a match for those divine cold noodles!

7:30 PM  

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