No other kind of food is so frequently and thoroughly rendered across the American landscape as Chinese food. You can find Chinese restaurants everywhere: in big cities, small towns, suburban malls, and even airports.
Their names are mix-and-match combinations of familiar words like jade, dragon, garden, panda, wok, bamboo and gate.
There are about 40,000 Chinese restaurants in America, more than the number of McDonald’s, Burger Kings and KFC’s combined, former New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee reported in her 2008 book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.
It follows that no other kind of food is more American than Chinese food. The takeout container and the fortune cookie (actually a Japanese invention, Lee discovered in her research) have become iconic objects. As Americans, regardless of our origins, we have all spent a good portion of our lives eating Chinese food.
And that, perhaps, is precisely why eating Chinese food rarely seems special even though it is quite possibly the world’s greatest, most evolved cuisine. Held for decades by Americans in a tight, loving embrace, Chinese food has become ordinary, often bland, and predictable, the very things that probably give it such mass appeal across the country.
But every once in a while, thanks to the continued Chinese diaspora, something new and different shows up in an unexpected place. The Rocking Wok restaurant occupies the ground floor of a decrepit apartment building in Wallingford. A palm tree is planted in front of the place. It's quite a contrast with Wallingford's many handsome bungalows (one of which belongs to rock star Dave Matthews, a frequently sighted celebrity around here) and its many reputable restaurants like Tilth, the temple of organic, locally-sourced cooking.
The Rocking Wok, located across the street from the old Lincoln High School, looks at first to hardly be worth the stop, judging by the name itself and the uninviting, sun-peeled storefront. Inside, the place looks no less humble with a drop ceiling of acoustic tiles and walls covered in wood paneling. A space heater barely keeps the dining room comfortable.
The food is the reason to visit. The Rocking Wok has been owned by husband and wife, Der and Lin Yang, for almost five years. They also own the Shanghai Palace on Mercer Island, which serves more conventional food by American standards. For the Yangs, the Shanghai Palace is about business; the Rocking Wok is about love.
“For me it is fun, it is not hard work,” Der said through a translator.
Here, Der prepares the specialties of his homeland Taiwan, where he lived until 1998 when he and his family moved to Seattle. Many of the dishes are listed on the menu under “Taiwanese Cuisine.” Some are not on the menu but listed on the wall, written in Chinese. Some of the dishes are somewhat self-explanatory; others require some investigation, experimentation, and risk-taking.
Without the services of a native Taiwanese or at least a speaker of Mandarin — Lin, who usually waits tables, speaks very little English — one can arrive at good choices by studying the digital picture frame by the front counter, where photos of several Taiwanese specialties are displayed with their names written in English.
A comprehensive meal can be made out of a handful of items: tea-smoked duck (sliced and served on the bone), herbal chicken (fragrant and tender, served with skin and bones), lion’s head (braised pork meatballs with baby bok choy), beef noodle soup (the beef comes with tendon attached), slices of pork belly served over sautéed mustard greens, and Taiwanese style, pan-fried vermicelli (dusted with ground shrimp powder). All the dishes labeled “potage” are Taiwanese-style soups, thickened with corn starch.
Der, 57, learned to cook at age 20, studying under one of the most respected chefs in Taiwan. Taiwanese cooking, he said, tends to be less oily. Fewer dishes are stir-fried. Instead, they rely on deep sauces, pungent herbs and spices, and slow simmering.
Taiwanese food is diverse and quirky, with elements of Shanghai and Szechuan style cooking, the Yangs explained, and is the evolution of thousands of family recipes finding a common audience. The island nation of Taiwan was formed out of civil war in mainland China. The Soviet-backed Communist party won and took hold of mainland China. The Western-backed Nationalist party lost and retreated to what is now Taiwan. The island has been occupied over the centuries by the Dutch, Spanish, and Japanese. The changes, the mixing, the turmoil and the isolation all helped make the food different from the food eaten in the rest of China.
Many of the dishes at the Rocking Wok are small and inexpensive, a reflection of the food-stall culture in tropical Taiwan. Among the photographs displayed up front are images of endless rows of food stalls, where the population does most of its eating out. Noodle soups are a big part of the food culture and represented heavily on the menu. Taiwan is also known for its fermented, “stinky” tofu. The variety served at the Rocking Wok is relatively gentle.
Most Taiwanese-Americans land in New York or California. Seattle’s population is small but growing. The restaurant has a loyal following of Taiwanese students who attend the University of Washington. They often bring with them non-Taiwanese students. To most of the city’s eating population, however, Taiwanese food is still something of a mystery. And the Rocking Wok, one of the very few places that serve it, is very much a hidden resource.
“There is the feeling here that it is a hole-in-the-wall place,” Der said. “But there is a pride because it is hidden. It is like finding a piece of home.”
Chinese food in Seattle is predominantly Cantonese, the style most familiar to Americans. Szechuan food, also making inroads in the U.S., happens to be the other form of cooking Der is fluent in; his father is from the province. The evidence is in the way Der makes a Chinese classic, mapo tofu. Everywhere else in the city, the dish is usually made with firm tofu and sliced pork, the sauce brown and overly sweet, sprinkled with green peas. Yang makes the real thing, with soft tofu and ground pork, the sauce bright red and pungent, sprinkled with Szechuan peppercorns, with not a pea in sight, just some pickled Chinese vegetables. The peppercorns make your tongue and lips go pleasantly numb for a moment.
The Rocking Wok also stands out for serving authentic, Shanghai-style steamed pork buns or “soup” dumplings, served with a dressing of soy, vinegar, and finely slivered ginger. The first bite releases the broth trapped within. The steamed pork buns served at other restaurants are dry inside with only a trace of soup. Even the hot sauce kept in a jar at each table is different at the Rocking Wok. It is thickened with fermented bean paste and less oily or tangy than the kind typically found in Chinese restaurants.
For the uninitiated, there are several dishes that will be familiar to any patron of Chinese food: orange chicken, sweet and sour pork, beef with broccoli, kung pao shrimp. These plates are the obligation of any Chinese restaurant in America, the reason they are so popular and uniform whether you are eating in Indiana or California.
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