We went to the David Letterman Department of Dining Out to explore the world’s top 10 dishes within Chinese cuisine. What we found was a less-than-shocking lack of consensus. Not one of the ranking organizations featured the same Top-10 as any other group that ranked Chinese dishes. However, there was a degree of commonality in the selections, with three dishes on just about everybody’s list of ten all-time favorites, and two more on most lists. We surveyed twelve lists to arrive at our conclusions.
Before we name the dishes, Jewish diners out may wish to know that all five of those singled out can be found at Johnny Chan 2 in the Harper’s Point shopping center at Montgomery and Kemper Roads. Frank Shi, owner/operator, and often chef at the long-time Chinese eatery says that the dishes on the list are mainstays in his homeland China, and that his kitchen is able to prepare the dishes as they would be prepared for Chinese palates.
The first dish to report is Kung Pao chicken. This dish was on all lists we considered, and more importantly, I’m thinking, was ranked either No. 2 or 3 on almost all of them. Bee Yinn Low, a renowned cookbook author and food expert of Asian cuisine generally, had this to say: “This is probably the most well-known Chinese chicken dish outside of China. It’s also an authentic and traditional dish that you can find in many restaurants in China.”
Yinn Low added: “The spicy stir-fried chicken dish originates from the Sichuan province of southwestern China, and while you’ve probably had the Westernized version, the real thing is fragrant, spicy and a little bit mouth-numbing, thanks to Sichuan peppercorns.”
While Johnny Chan 2 features a version that has been “Westernized” to a degree, the menu version is very close to the Chinese original, and if you ask your server, the kitchen can adjust the seasoning to replicate what you might enjoy in China.
Next on everybody’s list was a dish that many might not consider in a Top-10 hierarchy because of its seeming simplicity and low-brow appeal. The dish is fried rice.
Again, we’ve sought out the opinion of Yinn Low as to the culinary tradition around fried rice. “Rice is a staple in Chinese cuisine,” she tells us. “Chinese fried rice is a complete meal that feeds the entire family. The combination of ingredients can be anything from protein (chicken, pork, shrimp [beef and tofu too]) to vegetables (carrots, mixed vegetables). It’s a wholesome meal for dinner.”
At Johnny Chan 2, there is a Fried Rice section of the menu. Fried rice gives Jewish diners eating kosher style two protein options, beef and chicken, along with some vegetarian choices as well. Over the years, we have enjoyed many of the combinations of fried rice offered at Johnny Chan 2, with our favorites being the beef and the chicken versions. In reality, the vegetarian version of fried rice is as good as the protein options, since the flavors are about the same, with or without meat. And those flavor profiles are good and tasty.
The third dish on most lists is ma po tofu, which is eaten throughout China. This dish is one that allows wide variation in spiciness, from being 4-alarm fire hot to much tamer on the tongue. The Sichuanese version of this dish tends to be at the milder end of the spectrum, while those made with red chili oil and heftier quantities of Sichuan peppercorns likely would blow me out of my socks. Bean curd is a key ingredient, and in fact, it is said that the Chinese name for the dish translates literally as “Pockmarked old woman’s bean curd.” Whether there was a pockmarked old woman involved or not, this dish has been a favorite in China dating back to 1254 CE, with its origin being the Sichuan province.
At Johnny Chan 2, the dish comes in two varieties, and for Jewish diners-out, the vegetarian version is the only choice. It is one of those dishes that protein can be added, however, and the kitchen is scratch so that beef or chicken may be added if so desired. The tofu is cooked in a spicy red sauce that includes the fermented bean curd. The chili broad bean paste delivers much of the flavor for the dish, which can be very spicy if made to the original Chinese recipe.
The other dishes rounding out the five are hot and sour soup and wonton soup, both of which are on the menu at Johnny Chan 2.
See you at Johnny Chan 2!