01/28/14 11:14am

How to Order Authentically Spicy Chinese Food

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Sichuan ox tongue and tripe is a classic spicy Chinese dish.

Welcome to the fifth installment of C+M’s ongoing series of audio guides on how to order authentically spicy food in ethnic restaurants. As a service to C+M readers Anne Noyes Saini has been compiling a series of audio guides demonstrating phrases in several relevant languages, which can be used to navigate ordering situations fraught with tricky cultural and language barriers.

Today just in time for the upcoming Chinese New Year festivities, a primer from Rain Yan Wang on how to order spicy food in Mandarin. At most of my favorite Flushing haunts, like Lao Cheng Du and Cheng Du Tian Fu, they don’t pull any punches when it comes to fiery chili heat and tingling Sichuan peppercorns. That’s not the case everywhere though. Click through to learn how to get real deal spicy Chinese.

“Once you start eating eating spicy food you’ll think that every other food is so bland [with] no taste at all,” Rain says. I’ve certainly found that to be true! I’ve been adding roasted chili oil to Chinese food since I was nine years old.


Sichuan water poached fish at Golden Mall.                 Photo: Peter Cuce.

In her primer Rain calls out shui zhu yu, or Sichuan water poached fish. The version at Cheng Du Tian Fu packs plenty of ma la heat and has become something of a go-to for me during this especially frigid winter. In addition to the aforementioned spicy Flushing spots I also dig Little Pepper, Xi’an Famous Foods, and Biang! Wishing you all good things in the Year of the Horse.

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7 Comment

  • Fuschia Dunlop provides an excellent comparison of the spices of Sichuan & Hunan in her memoir Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper. Like her, I agree that Sichuan food is less about obtaining a high heat index than a particular pleasant fragrance of spice; Hunan food, with its fresh & pickled peppers, should be the more overwhelmingly spicy of the two. It wasn’t mentioned in the commentary, but Guizhou province, which actually sits between Sichuan and Hunan, is also a Chinese cuisine famous for it’s spice. Guizhou food, much more so than Hunan food, is the true hot & sour cuisine of China. Unfortunately, I don’t believe there are any Guizhou restaurants in New York (and, outside of the province, they’re quite uncommon within China too).

  • I like spicy food, too, but people should recognize that there are also many regions in China where food is not spicy, where the flavor of the fresh ingredients are showcased.

    Last weekend, my parents invited the family to a fantastic Chinese New Year banquet in Happy Garden in Flushing. There was a single spicy dish the entire night. But there were plenty of delicacies, ranging from sea cucumbers, braised duck feet, steamed fish, abalone, to lobsters. It was one of those meals where there were too many dishes to all fit on the lazy susan.

    OK, now that’s over, I have a craving for some tacos with hot sauce.

    • Indeed, Rain is careful to specify that food in her native Shanghai is anything but spicy! Rather, it seems that Sichuan, Hunan, Hubei, Xian, Guizhou and other regions noted for spicy dishes are exceptions, not the rule in China.

      Robotron, stay tuned for the Spanish installment in this series — coming up next!

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