DO YOU THINK you've been eating genuine Sichuan (they used to spell it Szechuan) cuisine in this country? Not according to two Sichuan chefs who have been twiddling their chopsticks in New York since last fall, waiting to open the "ultimate" Sichuan restaurant.
And they will . . . one day. When the Chinese-American sponsor, Dr. C.T. Wu, a Sichuan native who earns his livelihood as a professor at Hunter College, untangles the immigration snafu that has eight other chefs from the province of Sichuan cooling their woks in Peking waiting for their papers to clear. (This time it isn't the fault of government bureaucracy. As a matter of fact, the leader of the Sichuan province, who one day may be the leader of all China, Chau Zhe Yung, chose Sichuan's best chefs to come to this country for a couple of years and the U.S. government has given the project its blessing.) It took Wu, who serves as head of the American company, Nutrienox which is financing the project, more than two months to discover that the American lawyer who was supposed to process the paperwork had never submitted the first document to immigration.
While they wait for their colleagues, the two chefs who are here, Zheng Guo Hua and Yang Xiao Cheng, have been sampling the Sichuan cooking of their future competitors.
"Too hot, too garlicky, too oily, too much sauce," they said through Wu, who also acts as their interpreter. Wu added his own description: "Once you taste Sichuan food here your taste buds are gone."
A harsh judgment, but one agreed to by an American aficionado who had just finished a small lunchtime banquet the chefs had prepared at the still-unopened restaurant, Sichuan Pavilion. "Sichuan food here basically all tastes the same. It's all in the same sauce," he said.
Whether the criticism is right or wrong, the food the chefs cooked was distinctive because of its subtle flavorings. The chefs insisted it was quite ordinary because they were limited by the ingredients available to them. Along with the eight chefs, two tons of fiery Sichuan products, some of which are not available in this country, are cooling off in Peking.
One of the conditions under which the restaurant will open is that it use whatever Sichuanese products can be imported.It is more of a cultural exchange than a business arrangement, however. Provincial head Yung "realized that Sichuan food is popular in the United States," Wu said. "They have great pride in their food and they want to show what it tastes like. The food here is not real Sichuan food. When these chefs cook they want the natural taste of the food, not food covered in hoisin sauce."
What will make the restaurant unlike any other in this country is the ratio of master chefs to diners -- one for every 20 guests. Ordinarily a restaurant which feeds 200 people has one or two master chefs: The others are helpers. Sichuan Pavilion, at 322 E. 44th St. in Manhattan, will also specialize in banquets with, according to Wu, "very elaborate artistic decorations. All of the designs for the platters are made of edible food. Not just cold dishes, which are easier to do, but hot dishes. The colors come from the foods; there is no food coloring. There is nothing artificial. You are supposed to create colors out of various natural materials," Wu said.
Unlike the custom in other Chinese restaurants here, banquets will be served to as few as four people. "All you have to do is call a couple of days ahead," Wu said.
So instead of a 7,000-mile trip to the People's Republic of Chine to eat as they did in ancient China, or as the Vice-Premier, Deng Xiao Ping, and Chairman Hua have eaten more recently, you can try it in New York first. Among Deng's favorites are three of the seven that were served to this reporter a few weeks ago: orange flavored beef, tangy chicken and eggplant in garlic sauce. Zheng, who has been cooking for 40 of his 52 years, is considered so good he was chosen to cook for China's leaders when they visited Sichuan. "When you work for top leaders, the government selects the top cooks," Wu explained.
But like China's leaders, neigher Zheng nor Yang have always been at the top of the heap. During the Cultural Revolution cooking as an art form suffered "a lot of setbacks," Yang said. Some chefs were sent to the country to be 'rehabilitated', Yang explained, though neither he nor Zheng would say more than that they had "had some problems."
Now the culinary arts are considered important once again. And the Chinese have begun to realize what an exportable commodity their cooking is. "We have very refined, detailed terminologies for cooking," Wu said. "We are so much more advanced in that than you are. You send technology for housing and transportation. We send technology for cooking."
Many people in this country would consider it a fair trade. SICHUAN PAVILION ORANGE FLAVORED BEEF This makes an excellent hors d'oeuvre (2 to 3 servings as main course; 4 to 6 if other dishes are served.) 1 pound flank steak, thinly sliced and cut in 1-inch squares 4 teaspoons dry sherry 2 thin oval-shaped slices fresh ginger, about 1 inch long, crushed 2 green onions, each cut in 2 or 3 pieces 3 1/3 teaspoons mushroom soy sauce 1 cup vegetable oil 26 (1/2 inch) squares orange peel 4 hot peppers (about 3 inches long) with seeds, finely chopped 1/2 cup chicken broth Salt to taste Pinch sugar 1 teaspoon sesame oil
Combine 2 teaspoons sherry, ginger, green onion, pinch of salt and 2 teaspoons soy sauce. Marinate beef in the mixture for 10 minutes. Heat oil in wok or large skillet until very hot. Remove ginger and onion from meat mixture and reserve. Brown beef in oil, stirring constantly for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove beef and drain well. Pour oil out, leaving 1 tablespoon. Add ginger, onions, orange peel and peppers; stir fry 1 minute. Add beef, broth, 1 1/3 teaspoons soy sauce, pinch salt, 2 teaspoons sherry and pinch sugar. Bring to boil; cook rapidly over high heat, stirring until liquid evaporates, 3 to 4 minutes. Sprinkle with sesame oil and serve at room temperature. SICHUAN PAVILION EGGPLANT IN GARLIC SAUCE (4 to 6 servings) 1 to 1 1/4 pounds eggplant 1 to 1 1/2 cups vegetable oil Cornstarch 1 1/2 teaspoons rice vinegar Pinch salt 1 teaspoon sugar 1 teaspoon mushroom soy sauce 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch 1/2 teaspoon water 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped ginger 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped garlic 2 teaspoons finely chopped green onion 1 dried red pepper (3 inches long) with seeds, finely chopped 2 ounces ground pork
Peel eggplant, slice lengthwise in 1/2-inch-thick slices. Cut slices in strips 2 inches long and 1/2 inch wide. Sprinkle very lightly with cornstarch. Fry eggplant in hot oil in several batches until golden. Remove and drain thoroughly. Combine vinegar, salt, sugar, soy sauce, cornstarch and water. In separate container combine ginger, garlic, onion and pepper. Remove all but 1 tablespoon of oil from pot. Add ginger-garlic mixture with pork and stir-fry 1 minute. Mix in sauce and eggplant. Cook 2 minutes. Drain well and serve.