Dinner with Chinese Scholars at Grand Sichuan

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Speaking of Chinese food (what is this, a stand-up act?) the other night we had the unique opportunity to dine with Craig’s cousin Dave, a senior at Georgetown, and several of the friends he met while studying abroad in Beijing last year at our favorite New York City Chinese restaurant, Grand Sichuan in the East Village.

Three factors made dining there with Dave and his friends special: (1) they all speak Mandarin Chinese; (2) having lived in China, they turned us on to a new dish; and (3) they could tell us if the food we love at Grand Sichuan tastes like the food tastes in China.

First things first, the language. After Craig and I told Dave and his friends what we normally like to order there (pork soup dumplings, Gui Zhou chicken or Chong Qing dry & spicy chicken, tea-smoked duck, chinese broccoli and/or the dry sauteed string beans), we let Dave do the ordering. Here he is in action:

[That’s Craig stepping in at the end, realizing that Dave was ordering the Gui Zhou; we decided we wanted them to experience the Chong Qing with all the chicken buried in peppers.]

While we waited for our food, Dave and his friends told us about dining in Beijing. They told us, for example, that rice almost always comes at the end of the meal. He and his friends would find this frustrating because they’d want to put the rice on the plate first and all the food on top so the rice would soak up the sauce, but that’s not how it’s done.

Apparently, it’s quite taboo to stick your chopsticks into your rice and to leave them there. That’s symbolic of death.

What’s not taboo, and this became evident when all the food arrived, is to use your chopsticks to lift food directly off the platters on the table into your mouth or on to your plate. “You wouldn’t see serving spoons in China,” said Dave’s friend, Quint. “It’s customary to eat right from the platter.”

If you have a guest, it’s customary to use your chopsticks to lift the food from the platter to your guest’s plate. “But you wouldn’t pass from chopsticks to chopsticks,” added Dave.

As for the food we had before us, one dish was an instant recommendation from the gathered group: Ma Po To Fu.

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This was something they all ate in China–creamy squares of tofu floating in a fiery sauce–and, though I’m not the world’s biggest tofu fan, I have to say, this dish was far out. The tofu was creamy and the sauce was hot and intense and great on rice (even though, if we were in China, I wouldn’t have the rice to soak it all up.)

As for the rest of the food, the Chinese scholars agreed: it was the real deal.

“This makes me miss China,” said Quint.

“Me too,” added David.

And so it was that we dined with Chinese scholars at Grand Sichuan in the East Village. We learned much and ate tofu. It was a very good night.

P.S. I just discovered that Dave has his own blog, called Not Just Wandering. Click it and check it out.

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