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A true taste of China in Riyadh.

Byline: Lisa Kaaki

(Category: Features)

Chinese cuisine is incredibly versatile and can easily be adapted to suit anyone's taste. I still vividly recall how Chinese restaurants in Pakistan serve mainly hot, spicy food whereas in America sweet and sour dishes are very popular and overtly sweet. However, Chinese expatriates always favor the authentic taste of their regional cooking.

When you see Chinese people in a Chinese restaurant it is always a sign that genuine food is being served. Over the years, the Riyadh Chinese Restaurant has become the culinary meeting point for the Chinese expatriate community as well as Chinese visitors passing through the Saudi capital. Mr. Cho, the charismatic owner, specifies that all his Chinese customers come before eight thirty in the evening. And if you happen to be around at that time, you will probably be surprised by the look of the dishes. What is so unique about the Riyadh Chinese Restaurant is not so much what is on the menu but what is not on the menu!

"Presently, most of my customers come from the region of Szechuan (or Sichuan) so they request Szechuan dishes which are not included on our regular menu" explains Cho.

Szechuan cuisine is mostly known for its spiciness, yet it is still unclear how chili peppers were introduced to this landlocked, mountain-ringed region in western China. The most popular view is that Indians carried chilies with them during their travels along China's famous Silk Route. Incidentally, the Silk Route was originally built during the Han dynasty for military and strategic purposes that eventually gained more importance as a major trade route.

Another theory is that chilies were introduced by Chinese merchants trading with Portuguese and Spanish sailors. Dried peppers are often used in Szechuan cooking. Because of the region's distance from the sea and the humidity of its climate, the preservation became essential, not only in the storage of the ingredients but also in their preparation. Before the advent of freezing, food was kept by salting, drying, spicing, pickling and smoking. Another typical hot spice is the Szechuan pepper, an important ingredient in Szechuan cooking also known as pepper flower, Chinese pepper and fagara. Szechuan pepper is not a pepper at all. This reddish-brown fruit is a berry that comes from the prickly ash tree. It is not as hot as chili pepper but it is famous for its numbing effect on the tongue.

The Szechuan cuisine also makes use of flavored vegetables like onions, spring onions, garlic, ginger, and pepper along with peanuts, sesame seeds and sesame oil. When these ingredients are mixed with soyabean products such as soya sauce, soya paste and tofu, this produces a piquant spiciness which is characteristic in many Szechuan dishes.

Hot and Sour Soup is a typical Szechuan soup and it is of course on the menu. This hearty soup is often called "the junk soup" because, in fact, anything can be added to it. Another Szechuan specialty which is also included on the Riyadh Chinese Restaurant is Ma Po Tofu, a dish known all over China. It was invented during the reign of Emperor Tung Chi (1862-75) of the Manchu dynasty by the wife of Chen Ling-Fu, a well-known chef in Chengtu. The lady had a badly pock-marked face, hence the name, Tofu of the Pock-Marked Wife.

Fen Tseng or steamed ground rice dishes are not included on the menu but they are a favorite form of slow cooking in Szechuan. The coarsely ground rice is first made aromatic by being roasted or dry-fried in frying pan or griddle. Pieces of meat are then generously coated with the ground rice before being steamed. The effect of the using of aromatic ground rice in this manner is quite different from the use of breadcrumbs in Western fried food. The meat is seasoned and marinated before being coated in ground rice. The prolonged steaming releases a fair amount of meat juices which blend with the aromatic ground-rice covering. The resulting mixture is a sort of thick sauce which helps to reduce the fatness of the meat. Traditionally, when one cooks by steaming, one prepares a whole series of dishes at the same time, in several layers of "basket steamers," with the dishes which require the hottest and shortest cooking placed in the bottom basket nearest to the boiling water, and the dishes for slower and longer cooking in the upper baskets. Another method of cooking distinctive of Szechuan is to give finely chopped pieces of meat or vegetables a short period of quick boiling in a limited amount of stock or water. When the liquid has almost disappeared, a small amount of sesame oil is added along with Chili or chili pepper.

If you are looking for a flavorsome specialty you might ask Mr. Cho to prepare Tangerine-Peel Chicken made with tangerine peel. As for the best-known smoked dishes of Szechuan, you will have to taste them in China. The Camphor-Wood and Tea Smoked Dutch require a special setup. This method of smoking is mainly used for flavoring. In this case, the duck is roasted or soya-braised first, and then subjected to a period of smoking above a mixture of tea, camphor-wood leaves and sawdust sprinkled over smoldering charcoal. After this procedure, the poultry is sliced into large bite-sized pieces and deep-fried, or brushed with sesame oil and subjected to a few minutes of quick-roasting over high-heat before serving.

Anyone looking for genuine Chinese food should go to the Riyadh Chinese Restaurant situated near the 30th Street, (Thalateen Street) in Sulaymaniyyah and meet its charismatic and dedicated owner. One of the highlights of this restaurant is not only its genuine Chinese food but also the pleasure of talking to Cho, the doyen of Chinese restaurant owners in Riyadh.

If you wish to taste special Szechuan dishes, you should speak to Cho and order them in advance.

For more information tel: 4655451 or e-mail:

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Date:Nov 21, 2008
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