Wednesday, October 08, 2008

"The Four Schools of Chinese Cooking" - Dinner at Yunchaun Garden

A few months back, I came up on this online article on the Cooking Light website simply entitled "The Four Schools of Chinese Cooking" and as the title suggests, it talked about 4 different types of Chinese cooking based on schools or more likely "regions": East, West, South and North. Given the fact that I'm lucky enough to live in the San Gabriel Valley where the breadth of Chinese cooking is unparalleled, I thought I'd start a new dining series for Pleasure Palate where we would dine at restaurants representing each school, starting with the Western School.

Taken directly from the article, "The Western School [is] acclaimed for its spicy dishes, includes Sichuan, Hunan, and Yunnan provinces." Look below for more info.

What the West is known for: Fiery Dishes That Will Perk Up Your Tastebuds in a Big Way.

Styles of Cooking: Seasonings and Condiments Combine for Mouthfuls of Hot, Sour, Sweet and Salty All in One Bite.

Common Seasonings: Chiles (Fresh, Dried and in Pastes), Peppercorns, Ginger, Garlic, Water Chestnuts, Bamboo Shoots, Mushrooms and Nuts.

Representative Dishes: Kung Pao Chicken, Twice Cooked Pork, Szechuan Beef and Mapo Tofu.

To represent the Western school, I chose Yunchaun Garden in Monterey Park to be the first dining experience in this series and I tried to choose dishes, with the help of the staff, to best showcase what the Western School was all about. For our meal there, we shared 11 dishes. The dishes ran the gamut from awesome to good to okay to "What were we thinking?"

The absolute highlight of the meal for me was the Chongqing Spicy Cold Chicken. Sitting on a flaming red pool of chili oil, it was both vibrant looking and vibrant tasting. This chicken definitely packed some heat while the slight nutty-grassiness of the peanuts and green onions added some great flavor to this dish. Also a favorite was the Chongqing Special Flavor Boiled Fish. The fish itself was delicate and tender and it definitely absorbed the hot kickiness of the chili peppers and the spicy red broth it was cooked in.

Another really tasty dish was the fried lamb with cumin. The bite of the cumin, the spiciness of the red chili pieces beautifully flecked all over the meat's surface and the distinct bold flavor of the lamb really combined into a dish that was definitely a palate pleaser. Some of the other dishes were good, if not outstanding.

Everyone enjoyed the Kung Pao Shrimp. The Won Tons in Chicken Soup and the Sauteed Snow Bean Leaf helped in cleansing the palate in between bites of the spicier foods. I thought the Ma Po Tofu was okay, but needed improvement. After taking a bite, you could feel a little bit of heat on the tip of your tongue and maybe, the back of your throat, but compared to the other three, it lacked depth and dimension. It felt like it was hot just for the sake of being hot.

Dishes I wouldn't order again include the Twice Cooked Pork and the Stir-Fried Duck with Ginger. In both cases, both the pork and duck were chewy while the dishes in general were just really bland. The Yunnan Yam Cake also wasn't to my liking. I'm not even sure how to describe the texture. It reminded me of a firm tasteless jell-o.

In general, I enjoyed my meal and would come back for a return visit. I do prefer my food, while not necessarily mind-numbing hot, to be bold in flavor and my dinner at Yunchaun Garden certainly did provide that and sometimes more. I'm sure that I've barely cracked the surface of what the Western Style of Chinese Cooking is all about, so if anyone has any recommendations for what I can order for a future visit, I'd love to know about them.

To see pics, go to:

Yunchaun Garden
301 N. Garfield Avenue
Suite D102
Monterey Park, CA 91754
(626) 571-8387

Yunchaun Garden on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

This looks like a great place to visit. I found a place that you can easily learn how to cooking Chinese food at the comfort of your home. If you're interested, try their recipes, video, and get some ideas at

Aaron said...

Sounds like a great jumping off point Abby. My mom always told me there are eight Chinese cuisine traditions, though I guess that might be too granular.

pleasurepalate said...

Anon: Unfortunately, I'm a restaurant goer and not really a chef. :) But thanks for the tip. I'll pass it along to my cooking friends.

Aaron: Thanks for the link. Darn, if I knew about the 8, I could have stretched out this restaurant series longer. :) I guess I'll just have to start a new one.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Abby,

Another great review, thanks for the great pictures and report. :)

The Chicken looks wonderfully (and dangerously) spicy and delicious! :) I'll have to try this place out the next time I'm in the area.

pleasurepalate said...

Hey EK! Thanks for stopping by. :) Yes, that cold spicy chicken was definitely the highlight of the meal. I look forward to reading your take on it and Yunchaun Garden in general, if you're able to visit and blog about it.

Anonymous said...

Yunchuan is one of the few restaurants in Monterey Park that's still consistently busy.

Not bad, but indeed, there are 8 major cuisines and Yunnanese isn't 1 of them...

Kian said...

I find the "Four Schools" rather limiting. China is such a huge diverse country that I find the classifications do not adequately represent her cuisine.

A more accurate classification really is one developed in the late 19th century by Qing dynasty culinary scholars. They are: Lu (魯 Northeast China), Hui (徽 Anhui), Su (蘇 Jiangsu), Zhe (浙 Zhejiang), Yue (粵 Guangdong or Canton), Min (閩 Fujian), Chuan (川 Sichuan) and Xiang (湘 Hunan). These are established distinct cuisine. Note that even Beijing and Shanghai cooking are not included here. The cooking you find in these two major cities are relatively modern. They are combination of the other eight cuisine.

I blame uninformed Western food writers for this oversight.

pleasurepalate said...

kian: Thanks so much for the additional info. Indeed, China does have a rich tradition of food that shouldn't be pigeon-holed into 4 simple categories. :) However, when it comes to educating people who don't know that, sometimes you just have to take baby steps.

Most people can't even get past orange chicken and mushu pork because to them, that may be the breadth of Chinese cuisine. Anytime, I can get people to look beyond the horizon of what they're used to, that's a good first step. So 4 schools now, 8 Chinese traditions later, assuming I can find a restaurant in LA that can represent each one.