When it comes to Thanksgiving dinner, visions of roast turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce and maybe, even green bean casserole probably dance in your head. For a change of pace, why not try something different? That's exactly what the Chinatown Business Improvement District wanted myself and other food bloggers and writers to do by inviting us to their 2nd Annual Chinatown Thanksgiving Dinner at the Plum Tree Inn.
Our evening started with some appetizers that included Vegetable Dumplings, Beef Skewers and my favorite of the three, Sesame Chicken.
From then, it was on to a 9 course meal with wine pairings by San Antonio Winery. Before I start talking about about the food, let me give you bullet points about the 3 factors that go into naming a Chinese dish.
- The appearance of the dish (e.g. Lion's Head Meatballs, Ants Climbing a Tree)
- The person who supposedly invented the dish or caused the dish to be invented (e.g. Kung Pao Chicken, Pockmarked Tofu, Beggar's Chicken)
- How the dish is made (e.g. Crossing the Bridge Noodles)
Our second course was all about the Beijing Duck (or also known as the Peking Duck) and is something you'd have in place of the turkey. Roast duck has been around since the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) and was originally just a dish meant for the Imperial Court. It took about 200 years or so for a roast duck restaurant to open and even then, it was still only a dish favored by the upper class. By mid-20th century, roast duck had become a national symbol of China and was enjoyed by everyone.
The Beijing Duck at Plum Tree Inn is served on a plate with crispy skin surrounding some of the duck meat in the middle. It also comes with shallots, thin pancake wrappers and plum sauce, which along with the skin and the meat, a server will prepare tableside a duck burrito for you to enjoy.
Doesn't the inside of this duck burrito look delicious?
From duck, our next course was Lion's Head and I'm going to insert the word "Meatballs" after Lion's Head because basically, this was a big meatball dish. The cabbage covering the meatballs represented the lion's mane. Originally, this dish really had nothing to do with lions. Instead, it had to do with an Emperor who loved the landscapes of Yangzhou in Southeast China and asked his cooks to interpret them through food.
Hence, the look of this dish did look like a landscape but it wasn't actually called Lion's Head until the Tang Dynasty because others felt this dish also resembled a male lion's head. A rose by any other name, etc. etc. Regardless of the name, they were moist, had nice texture and were tasty.
Our next course was Two Flavored Shrimp with one being Sauteed Shrimp and the other being Sweet and Pungent Shrimp. I found the Sauteed Shrimp to be a bit bland and doctored it with chili and while the Sweet and Pungent Shrimp didn't lack in flavor, it was a little too sweet for my liking.
Following the shrimp dish came the Crispy Beef. I really loved the texture of the meat. The sauce it was cooked in tasted similar to the Sweet and Pungent Shrimp, but it had a bit of heat which I really enjoyed.
Beijing Duck is usually accompanied by a Beijing Duck Soup with a broth made from the duck bones, so that nothing goes to waste. I have to say that I had Beijing Duck and Soup before in a couple of other restaurants, but this was by far the best Beijing Duck Soup I've had so far. When a soup is good on its own without the addition of any seasoning apart from what's already in there, that's pretty darn good soup.
Our second to the last savory dish was the Kung Pao Three Delicacies with Shrimp, Scallop and Fish. The history behind Kung Pao dishes is really interesting. It is common knowledge that this dish is named after an official; however, from there it all gets rather murky. In some versions Kung Pao is a general who lived during the Ching dynasty. In others, he is a crowned prince who discovered this dish while travelling and brought it back to the Imperial Court. There's even some confusion about whether the dish originated in Shanghai or Szechuan.
Cookbook author Helen Chen provides an interesting twist on the story. In Chinese Home Cooking, she states that Kung Pao was the title given to the person charged with protecting the heir apparent, as Kung meant castle and Pao meant to protect. During a certain period, the Kung Pao was a man whose favorite dish happened to be spiced chicken with peanuts, and thus over time it was named after him. Whatever the case, the stories demonstrate the Chinese belief that naming a dish after an important figure gives it more prestige. As for Plum Tree's Kung Pao dish, I would have liked to be just a bit hotter, but I still enjoyed it.
Our last dish before dessert was the Asparagus with Chinese Mushrooms. Apparently, asparagus appears late in the history of Chinese cuisine, but today, Taiwan has made a major industry of exporting asparagus. It was actually nice to have an all vegetable dish. I wish it had come just a bit earlier. The asparagus was a little too crunchy for me, but I love the juicy, meaty Chinese mushrooms.
Finally, our meal ended with a simple Sesame Rice Ball Soup with Rice Wine. I don't like desserts that are too sweet and this was the perfect way to end our meal.
While we had our Chinatown Thanksgiving Dinner at Plum Tree Inn, there are other Chinatown restaurants that will have Bejing Duck and/or Chinese-Style Turkeys available for eat in or take out. And yes, I did say turkey because if having duck instead of a roasted turkey is still an issue for some of you, don't despair.
You can still have turkey, but what about a Chinese-style roasted turkey instead? Carefully steeped in a soy sauce marinade spiked with star anise, two different kinds of vinegar and sweet syrup, this turkey is then roasted, giving way to a crispy outside with a moist inside. So you really can have your turkey and eat it, too. Click here for a list of those Chinatown restaurants and a Happy Early Thanksgiving to you and your family!
A special thanks to Linh Ho of the Ideation Agency who provided all the Chinese Food History written in this post!
Plum Tree Inn
913 N. Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90012