In recent years, New York’s Chinese food scene has evolved with incredible speed and diversity.
Long gone are the days of chop suey and egg foo young. Now, the discerning diner can choose between Yunnan rice noodles and Sichuan dry pot, a stir-fried version of the venerated spicy hot pot.
Food trucks deliver jianbing with toppings adjusted for the American palate, noodle purveyors slow-cook broth to exacting standards, and hot pot chains from mainland China are opening outlets in the suburbs.
For Wang Chao, the owner of Hunan Slurp in New York’s trendy East Village, this evolution means room to experiment with regional flavors and dishes.
As with many Chinese restaurants in New York, Hunan Slurp’s genesis is rooted in homesickness. A new wave of immigrants from mainland China has brought diversity to New York’s Chinese food scene, with restaurateurs serving dishes from their respective regions to provide a taste of home.
For Wang, that dish is fish noodle soup, one of the stars at Hunan Slurp.
“When we were in elementary school, everyone would line up for this dish,” he says. “You’d buy your own bowl, bring it over, and we’d all eat it together on small plastic stools on the side of the road. It’s a dining experience and atmosphere that you can’t really find anymore.”
Ironically, Hunan Slurp is precisely the opposite of the no-frills dining experience he describes from his childhood.
A bowl of noodles here costs upwards of $30. The wood panels and subdued lighting invoke the image of a Brooklyn cafe rather than a tent on the roadside.
Wang acknowledges the contradiction but notes that local food in China has undergone a transformation—the stereotype of cheapness no longer applies.
Local governments have been cracking down on street vendors, moving them from the curb into manicured food courts. Popular restaurant chains such as Haidilao and Xiaolongkan use state-of-the-art technology that allows customers to order from kiosks, meaning they don’t even have to interact with human servers.
Few of these developments seem to have reached the American psyche.
“I feel like Chinese food is undervalued in the United States,” Wang says. “Most Chinese restaurants only compete on price, and somehow, it’s made Chinese food seem like it’s worth less than Korean or Japanese food.”
Wang sees it as a vicious cycle. When restaurants only care about the bottom line, he says, they can never improve their quality. He and his compatriots see it as their mission to change how Americans view Chinese food.
“For us, we feel like all we’ve done is take something that’s already been going on for a long time in China,” he says, “and brought it here to America.”
Nowhere does Wang’s zealous focus on quality show more than in the ingredients, which he often sources himself.
Take his fish noodle soup, a fish fillet doused in a pork bone broth and served with a side of noodles. He insists on using fresh fish because it best replicates the flavor of his childhood, so every morning, he heads to a supermarket in Chinatown to procure the ingredients.
“I want my dishes to feel like a memory.”
“My motivation to be a chef comes from the dishes my grandma made and the street food I ate when I was younger,” Wang says. “I want my dishes to feel like a memory, the kind of untainted memories you have eating as a kid, when everything was great.”
It doesn’t always work out perfectly. Most of the fish in landlocked Hunan Province comes from the Xiang River. The freshwater catch has a milder taste than the saltwater fish commonly found in New York. So Wang settled on sea bass and adjusted the recipe.
“Chinese people don’t like to eat meat that’s too gamey or fishy,” he says. To counterbalance the strong flavor of sea bass, Wang adds beer to the meat. “The wheat in the beer makes the dish slightly sweet. The alcohol takes away any unwanted flavors and washes out the taste of blood.”
Although Hunan food is famous within China, outside, it’s not as established as, say, Sichuan cuisine. Wang’s hope is that his restaurant can introduce New Yorkers to the eccentricities of his hometown cuisine.
“Hunanese food is the art of playing with fire.”
“Hunanese food is the art of playing with fire,” Wang says. “You have to constantly pay attention to when ingredients are added, how hot the pan is, and how large the flame is.”
Hunanese chefs, Wang proclaims, have exacting standards for how to handle the heat. The fish, for example, must be tossed into the oil at its peak temperature. “That way it won’t curl and stick to the pan,” he says.
Hunan Slurp has been open for more than a year now, and its steady flow of customers—comprising both curious New Yorkers and homesick Chinese transplants—suggests Wang is making strides in his mission.
“I have classmates from when I was in graduate school in New York, all American, and when they come here to eat, they’re so surprised,” he says. “Most of them have never actually had real Hunanese food. For them it’s a totally new experience.”