Michelle “The Restaurant Kid” Nhin is in China. Like, the real one. As part of an elaborate blackmail plot, she must continue writing for I Ate Oklahoma. She’ll be checking in periodically, so feel free to pop into the comments and ask her questions. She might even answer them!
I’m baaaaaaaaaack. Hello, everyone. Okie Michelle reporting all the way from the future! Just kidding, just on the other side of the world.
It’s my first time in China. Really, I kid you not. No one believes me here, but truly it is my first time on this continent called Asia. I decided to leave the typical 9-to-5 job in the States and teach English in China.
Before we dig into the foodie scene here: I was born and raised in the USA, so yes, English is my native language. Get off my back. You can read more about my restaurant identity crisis days here.
Since arriving in China, I felt the need to eat every dish possible. Need. I’ve had this irresistible urge to experience all the flavors, inhale every spice and gorge myself on all the rice, cakes and cheese teas laid out in front of me.
I have gained some weight, but it is happy weight.
Being from the States, there are a few things I miss. My friend Katie sent me two XL jars of peanut butter and Nutella. Other than that, I don’t miss much. I was never a big sandwich person and I never craved American staples like burgers and pizza. Turns out China is food heaven for me.
Sweet baby Jesus the food is amazing here.
First, let’s talk about the Szechuan pepper. In Mandarin, there are two characters to describe this flavor — ma la. I won’t write the character because it isn’t important, but you pronounce it as it looks. “Ma” means numb/tingling/vibrating while “la” is spicy.
By the way, it is not sweet. AT ALL. McDonald’s has fooled everyone with their Szechuan sauce. False advertisement!
This tiny little ball of death is… intense. The first time I tried it, I hated it. The feeling of my lips and mouth going numb combined with the penny flavor overwhelmed me. Now I realize the restaurant did it wrong. They overdid it and totally butchered the way you’re supposed to handle the spice. For such a strong and powerful pepper, you must be delicate with it. Here in China, it is perfectly balanced with sour, bitter, and a lot of umami flavors. It is wonderful paired with fish broth, seafood and fatty beef hot pot. It’s great in mapo tofu (a famed export of the Szechuan province) with a side of steamed white rice. It will have you hooked like Rick Sanchez once you taste it in the perfect form.
There are only a few places in Oklahoma where you can experience ma la. Take a trek down to the Asian District to a locally owned restaurant in the massive Super Cao Nguyen and you will find it: Tsubaki Szechuan. Order the mapo tofu. Get ready to sweat and cry and laugh hysterically.
Give the Szechuan pepper a try. It’s serious business, so don’t take it lightly. Make sure to tell the staff it will be your first time trying it and they will have mercy on you.
After you get used to the flavor, you can get more daring and order the whole fried fish with the assorted peppers and chilies. It is mind blowing: such an intense and delicious flavor combo. Some advice for newbies: the steamed white rice is your friend. Hold it close.
(Disclaimer: we hold no responsibility for your experience the next morning.)
Tsubaki Szechuan also has the famous soup dumplings! I give them a 3 out of 5, but you can decide for yourself. They say that soup dumplings are supposed to represent a filled money purse, so it’s bad luck if you rip it. Be gentle when using your chopsticks or you’ll have bad luck with money for the year.