Sunday, December 14, 2003

Fu Choy You! - Chinese Kitchen
Chicago's only Fukien style place

About a week ago, I met my friend often called the Ultimo, Gwiv, in Chinatown for a satifying bowl of won ton soup and side plate of mixed bbq meats. (One reason we call him the Ultimo is because he subscribes to the too much of a good thing is a good thing school of eating). After lunch, I did a bit of scouting around Chinatown. Several places recently opened. One intrigued me becuase it offered the food of the city of Fu Choy. They claimed to be the only place in Chicago with such food (Fukinese), and I pretty much could not doubt them. I knew I needed to try.

I threw an invite out, eventually answered by 22 other folks. Chicago's encyclopedia of all things food and wine, and also a speaker of Chinese, RST, helped me arrange a menu. While Chinese Kitchen serves a range of Cantonese and even some Americanized dishes, we went 100 % Fukinese.

After dinner, one of the group said, "it hit parts of my tounge that have never been hit before." It surely was a different series of dishes for all of us. Mostly a parade of subtle flavors and endless textures. Not everyone liked the stuff as much as me, but we learned a lot, and since we had several bottles of bourbon, home-made rice wine, $100/lb tea and other drinks, we all had a good time regardless.

Here's what we ate:

Taro Cake - A block of taro, mashed and then fried not so artfully. Some know taro as the heaviest of foods. The mashing lighten things up, and it had the intriguing spice of taro. Good, could have been better if less oily.

Fish ball with soup- Classic Fukinese version of gefitle fish, although no bubbie would put a drop of shark/pork inside their's. Not rubbery like other Asian fish balls. Because the filling left an air pocket inside, they were incredibly light. I could have eaten a few more.

Shark's skin "Butterfly Soup" - What happens to those sharks when you take away the fin? Fukinese make use of the rest of the body, flavoring soup with this fishy, slimey, think nearly heering, skin. With the soup, you could taste the origins of mall hot n'sour soup. Lots of back-bite from white pepper and a good dose of vinegar kept this soup from being bland.

Mixed platter - It may be odd or axiomatic, but Chinese food can really teach you to like innards. Nothing on this plate of intestines, ear, tendon, beef brisket, tripe or egg tasted gross, gamey or gooey. With an interesting sweet-soy sauce, it proved to be a worthy addition to the table.

Jellyfish - I was told, going into the dinner, that this was the head of the jellyfish, not the more commondly used tentacles. Another dish prized only for its rubbery, chewy, gelantous texture (like Ricola cough drops) and as a vehicle for a sesame based sauce. Good if you like this sort of thing.

Eggs with oysters - Chinese hangtown fry. Eggs and oysters seem to have universal appeal. This was my favorite dish. Someone at my table who, not quite as keen at the plainer flavors, noted, it was still an extremely well executed omelete, neither dry nor greasy as some of these egg dishes can be.

Salty Chicken - At the second meal planning meeting, we decided to add another meat dishe. This is what they suggested. Very different, a dried chicken, chicken bacalao, recontstituted and served as is. I think the nearly unanamous opinion on this one was, well we tried it.

Ribs in rice wine sauce - The ribs were more like pork chops, breaded and fried and then stir-fried in a the rice wine. The rice wine tastes strongly of fungus (the Chinese style yeast) and also has sweet undercurrent. It made a nice base for the fatty pork.

Conch with chinese celery - Another texture dish, although the conch, while looking similiar to tendon, melts much easier in the mouth. The Chinese celery tasted strong and fresh and set up the conch well. This may have been my wife's favorite.

Red cooked duck and dried bamboo - The first dish made with red lees "hong zhao". This is the mash leftover from making the rice wine, and dishes stewed in it are the most characteristic of Fukinese cooking. While people appreciated the tradition of the dish, many scoffed at the heavy "barnyard" aroma as well as the chewy items in the dish. In the minority, I liked it, and like a lot of very strong, very new flavors, it grew on me over time.

Red cooked rabbit with fresh bamboo's - Some contrast to the dish above. This was not so stew like, more of a red stir-fry.

Fried fish with noodles - Not what I expeced, which is deep fried fish fillets on a bed of noodles. Everything about this dish was different. The noodles were rice and wide, the size of fetuccini, the fish was in chunks stirred in (not deep fried), and several clams dotted the dish. Very Italian in style and execution, especially if you like strong flavors of the sea.

Chinese green with tons of garlic - My menu helper, RST, made them run out and find some kind of special green instead of the pea shoots they had planned. About as good as can be from fresh bought greens, cooked well, with tons of garlic.

Eel in soup - As in Shanghai, Fu Choy uses the eel a lot in its cooking. When I did menu planning for this meal, they told me the eel was alive still. Well, it was dead by the time it got to our table near the end of the long procession of dishes. It came in chunks, scored, in a broth about as fatty as the eel itself. Not a hugely popular dish with me or anyone else. Fish fat with bones, mild.

Whole fish "special sauce" - My one contribution to the menu planning. They had suggested sweet and sour fish, I could not resist anything in a special sauce. They wondered if we could eat whole fish. I assured yes for sure. The fist itself was frozen, from China. We debated long, whether to use this fish or the tank swimming tilapia. The fish came out nice, only slightly tasting of the freezer. Amazingly, while most everyone else liked it, I found the taste wierd and not really pleasant.

Sweet rice with pineapple steamed in fresh pinapples - Terrific version of rice pudding.

Sweet soup with taro and tapico - Soothing sweet end to a fantastic meal.


Chinese Kitchen
2343 S. Wentworth
Chicago, IL

Note, I have not provided an expert translation of the dish names. They may appear slightly different on the menu. Our waitress Windy spoke English good enough to be able to help you find these and other fine dishes. In general, the Fukinese dishes are on the last page of the menu.

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