Lunch lesson: Getting schooled on noodles by two U of T profs in Chinatown
Downtown Toronto's Chinatown is home to more than 80 restaurants. What makes each place unique? We invite experts to walk us through the spices, seasonings and subtle geographic influences over lunch
Restaurant name: Anne’s Magic Kitchen
Address: 414 Dundas St. W., 647-523-5555
Open since: 2014
Culinary influences: Northern Chinese with Szechuan influences
Signature dish: Spicy, oily dan dan noodles that you might want to cut with a pair of scissors
Spice level: Medium spicy to extremely spicy
Even before the chili oil hits me in the eye, I’m doing the dan dan noodles wrong.
“Be careful,” warns Ruoyun Bai, associate professor of media studies at the University of Toronto, as I transfer a tangle of ropey noodles from the bowl to my plate. “You want to go slowly.”
The noodles at Anne’s Magic Kitchen are made fresh every day on a wooden worktable near the back. It’s the sort of place where the spice can be merely sweat-inducing one week and sadistic the next. The noodles can be anywhere from eight inches to two feet long. Rolled by hand, they are thick, long and coated in a saucy mix of chilies and peanuts that tends to splash me. Usually I bring scissors to cut them in half.
“I don’t think anyone will feel offended by the fact that you’re using scissors,” says Li Chen, Bai’s husband and associate professor of history and global Asia studies at U of T.
In a neighbourhood swimming in Asian restaurants, it’s hard to know where to eat, or what to order. That’s what the professors are for. Bai and Chen not only teach about China, but they have lived in the regions that influence Anne’s cuisine. They’re the perfect people to help me decipher the menu.
Despite the green light for my vulgarian scissor tactics, I do it properly, pulling one noodle at a time, cautiously. Bai and Chen watch me the way you would a little boy drinking from a glass, after prematurely insisting that he’s done with the plastic sippy cup.
Clearing the bowl, the heavy noodles snap forward. Oil, spicy enough to make me sweat, strikes me in the eye. It stings, but leaves no lasting damage. And it’s a small price to pay for the superb noodles, in an aromatic, crave-worthy sauce blended with clumps of garlic, ginger, chilies and ground pork.
I’d discovered Anne’s after regretfully parting with my previous favourite Chinatown restaurant, Chinese Traditional Bun, where the dan dan noodles just weren’t the same after the longtime chef retired. I moved on. In a neighbourhood with over 80 Asian restaurants, that seems easy. But Chinese Traditional Bun’s flavours, northern Chinese with ingredients and influences from the country’s central Shaanxi region, were a hard act to follow. Until I found Anne’s.
Staff tell me the titular Anne is from Tianjin in the north, which explains the luscious noodles and hand-made pancake, a coil of butter-drenched dough baked to a golden crisp.
“Chinese northerners are better known for their noodles than Szechuan,” says Bai, crediting wheat production in the north. “In Tianjin, noodles and buns are pretty much their staple food.”
But the menu is much broader than that, combining that noodle-heavy backbone with culinary traditions from all over the country. Chen spots Shaanxi influences while flipping through the menu, and a few dishes appear to be Mongolian. But it’s his home, the southern Szechuan province, that is most obviously present. The region is best known for its eponymous peppercorn and its unusual, tingling, numbing effect, a spicy cocktail of “neurological confusion,” as food scientist Harold McGee once put it.
“In Szechuan, [noodles are] a luxury,” he says. “When I was little — I’m from the countryside — in the early ’80s, China was still very underdeveloped. The gap between the rural and urban areas was huge. We didn’t have a lot of food or options. When we had noodles it was for festivals. Otherwise it was all rice. Vegetables cost money. Even if there was anything available, you couldn’t buy it.”
He steers me toward the chilled dish, fuqi feipian. “If it is a Szechuanese restaurant, it should be one of the things they’re best at.”
Chen tosses it like a salad before I taste it. The ox tongue and tripe, cooked as tender as pastrami, are sliced thinly, resting on top of cucumber chunks and a pool of oil, vinegar and Szechuan peppercorns. It’s delicious, as is Chongqing lazi qi, bits of crispy chicken mixed with a minefield of red chilies and peppercorns.
“Chongqing used to be part of Szechuan,” says Chen. “It now has become independent. Big. Very important. But it’s close to Szechuan.”
“But they have the same food traditions,” adds Bai.
Growing up in the rapidly industrializing China, the pair met at University. After getting their degrees in the States, it was food that lured them to Canada in 2008. A colleague on the search committee for Chen’s position sealed the deal by taking them out for Chinese.
“Before I came to Toronto,” says Bai. “I would tell people that New York has the best Chinese food (outside China). And now definitely Toronto is the winner by far.”
But she’s not talking about the Toronto’s old Chinatown, which has in recent years become a target of derision amongst connoisseurs of Chinese food, a relic of a generation when it was necessary for Chinese restaurants to pander to Canadian tastes.
“In these past few years, says Bai, “what we have observed is a sharp increase in the number of Chinese restaurants in Toronto. Because of the massive inflow of immigrants. More in Richmond Hill and Markham. More upscale and expensive. There you have a sizeable Chinese immigrant communities.”
Well, I don’t live uptown. I’m proud of my Chinatown, and new places like Anne’s that are part of a shift in recent years, with many fresh restaurants rejuvenating a neighbourhood that has been stagnating as the rest of the city’s food culture has flourished.
We get sidetracked when I tell them I’ve never heard of WeChat, the professors eager to proselytize the app, a combination of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, plus routine financial transactions by users in China. Any worry over digital security, say Bai and Chen, is swept away in the momentum of modernity.
It’s funny to hear my neighbourhood thought of as decrepit compared to Markham, my whole country backward, compared to China.
“Many Chinese [mid-size] cities look much fancier than Toronto,” says Chen, referring to smaller, newer towns. “When people come from Shanghai or Beijing to Toronto, they feel they are moving from the developed world to an underdeveloped world.”