The summer after my 21st birthday, I spent two months backpacking around China with a close friend. We started in Beijing and wove our way back and forth through a dozen provinces on a series of overnight trains and buses, ending up in Hong Kong. The locals we travelled with seemed genuinely fascinated by my countless freckles (literally, one little girl tried to count them on the train), while I got the Mandarin characters for “noodles” and “ladies’ toilet” indelibly imprinted on my brain (this was long before the 2008 Beijing Olympics and there were very few western tourists). I also learnt how to shovel food into my mouth even faster with a pair of chopsticks than I can with a knife and fork (the scales, naturally, agreed).
Away from the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam’s Chinatown, Chuan Yan feels a bit more relaxed and a little classier than some of the Zeedijk’s Chinese restaurants. As often seems to be the case, the menu was about as long as a Dostoevsky novel, but handily came with pictures. We tried three dishes (about the maximum we could eat between two of us – I’d advise going with a larger group) and were generally fairly impressed. Aubergine with minced pork was simultaneously silky, sweet and savoury. Perhaps counterintuitively, it was also not too spicy, which turned out to be an excellent counterpoint to the other main dish: slices of fried beef swimming in a sort of oil-soup brimming with dried red chillies and Sichuan peppercorns. In fact, it wasn’t so much spicy as mouth-numbing; and while I suppose this was the point, I felt like the dish had certainly reached its Sichuan pepper limits. To cleanse our palates between hits of the beef dish, we also got a plate of Chinese greens with garlic, which was fresh and clean and probably a good idea.
The service was friendly and the bottle of red wine very drinkable, which – coupled with the dishes we ate – meant that dinner for two costing €90 felt like about what we’d expect to pay in Amsterdam.
Meanwhile, FuLu Mandarijn is in an even more touristy part of the city, upstairs above one of the shops at the upper end of the Rokin. Ordering is done via iPad… sort of. At least, you pick your dishes on an iPad and then hand the device to your waiter who presumably puts the order into the kitchen some other way. The reservation system seemed to be none too simple either (“Are you from a hotel?”) and I think we’d all have been better off with paper and pen under the circumstances, but perhaps Mercury was in retrograde or something…
On to the food: steamed pork and veggie dumplings were well-made and came with a very good, slightly tart dipping sauce. Twice-fried, thin slices of pork belly came with mild red and green chilli peppers and (so the menu said) a Lao Gan Ma sauce. Google tells me it’s a kind of chilli oil, although I wasn’t getting that from what we ate – it was more like a sauce carrying a sweet-meets-umami flavour profile. By far the best dish was ordered was described as a “spicy incense pot”, made up of prawns, chicken wings, cuttlefish (whose texture was rather like squid), fish balls, lotus root, cauliflower and enokitake mushrooms. This melting pot (almost literally) of textures and flavours was brought together by plenty of dried red chilli and Sichuan pepper, but unlike with the beef dish I had at Chaun Yan, it didn’t overpower the rest of the ingredients. Fiery deliciousness!
But you’d expect it to be pretty special given the price tag: that dish alone cost €32.90, while all together we paid €100 for the two main dishes, the dumplings and a couple of drinks (not a bottle of wine, like we had at Chuan Yan). Plus, the service left a little to be desired. We ordered drinks that got forgotten about, and were then told we’d ordered them from someone else – we did, but only the second time around. I wasn’t entirely convinced I’d go back to FuLu.
In some ways, the questions we were asked at these Sichuanese restaurants in Amsterdam reminded me of my travels in China: when we reached Hong Kong after two months on the road, we were asked if we could use chopsticks or wanted a knife and fork. The same thing happened almost 20 years later at FuLu Mandarijn. At both restaurants, we were asked if we wanted the dishes to be made less spicy. I’m certain these inquiries come from a good place, but they don’t sit well with me. I’m fully convinced that the diner of 2019 can adapt to the culinary traditions of the nation whose restaurant they’re eating at – and in many cases, this has already happened. Trends like food tourism and the search for authenticity mean many of us actively want to adapt. And let’s face it: if a customer wants a fork, surely they’ll ask for one? For the rest of us, chopsticks will do just fine.