In the summer of 2006, Robin and I were fortunate to travel East to China for a 3 1/2 week trip of backpacking adventure. We traveled to big cities (Beijing and Shanghai), visited iconic sights (Terracotta warriors in Xian), and traveled to the country-side. One of our favorite stops on this trip was to the Chinese province of Sìchuān (四川, meaning = 4 circuits of rivers). During this visit, we stayed in the province’s capitol Chengdu, hiked the Buddhist holy mountain Emei Shan, and visited WuLong- home of the Panda.
Located in southwest China, the Sìchuān province is most famous for their distinct food. It is often characterized by locals and natives alike as being spicy, hot, fresh, and fragrant. Some of the best, most interesting food we had in China was while we visited the Sìchuān region. A few months ago Jonathan Kauffman (formerly of Seattle Weekly) reviewed “Spiced” restaurant in Bellevue. His review brought us back to our travels in 2006, and had us yearning to try Spiced.
When you walk into Spiced you are greeted by a friendly woman and a full case of specialized cold items. The selection was daunting, but we managed to narrow the choices down to seaweed, cucumbers, and shaved pork ears. The seaweed was chilled nicely, slightly crunchy and a bit spicy. The cucumber dish was refreshing, and the pork ears is a delicate mix of sweet and salty.
We decided to order 2 main dishes and a vegetable side. The menu, like at most chinese restaurants is huge. But based on the reviews, we had heard it was best to select from the “Chef’s Special” and/or Casserole section. We ordered the Lamb Dry Pot, the Chong Ching Chicken fried cubes, and the chinese celery with chinese vegetables.
The waiter asked us promptly when we ordered the “Lamb Dry Pot” if we wanted them to include the “numbing” (ma) peppers. I emphatically answered: “yes…that is why we came, include them!” [It seems important to tell them you aren't timid about the peppers, as to get the full experience of spicy and numb, otherwise they may choose for you.] The peppers he is referring to are of course the sichuan pepper, which unlike the capsaicin variety you are used to (jalapeno, habenero, chile) these xanthoxylum containing peppers actually numb and tingle the inside of your mouth. This is a fascinating buzzing/tingling sensation, one that neuroscientists at UCSF only recently discovered to be mediated by specific set of taste neurons and a protein called the “two-pore” potassium channel (KCNK, See Nature Neuroscience).
These numbing peppers are critical to the experience, because they prepare your mouth for the intense capsaicin heat which is to follow. The dish is about 33% peppers, among the shaved lamb, garlic, ginger, wonderfully crunchy sprouts, and scallions. The dish sits on top of sterno to keep it hot, and is immersed in syrupy peppered oil which soaks the contents. The dish is seriously spicy, but textured excellently, and thoroughly enjoyable.
The fried cubes of Chongqing chicken were also quite spicy, yet we felt it was toned down compared to the lamb dry pot. Possibly due to the breading, which is in a lighter style and crunchy with sesame, and perhaps that eases some of the heat. A side dish of broccoli or other veggies is a must, because it not only gives your stomach a break from all the heat, but it is simple and clean. The soy-braise mixture along with the cooked yet crunchy texture of the Chinese broccoli rounded out our meal. While Spiced could be really spicy for some palettes, the success of this restaurant rides on the fact that good Sìchuān isn’t just about how spicy the dishes are, but how the flavors and textures balance.
The dining experience at Spiced reminds us of how much we enjoy the food of Sìchuān, and just how important it is to seek out non-bastardized Chinese cuisine in the US. Authentic Chinese is absolutely deliciousness when compared with the “takeout quality” crap many places serve and yet call Chinese. The flavors should be robust, fragrant, and a fresh texture is critical. We admittedly don’t venture to the “East” side of Seattle’s Metro very often, but Spiced will become one more reason to do so, and it will become a regular dining spot for us in the future.
Spiced: Truly Chinese Cuisine
1299 156th Ave. N.E.,