(This article is published on Madison Commons on June 28, 2013.)

One of the most popular styles of cuisine among Chinese people, Sichuan dishes are served in most Chinese restaurants in Madison.

Originating from the Sichuan province in southwestern China, the cuisine stands out for the bold use of chili peppers, garlic, ginger and Sichuan peppers. Some famous dishes categorized under authentic Sichuan cuisine include Kung Pao Chicken, Ma Po Tofu, spicy deep-fried chicken, and spicy hotpot.

While many of Madison’s Chinese restaurants fall into the category of Sichuan cuisine, the styles vary. Some become Americanized, tasting more mild and sweet, like A8 and QQ restaurants. Other restaurants retain the more traditional and pungent flavors, like Ichiban and Fugu. The key difference lies with the sauce each restaurant makes.

“We might get the materials from the same markets, but because of our own preparation, the sauces are very specific,” said Donny Buteyn, a staff member at Fugu restaurant.

“We have both original and American styles of Chinese food,” said Wendy Weng, the owner of Ichiban restaurant, “but every time people come here, I will recommend the original style first.”

To guarantee the authentic taste of dishes, some restaurants purchase ingredients, such as red chilies and prickly ash, from Chinatowns in Chicago and New York, where certain items are directly imported from China.

Like any other fan of Chinese food, Fei Men, a UW-Madison graduate student, has been exploring the Madison food scene ever since he came to town three years ago. Men has been to a dozen Chinese restaurants in Madison.  Although he comes from a northeastern province in China where the flavors tend to be lighter and less spicy, Men still prefers Sichuan restaurants such as Ichiban and Fugu.

“I think Sichuan food is welcomed by lots of Chinese,” he said.

Other cuisines that are frequently seen in Madison include Cantonese dishes, which are noted for seafood and bland taste, and Northern dishes that favors noodles, steamed Chinese bread and dumplings.

Before you ever hear of Fugu, Soga and Ichiban restaurants, you may never expect the Sichuan food to be served under their Japanese names. The explanation, however, leads to a curious connection between the Chinese and Japanese restaurants in Madison.

Amanda Chen, the owner of Fugu restaurant, recalled the early years when her husband stayed in Japan. They named the restaurant after the Japanese name for a puffer fish, fugu, which also pronounces like “fugui” in Chinese that means prosperity.

“We intended to sell puffer fish at first,” said Chen, “But because of the strict food safety regulations in the United States, and that it needs hard work to remove the natural poison from this fish, we changed our idea and started serving ordinary Sichuan dishes. We kept this name because of its lucky Chinese meaning.”

Thanks to the early experience in Japan, the Chens are also running a Japanese restaurant in Madison.

Similarly, Jingxun Jiang, the former manager of Ichiban, spent his early years working for sushi restaurants. He came to the United States in the early 1990s and worked for several restaurants before starting his own.

Now Jiang is running Soga restaurant, which originally opened to sell sushi and Japanese hotpot, the stew of meat and vegetables in a simmering pot.

“Right after we started, we got feedback from customers that they wanted Chinese spicy hotpot too and some other Chinese dishes,” said Jiang. “So we began to integrate the Japanese and Chinese cooking in our dishes.”

The owners of these three restaurants, Chen, Jiang and Weng, all come from the same place in China — Fuzhou, the capital city of Fujian province. According to Weng, most of the people running Chinese restaurants in Madison are from the Fujian province, although the food they serve are not necessarily their local dishes.

Styles and tastes may change over time, yet the mutual relationships among Chinese people bridged by those restaurants remain, and boost.

“I go to Chinese restaurants once or twice a week, said Men, “always with a bunch of friends.” As the organizer of the weekly reunion dinner, he enjoys bringing friends together, eating, talking and joking.

Buteyn learned a lot about Chinese food and culture during years of stay in Beijing, China, for his studies.

“I love the Chinese food culture,” he said, “It’s about doing the family style and sharing food while you eat. Everyone come together, talk, drink a little beer and seek to know what’s been happening with your friends.”

“Here you may go the bars, but in Chinese culture you go to eat. It’s all centered around food.” Buteyn said.

For Chinese people living in Madison, these restaurants offer not only a taste of hometown dishes, but also a link to Chinese communities and the expression of friendship.