It’s generally true that if travel only confirms what you already know, you probably should have taken a different trip.
But Dave Schuttenberg, chef-owner of Kwei Fei on James Island, faced a slightly different situation when earlier this year he booked his first flight to China. Having devoted years to the study and practice of Sichuanese cuisine, Schuttenberg wasn’t in need of unsettling revelations. He just wanted to know if the techniques he’d teased out from dishes sold in Flushing, N.Y., food halls came anywhere close to the way they do things in Chengdu. He was seeking affirmation that his spicing, based mostly on what he’d read, wasn’t entirely off base.
Again and again, Schuttenberg reported upon returning from his 14-day trip, he tasted evidence that he was on the right track.
Forced to contend with cramped cooking spaces and customers anxious to be fed, Schuttenberg and his crew over time settled on methods which made sense, same as the people who first devised the dishes they so admired.
“We started in (a) neighborhood, having amazing breads to start,” he jotted in his journal that night. “Nice to see we are making our bings and pancakes in a similar manner as these experts.”
That didn’t mean the whirlwind eating tour, which he undertook with his wife and business partner, Tina Schuttenberg, and their 12-year-old daughter, was short on startling discoveries. Those bings that reminded Schuttenberg of his own handiwork? He went on to write, “But I am instantly inspired to keep getting better. These are incredible: Flaky, crispy, fatty, meaty.”
In other words, the confirmation Schuttenberg gleaned from his journey wasn’t so much a pat on the back as a push forward. Back in Charleston, armed with new confidence in his skills and instincts, he felt ready to take more chances. Maybe soon, he mused in a recent interview, he’ll romp in the textural realms where American-born eaters are typically afraid to tread: The slippery, the chewy, the gummy and the jelled.
For now, though, he’s playing with a set of new menu items that reflect his recent experience overseas. Think of them as your own personal souvenirs from one Charleston chef’s trip of a lifetime.
Suan Cai Yu
Before traveling in China, Schuttenberg hadn’t seen suan cai yu on many menus: When Sichuan restaurants here prepare fish, they’re prone to poach it and submerge the pieces in hot chile oil. With suan cai yu, or hot-and-sour soup with fermented mustard greens, broth is more prominent: It’s traditionally made from bones and pickles.
“A version of it was one of our favorite meals in Chengdu,” says Schuttenberg.
At the stand where Schuttenberg ordered his memorable suan cai yu, carp were butchered on site by cooks smoking cigarettes. Kwei Fei is foregoing those specifics, but Schuttenberg wanted to replicate the tantalizingly murky flavor of river fish, so he’s making suan cai yu with farmed catfish from North Carolina. And to flick at the depth he tasted, he swapped out the standard chicken stock for dashi.
“Then it gets hot oil over the top, so it’s pretty heady,” Schuttenberg says.
Still, he adds that the heat wouldn’t rate as overwhelming in a country that’s become increasingly infatuated with scaling the Scoville scale.
“We initially felt like we were toning things down here because younger, hipper places in New York blow your head off,” he says. “But the food there was not spicier.”
“The laziji is what it is,” Schuttenberg wrote in his travel journal. “An enormous pile of dried chiles and Sichuan peppercorns that happens to have some salty, crispy chicken bits dispersed among it. It’s a communal, fun dish to pick at; take your time with; converse with friends around.”
Once Schuttenberg saw laziji in context, he was persuaded to resurrect the dish at Kwei Fei: It had a short menu run when the restaurant existed exclusively as a weekend pop-up at The Daily, but its status as a classic wasn’t sufficient to override Schuttenberg’s concerns that he didn’t have the storage space or kitchen arrangement required to execute it correctly.
Then, he said in a recent interview, “We went and ate it in Chongqing, where you’re supposed to eat it. It was magnificent.”
Furthermore, in light of seeing it devoured, “it just made more sense” to toss diced chicken thighs in egg and cornstarch and pan-fry them in a wok with scallions and sticks of toasted ginger.
Like the cooks in Chongqing, Schuttenberg insists on “an obnoxious amount of chiles” to finish the dish, which collectively echo the de facto light show Schuttenberg witnessed after feasting on laziji.
“The skyscrapers come alive with sequenced LEDs, scrolling pictures and words: Seemingly everyone is awash in a neon that reflects off the river below.”
Chefs outside of China who want to decipher regional cooking there frequently find their trustiest resource is YouTube.
Schuttenberg at one point came across an online video of a guy sampling squash bao and became determined to track down the vegetarian buns. When his family went shopping, he went to the stand responsible for them and placed an order. Or at least, that’s what he tried to do.
“He was like, ‘We don’t have it,’ ” Schuttenberg says, remembering the frustration of seeing other patrons whisk away batch after batch.
Finally, Schuttenberg scored two bao, and was so taken with what he tasted that he saved one for his wife: “She bit into it, and it was pork.” He guarantees dim sum customers at Kwei Fei will encounter only diced roast kombucha and chile flakes.
Yu Xiang Tusi Mian
“Man, rabbit is a thing here,” Schuttenberg wrote in his journal on the night he ate so much of the white meat that he had to pick it out of his teeth with a rabbit rib bone. “And it’s all been spectacular.”
Rabbit is very much not a thing in present-day South Carolina, so Schuttenberg never seriously entertained putting barbecue rabbit heads and stir-fried rabbit on the Kwei Fei menu. But he liked the idea of serving shredded rabbit with noodles, so he located a rabbit purveyor in Spartanburg. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t worth paying $6.95 a pound for meat that Charlestonians aren’t craving.
Kwei Fei’s latest rabbit homage is made with chicken confit.
Rabbit looks like an incipient American trend in comparison to baiju, the fermented sorghum spirit that has been soundly rejected by some of the widest-open minds in the U.S. bar business. Even its fans liken its flavor to rotten fruit and sweaty socks.
But it’s a fixture of Chinese street culture.
“At the market, there’s always a liquor guy,” Schuttenberg says. “People come to him with their water bottles, and off they go with their hooch.”
Baiju in Chengdu is sweetened with enormous amounts of sugar to offset the high percentage of alcohol: Schuttenberg likens the fruit-enhanced baiju he sampled to Kool-Aid, which isn’t a compliment.
“We bought one bottle and took it to the bar to drink with locals,” he says. “We ended up leaving it there.”
Yet Schuttenberg couldn’t countenance running a Sichuan restaurant, even one on James Island, without a baiju or two on the menu. Since returning from China, he and Tina Schuttenberg have begun serving itty-bitty shots of baiju infused with local fruits, such as persimmon and muscadine.
“I find it palatable,” Schuttenberg says. “But we’ll continue to add things.”
That was pretty much Schuttenberg’s stance before his trip. But as he says, it was in the end a voyage of “exploration and affirmation.” And now his customers can taste it.