Chinese Chili

The fungus salad from Chinese Halal Cuisine on Bellaire was made from triangle-cut carrot slices and the wood ear mushrooms known as black fungus in Chinese cooking. The flavor was mild, but the texture was wild. Each bite made an audible squeaky noise, like a deflated balloon. We ate the mushrooms with an oddly simple potato salad. It was made from shredded potatoes that seemed to be uncooked and pickled. We also shared some hot and sour soup.

"Is your mouth tingling?" I asked my tablemates. We got the food to go and were eating it at my house. They all agreed that something strange was happening to their tongues. Evidently there was a whole lot of Szechuan peppercorn in the fungus salad. Szechuan peppercorns sometimes taste like mint, sometimes licorice and sometimes orange peel — the bizarre Chinese seasoning changes flavors as you eat, like a hallucinogen for your tongue [See "Psychedelic Peppercorns," June 9]. After the kaleidoscopic flavor experience, your tongue tingles and your mouth gets numb.

We also tried some crispy scallion cakes and some pork-free dumplings. The Muslim religion's halal food rules aren't that far from kosher when it comes to meats, and both strictly forbid pork. The hand-formed lamb and squash dumplings at Chinese Halal Cuisine had just the right texture, but the filling of the beef dumplings was a little too mealy. I was surprised that I didn't miss the pork in the dumplings all that much.


Chinese Halal Cuisine

9896 Bellaire Blvd., 713-773-1670.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Fungus salad: $5

Xinjiang lamb: $11

Eggplant: $8

Chicken: $9

Mongolian beef: $10

For our un-spicy entrée, we selected Mongolian beef, thin slices of tender steak with onions and scallions. The beef was nicely cooked to medium with a hint of pink, and the sauce had a sweet aftertaste. We also tried chicken with garlic sauce, one of the best Chinese chicken dishes I've had in a while. Very thin strips of chicken were wok-fried with black mushrooms, green peppers, water chestnut strips and lots of garlic in a chile-spiked brown sauce.

Eggplant in garlic sauce was even more exciting — the velvety eggplant melted in my mouth, and the deep red chile sauce was extremely spicy. The eggplant was tossed with celery, onions, carrot triangles, water chestnut and black mushroom slices, but the chef didn't overdo it with other ingredients; they stayed in the background behind the purple-skinned slices of eggplant.

The dish on Chinese Halal Cuisine's menu that is most typical of Western China's Xinjiang province, where the heaviest concentration of China's Muslims live, is called Xin Jiang Special Lamb. Thin slices of lamb are heavily seasoned with cumin and chiles, then wok-fried with onion, garlic and greens. The aroma of this dish is instantly familiar — it smells like Tex-Mex chili con carne. If it weren't for the greens, you could pass this off as lamb chili at a chili cookoff, and you'd probably win.

We drank an excellent bottle of Becker Vineyards Prairie Roti with our Chinese food. The fruity Texas-Rhone wine was perfect with the lamb. But Saint Arnold's Amber Ale would have worked too.

Chinese Muslims have been much in the news lately. Violent clashes between the Chinese Muslim Uyghurs (pronounced WE-ghers), Chinese state police and Han Chinese in Western China are sparking new questions about ethnicity and religion. Lately, the Chinese government has taken to describing Uyghur pro-independence rallies as Muslim terrorist activities.

The Uyghurs aren't the only Muslims in China. Uyghurs are ethnic Turks. Hui are Chinese Muslims who are indistinguishable from the Han majority. The Hui are actually more plentiful, and they are spread throughout the country. Muslims probably make up 1 to 2 percent of the population of China.

For the most part, Chinese Muslim food is simply Beijing-style Chinese cooking without pork or other ingredients that aren't halal. But the enormous Xinjiang province where the Uyghurs live borders Tibet, Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Uyghur cooking, with its strong cumin aromas and extensive use of lamb, resembles Muslim cuisines of neighboring regions.

The halal version of Chinese food has become enormously popular on the Indian subcontinent. In fact, the Indian and Pakistani version of halal Chinese food is better known in most of the world than the Chinese original. When we first reported on Chinese halal restaurants in Houston, we were writing about Indo-Chinese fusion restaurants run by Indians and Pakistanis [See "Hotter than Halal," June 6, 2002].

In deference to Indian Hindus, Indo-Chinese halal cooking sometimes omits both pork and beef, which leaves you with a whole lot of chicken dishes. Chili chicken is the most famous, and it is notoriously spicy. The first halal Chinese restaurant we tried in Houston was called Spicy Hot, and it was run by a Pakistani named Perez. The chili chicken there included chile paste, chile oil and sliced jalapeños. Halal Wok and several other Indo-Chinese halal restaurants have opened in Houston since that review.

Chinese Halal Cuisine on Bellaire is the first authentically Chinese halal restaurant in Houston. There is no chili chicken here, but there is duck gizzard with hot peppers and duck gizzard with squid. The Chinese version of halal food is a little wilder than the version that became popular in Bombay and then spread to Houston.

Chinese Halal Cuisine's menu is long on offal, though I haven't succeeded in ordering any. I tried to order a dish called "Lamb's Liver, Kidneys, and Heart with Brown Sauce," but the waitress said they were out. Then I tried to order lamb's liver by itself, and she said they were out of that too. I can't decide if she was telling me the truth, or sparing me from ordering something she thought I wouldn't like.

On a lunch visit to Chinese Halal Cuisine, I sampled a dish called cumin lamb, which was very similar to the Xin Jiang Special Lamb, but without the greens. The thin-cut lamb was chewy and flavorful, and the onions were still bright white and crunchy. But the Chinese chili cried out for cold beer.

The interior of Chinese Halal Cuisine, with its square lines and stone walls, feels like a monument to something. It is grand, but sparsely decorated. The wooden tables are lined up in straight rows. The waitstaff speaks next to no English and isn't very helpful. Factor in the Muslim prohibition against alcohol, and you end up with a hopelessly dreary dining experience.

But don't let the "Forbidden City" vibe keep you from checking out this unique version of Chinese food. If you are an Asian food lover and you have never sampled the real Chinese version of halal food, you owe it to yourself to try it. Just don't bother sitting down.

Get your order to go and take it somewhere you can appreciate those wild, spicy Uyghur flavors with a culturally inappropriate frosty beverage.

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