When you think of dishes from China’s Sichuan Province, the meat-intensive ones probably come to mind: cumin-seasoned bits of lamb on toothpicks, fried chicken cubes served amid a pile of dried peppers, or any number of pork dishes. A salad is probably one of the last things you’d come up with. But you can find a traditional herbal salad from Sichuan at a couple of restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley.
Across southwestern China, which includes Sichuan Province, houttuynia cordata is served as a raw salad. The herbaceous plant with heart-shaped leaves is known by many other names, the most common being fish mint, owing to the fishy aroma of the leaves. L.A. Weekly contributor Clarissa Wei wrote a great piece on foraging for fish mint in Sichuan. (The herb is also used in Vietnamese dishes and other ethnic cuisines.) Commonly found in moist, damp areas, it's considered an invasive species here in the states.
Finding restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley that serve houttuynia cordata can be difficult; it rarely turns up on menus. A few years ago, it appeared on the menu at a since-closed Chongqing-style restaurant in San Gabriel, and it was available with a garlic sauce at the first two Chengdu Taste locations before being dropped in a menu revamp. But there are at least two SGV restaurants that currently offer it.
Chuan’s is a pricier, slightly upscale Chinese Sichuan chain that arrived here in 2014. At its SGV location, you’ll find houttuynia cordata under appetizers as “herbal salad.” Upon ordering it, your waitress might warn: “You won’t like that — most Chinese people don’t even like it,” which explains why it’s rarely sighted even among Sichuan eateries in the SGV. Leaves and stems are served with chopped scallions and dressed with chili oil, a dash of soy sauce and a splash of vinegar, along with some diced peppers thrown in for extra heat. Despite the warning, it’s not unpleasant. The leaves have a somewhat pungent aroma with a peppery taste. Some of the stems can be fibrous or even woody.
Another restaurant serving the salad is Taste Guizhou, the only SGV restaurant featuring cuisine from Guizhou Province, which neighbors Sichuan. There it also appears under appetizers, as Houttuynia Cordata in Spicy Sauce. That is, so long as they've picked up a fresh batch from the market that day (though we're told it's available most days). In Guizhou Province, the root of the plant is also chopped finely and used as a condiment. The chopped-up root, minus leaves and stems, is also served as a salad across southwestern China, dressed with chili oil, soy sauce, vinegar and cilantro. We've yet to run across this version in the SGV.
If, like us, you're wondering where these local restaurants source their houttuynia cordata, we were told that Shun Fat Supermarket and Hawaii Supermarket carry it. While we haven't spotted the distinctive, heart-shaped herb with its reddish-purple stem in the produce aisles at those markets, even under its Vietnamese name, we have seen it at Rosemead Supermarket. It's reportedly more easily found at Vietnamese markets in Orange County.
While houttuynia cordata isn’t exactly the sort of dish that will inspire people to rush out and find it, it’s yet another example of the depth of highly specific regional Chinese dishes that can be found in the San Gabriel Valley.
Chuan's, 5807 Rosemead Blvd., Temple City. (626) 677-6667, chuansla.com.
Taste Guizhou, 17919 E. Gale Ave., Unit 100. City of Industry, (626) 839-9980.