Sichuan satisfaction

Kettering’s China Cottage cures what ails you

By Paula Johnson

Photo: Rice Flour toasts [left], Wonton Soup [top], Hot and Sour Soup [bottom] and Ma Bao Tofu [right] at China Cottage in Kettering

Cozy cottage industry

When you’ve got a cold and a bit of a cough, nothing feels better than warming soup to soothe the throat and spicy food to clear the head. The foods you eat have distinct curative powers according to Chinese culture. Essentially, to the Chinese, food equals medicine. It was with this in mind that PIP (Palate In Progress) and I bypassed the Med Express and headed straight to China Cottage on Wilmington Pike Road in Kettering. After a week of sniffles, it was time to break out the big guns. And by that I mean the Chinese double-barrel cure of soup and spice.

For appetizers, we decided on two spicy offerings highlighted on the menu: Firecracker Shrimp and Golden Calamari (both $9.25). Each featured similar standard ingredients: ginger, garlic, red pepper flakes, cilantro and chili peppers. The calamari, coated and fried to a perfectly crunchy crisp shell yielded tender sweet interior meat. Absolutely outstanding with little bits of spicy goodness clinging to each bite. The shrimp arrived on a plate with a pool of savory ginger sauce (but really more of a broth). A little more thickness would have allowed it to better adhere to the shrimp, but the tasty broth was still quite good over rice (in fact, we saved it for the rice we got with our entrees). The accompanying rice flour toasts could also work for dipping. This was a tasty and promising start to healing our sorry, run-down selves.

Common cold cure

There’s nothing homier and more basic than a good chicken broth. China Cottage’s Wonton Soup ($1.95) delivered a clear savory elixir for anything that ails. In this gentle liquid floated several mild gingery dumplings, a nice respite from the spicy appetizers and to the heat that would follow.

Hot and Sour Soup may challenge Chinese chicken broth for its curative properties. The two leading ingredients in this soup are white pepper, making it pretty hot, and rice wine, shoaxing jiu, to make it sour, hence the name. The body of the soup should be thick and slippery, with tree ear mushrooms, tofu, pork, bamboo shoots and a gloss of sesame oil rounding it out. While pleasing, I found China Cottage’s version ($1.95) to be a little more on the sweet side and not quite vinegary enough.

Let’s talk wok

I don’t shy away from attempting a lot of ethnic foods at home, but there’s a reason I rarely stir-fry. It’s called the “breath of the wok.” In Chinese, it’s “wok hei,” meaning wok thermal radiation, which refers to the flavor and tastes imparted by a hot wok during stir frying. That complex smokiness that can only be achieved by cooking fresh ingredients over extreme heat allows flavor to develop and the textural crunch to be protected. Creating wok hei is so tricky it’s often used as a measure of a Chinese chef’s skill, and it takes years to really master. So I thought I’d put China Cottage to the wok hei test with Mala Pork ($10.95).

Mala comes from two Chinese characters meaning “numbing” and “spicy hot.” China Cottage also offers this preparation with beef, chicken or lamb. The menu describes it as fresh sliced garlic and jalapenos enhanced in a heated oil then stir-fried with shredded pork and scallions in soy sauce finished with sesame oil. Crazy spicy and indeed pleasantly numbing, we found it had that deeply satisfying singed, smoky taste that can’t be recreated at home. In other words, wok hei.

Stewing over it

My choice of a homey favorite is ma po tofu, here called Ma Bao Tofu ($10.95). It’s a warm stew of tofu, minced pork, peas, carrots and scallions simmered in a thin bright red hot bean sauce. This dish can also be prepared vegetarian. Sipping the rich fragrant broth sauce with tender creamy tofu cubes made me sigh with comfort and fullness. Forget chopsticks for this dish; a soup spoon is what you need to get every last drop.

PIP and I left China Cottage with clear heads, pleasantly numbed taste buds and full stomachs. We needed nothing more to restore our spirits and bodies. In this case, the delicious Chinese food we ate was medicine indeed. So nix the NyQuil and go to China Cottage. I won’t wait till I’m under the weather to return, and neither should you.

China Cottage is located at 3718 Wilmington Pike Rd. in Kettering. For more information, please visit chinacottagerestaurant.com or call 937.294.4724.

Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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