Bonafide Mandarin: Sunny Liu offers authentic and healthy take on Chinese cuisine

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Sunny Liu outside her restaurant Liu Mandarin Cuisine at 167 Sacramento St. in Downtown Auburn, California.
Sunny Liu outside her restaurant Liu Mandarin Cuisine at 167 Sacramento St. in Downtown Auburn, California.

The Mandarin fare Sunny Liu offers at Liu Mandarin Kitchen ain’t your grandad’s Chinese food: it’s hers.

Starting in the early 20s, Liu’s grandfather Liu Liu Shi was offering culinary specialties from his dumpling house in the bustling city of Xingyang, which is just outside if Beijing. The dumpling tradition was passed down like genetic material to his son Liu Xian Jui, who then passed it down to his daughter Sunny. Liu learned quickly at age 4, and now, making dumplings is second nature.

“I would watch my mother and say, ‘Mommy, mommy, I want to try!’” Liu said. “Now people come and watch me.”

Liu moved north to Auburn from San Francisco after her husband Brian Farrell became tired of the crowded seaside metropolis. Liu was initially hesitant, unsure how she was going to occupy her time.

Dumplings are made by hand smack dab in the middle of Liu Mandarin Kitchen for customers to see.
Dumplings are made by hand smack dab in the middle of Liu Mandarin Kitchen for customers to see.

“My husband told me, ‘You like to be busy, there will be plenty of opportunities,’” Liu said. Farrell suggested she combine her love of people and cooking and set up shop. Two months later, Liu’s restaurant is already getting rave reviews from the locals like Brandy Elvis.

“The pork dumplings are unbelievably good,” Elvis said. “I’ve been here eight times in the last month.” Elvis ordered her usual, a mess of pork dumplings, but was also eager to try Liu’s increasingly famous fried rice, which is setting her Yelp page ablaze.

Liu’s rice starts with Guo Bao rice, which comes at almost three times the cost of the typical grocery brand long grain.  The pricier rice comes with floral hints, which come out once it hits a hot wok. There is no such thing as a batch when it comes to fried rice: every single order of the staple side isn’t made until a customer asks for it.

The offerings, including the fried rice, is far flung from the typical mall food court offerings many Americans think of when the word “Chinese food” jumps into their heads.

Sunny Liu prepares her “Three Color Salad” made with shaved potato, cucumber, carrot and cilantro tossed in a light sesame dressing.
Sunny Liu prepares her “Three Color Salad” made with shaved potato, cucumber, carrot and cilantro tossed in a light sesame dressing.

“Most Chinese food you see in other restaurants, it’s Americanized,” Liu said. “I see the food they serve and think, ‘Chinese people don’t eat like that.’”

Liu’s Chinese food is made the same way it’s made in the People’s Republic: plenty of veggies, lean meat and very little fat. Liu isn’t just out to serve authentic Mandarin cuisine; she’s out to change the public’s pre-conceived notions about it.

“I’m on a mission to change Chinese food’s image,” Liu said. “Right now, it’s mainly junk food, but I’m going to help change that.”

Pork dumplings, three color salad and the popular fried rice are part of Liu Mandarin Kitchen comprises their Three Item Combination dinner.
Pork dumplings, three color salad and the popular fried rice are part of Liu Mandarin Kitchen comprises their Three Item Combination dinner.

At this juncture, Liu’s restaurant offers a myriad of different dumplings, including pork, vegetable and seafood varieties, along with Chinese staples like chow mein and Ban Fan. Despite only being at the location for two months, Liu is looking into the future, hiring a second chef from New York, and taking on a rather daunting task.

Her small menu will soon grow, offering healthy renditions of popular Chinese offerings like Kung Pao and Orange Chicken, and even broaden to include a few Thai offerings. Until then, Liu will do what she’s been doing since she was a toddler: make dumplings.

“I work 14 hours a day and never feel tired,” Liu said. “I’m just so happy being around people.”

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