The fiery dishes spiked with Sichuan peppercorns began arriving on the table, but Tang Xiulan and her friends remained transfixed by a television screen above the restaurant's front door showing images of rescue efforts in their home province.
The past week has provided the most they had seen or heard of Sichuan since they immigrated to the United States -- some a decade ago or more.
Unlike Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, the cities of Sichuan are largely unheralded overseas. Landlocked by mountains and far from global trading centers, many Sichuanese lacked the means to emigrate.
But Monday's earthquake has thrust a community used to being overlooked and misunderstood to the forefront of Southern California's bustling Chinese American community. For the Sichuanese who gathered for lunch Thursday at Chung King restaurant in San Gabriel, it was a bittersweet experience.
"We feel extreme sadness," said Tang, a nanny. "The only way Sichuan is being mentioned now is through this tragedy."
It's been a nightmarish week for the lunch group, many of whom met after overhearing one another speak Sichuanese at a supermarket.
The Chinese community in the United States was founded mostly by Southern emigrants from China's coastal regions. That's why the Cantonese and Taishanese dominated Chinatowns for decades. That changed with the influx of emigrants from Taiwan, then Beijing and Shanghai.
Though there are no statistics available, observers say Sichuanese immigrants began arriving steadily in the San Gabriel Valley in the 1990s. Many took the route of earlier immigrants by seeking jobs in restaurants or the import-export business. The number of Sichuanese living in Southern California is unclear because they lack the family associations and student groups that are ubiquitous with emigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan and areas of mainland China.
Sichuan has a rich culture and is home to the Giant Panda. It's partly isolated in south-central China because of its mountainous topography. As such, a distinct dialect and renowned cuisine prospered.
"I liken it to Louisiana," said Yong Chen, a professor of history at UC Irvine. "They're like the Cajuns because they have their own language and very popular spicy food."
Of course, immigrants are quick to point out that the "Sichuan cuisine" served in many American restaurants is a bland, watered-down interpretation of the authentic version -- often served by Cantonese. Sichuan's hot and humid climate is conducive to sweat-inducing spicy food.
"This is the real stuff," Zhou De Zhao, a friend of Tang's, said at Chung King. "A lot of Sichuan restaurants in non-Chinese neighborhoods have to change their style so that it's not too spicy. Many times, the owners are Cantonese."
Zhou was pointing to one of Sichuan's most famous dishes, tender slices of white fish floating in a glowing red broth of pepper oil.
It would likely fuel an automobile.
Much of the cuisine's punch is derived from the famed Sichuanese peppercorn that produces a numbing and tingling sensation along with its natural spiciness.
Zhou, Tang and five others at the restaurant share harrowing tales about trying to locate family and friends since the magnitude 7.9 quake demolished parts of central Sichuan. The death toll could climb as high as 50,000 people.
"I've called people that I haven't spoken to in 10 years, just to see if they're OK," said Zhou, 50, of Temple City. "There's been a lot of crying since we heard the news."
Zhou pulled from his day planner a restaurant receipt. On the back, written in Chinese, were 17 names with dollar amounts next to them. The entire staff of Yun Chuan Garden, a Sichuanese restaurant in Monterey Park, was on the list -- cooks, waiters and cleaning staff. Some gave $20. Others $300. They knew Zhou was leaving for Sichuan on Friday to take care of his 86-year-old mother and wanted him to bring donations.
Zhou and others said the disaster has raised awareness of the homeland.
"When Americans ask me where I'm from, they always ask Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou," Zhou said. "Rarely do they say Sichuan."
Others wonder whether the quake will ultimately heighten the world's appreciation for Sichuan's contributions.
Rita Min Rui, a graduate student at USC, said she was shocked to find how little Americans knew about her native province when she arrived in Los Angeles.
"I'm really proud of being Sichuanese," said Rui, 36, who graduates Friday. "Unfortunately, when I came here and said I was from Sichuan, people knew nothing about it. They know Beijing and Shanghai."
Americans had a introduction to Sichuan, or Szechuan, food in the 1970s, around the time of President Nixon's historic visit to China when many things Chinese were suddenly in vogue. Chinese restaurants in New York started serving dishes such as General Tsao's chicken, sesame beef and kung pao chicken for the first time, said food writer Carl Chu, who has visited Sichuan and considers its food his favorite among China's major cuisines.
"It turned out to be Cantonese chefs doing their interpretation of Sichuan cooking," Chu said. "It was too sweet to be authentic."
Many in Southern California's Sichuanese community are from the provincial capital, Chengdu. The city of 11 million has modernized dramatically in recent years after China's central government began worrying that its coastal regions were becoming unevenly prosperous.
"I had only been gone for a few years, but I didn't recognize the city when I went back to visit," said Tang, 54. "I got lost. There were so many tall buildings and highways."
The people of Chengdu are said to exemplify the spirit of the Sichuanese, who are perceived as gregarious and more easygoing than people in the rest of China. (Provincial stereotyping is not only rampant, but accepted among many Chinese.) In Sichuan, teahouses and parks abound where people play board games and cards.
That carefree way of life has been put on hold, even for Sichuanese immigrants in the U.S.
Julie Zou works at the corporate headquarters of a major bank in Century City and has organized a fundraising drive by sending e-mails filled with details of the quake's devastation.
Zou's parents live in Chengdu, about 60 miles from the earthquake's epicenter. When she heard about the disaster, she called them but received no answer. On Wednesday, she finally got in contact with them. They had been hiking in a region only 15 miles from the epicenter. The roads were so damaged that villagers guided them for two days down the mountains, past boulders and fallen trees.
"These were people who had nothing, and they helped my parents," Zou said. "Then they had to walk two days back home."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
How to help
These charities are accepting donations to aid victims of China's earthquake. In addition, these and many other charities are still assisting victims of this month's cyclone in Myanmar.
P.O. Box 4002018
Des Moines, IA 50340-2018
Direct Relief International
27 South La Patera Lane
Santa Barbara, CA 93117
3617 Hayden Ave., Suite A
Culver City, CA 90232
88 Hamilton Ave.
Stamford, CT 06902
P.O. Box 2669
Portland, OR 97208
Save the Children
54 Wilton Road
Westport, CT 06880
P.O. Box 9716
Federal Way, WA 98063
Source: Los Angeles Times