The Hunan cuisine (湖南菜/湘菜) is best known for its common use of chili peppers. Due to its spicy dishes, it’s often compared with the Sichuan cuisine.
If you ask any Chinese what their impression of Hunan food is, they will most likely tell you one word: spicy. This kitchen is also often referred to as the “Xiang cuisine” and is supported by many spicy food lovers.
Unlike the Sichuan province’ numbingly spicy (Ma La, 麻辣), Hunan dishes are described as “dry spicy” (Gan La, 干辣), meaning purely spicy. Apart from this trait, Hunan cuisine uses various cooking ingredients thanks to its high agriculture output. As the ingredients change with seasons, the menu changes too.
Stir-fry, braise, stew, smoke and ferment are the usual cooking methods in Hunan food. Hunan cuisine has more to offer than just being spicy. Let’s find out now!
1. Fish Head with Chopped Chili (Duo Jia Yu Tou, 剁椒鱼头)
The fish used in this dish is called bighead carp. Yes it has a big head with meat on it which is according to the Chinese the tastiest part of its body. The dish is not as spicy as it looks because it used chopped chilies instead of fresh ones. Chopped chili is an ingredient that’s widely used in Hunan cuisine which is made of fermented chili peppers, salt, garlic and ginger. It is vinegary, salty, flavourfully spicy. The combination of red hot chopped chili and white fresh fish head creates a special mouthwatering aroma. It’s very appetising!
2. Red Braised Pork (Hong Shao Rou, 红烧肉)
Allegedly, red braised pork was Chairman Mao’s favourite dish, and it shows on the menu of many restaurants as Mao’s red braised pork. Pork belly is the key of the dish, along with ginger, garlic, chili peppers, sugar, spices, cooking wine, and light and dark soy sauce.
I can see why Mao loved this dish. The meat is braised long enough to make sure when you take a bite, it would be so soft that could melt in the mouth. The sauce is savoury, thick, and sweet at the same time, complimenting the delicious morsels of meat. It is a hearty dish I definitely recommend.
3. Stinky Tofu (Chou Dou Fu, 臭豆腐)
This traditional Chinese street snack has a daunting name along with its special odor. However, the Changsha-style stinky tofu from Hunan Province smells less pungent, and it has a distinct look – all black! The colour comes from the ingredients used in the brine during the fermentation process of the tofu. Although it smells stinky, the tofu tastes light itself.
The Changsha- style stinky tofu is usually consumed deep-fried with the special sauce which to me is the soul of this dish. Each cube of deep-fried stinky tofu is crispy on the outside, and with its skin poked through, the inside is soft and flavourful with the sauce coming in, also the chili and pickled vegetables add more layers to the taste.
It is often compared with blue cheese, some people love it, some people hate it. Are you curious now? You’ll have to try some and see!
4. Pearl Meatballs (Zhen Zhu Rou Wan, 珍珠肉丸)
The name of this dish comes from its lovely appearance: the meatballs are wrapped with soaked glutinous rice and steamed on lotus leaves. They look just like pearls. You can see this dish at all the banquets and New Year dinners in Hunan and Hubei region, because it represents a “happy reunion”. Not strange it’s so popular, as Chinese often work in cities far from their families.
Lotus roots and water chestnuts are usually added in the minced pork for some fresh flavour. They are one of the reason I love this dish – the crunchy surprise! The texture of the meatballs gets more interesting with the pleasantly chewy glutinous rice, and the taste is unique and delicate, absolutely delicious.
5. Shredded Pork with Green Pepper (Nong Jia Xiao Chao Rou, 农家小炒肉)
This dish is probably the most frequently ordered dish in Hunan restaurants, because everyone just loves it! Finger-sized green pepper, green garlic and thin slices of side pork are stir-fired together, nothing fancy, but it is often the simplest thing that moves the heart. I like the peppery and garlicky aroma, and the pork is savoury and tender because of the short marinating before cooking. It’s a great choice – not too light, not too heavy, it is just right!
6. Hand-Torn Cabbage (Shou Si Bao Cai, 手撕包菜)
Originated from Hunan, hand-torn cabbage is a very popular vegetable dish through-out China, even for kids! The authentic way of making this dish is to tear the cabbage leaves into small pieces with hands, rather than chopping them with a knife. It is to make the edges of the leaves irregular, which is better for soaking up the sauce. Also it gives some variations to the texture. It tastes crisp, savory with a zing to your palate. Moreover, it is quite easy to prepare.
7. Chestnut and Pak Choi Stir-fry (Ban Li Shao Cai Xin, 板栗烧菜心)
This is a simple and unique specialty of Hunan cuisine. Sounds like an interesting pairing, right? It’s not hard to prepare. First Deep dry the chestnuts for a couple of minutes then steam for 10 minutes, this way they won’t fall apart during the process later. Then stir fry them with tender pak choi, season with salt and ground pepper. In the end, put in the mixture of cornstarch and water, sprinkle some sesame oil, voila! You are now looking at a pleasant dish with different textures that tastes savoury yet sweet. You can add some meat to the dish for a more complex taste.
8. Beer-braised Duck (Pi Jiu Ya, 啤酒鸭)
You may have tried coq au vin, but maybe it’s the first time you hear about beer-braised duck. These two dishes have the same concept – they both use alcohol to add zest to the food as well as tenderize the meat. Beer, mostly larger, makes it easier for the fragrance of the spices such as star anise, cinnamon bark and Sichuan pepper to extract, which gives the dish a fully developed flavour. The dish is great with just beer, duck and spices, but it goes well with different vegetable too – I enjoyed it with shiitake mushroom and cucumber, it was totally succulent!
That’s it! I hope there’s a dish that inspired you to try out yourself at home or order in a Hunan restaurant. Spicy food contains a lot of heat though, so it’s good to drink some cooling pu erh or Chrysanthemum flower tea to flush the heat!