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Hunan Cuisine: Sichuan's Piquant Cousin

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods

Winter Volume: 2014 Issue: 21(4) page(s): 12-14


Several issues back, specifically in Volume 18(4), and in this issue, there are articles about the Henan Cuisine. Some who sent e-mails, did mistake it for Hunan cuisine. This is a common problem as these two provinces are alike by ear and a little different by mouth. That, and their cuisines do have a few similarities. For the record, Hunan cooking is closer to Sichuan cuisine, and is piquant.

We understand the confusions, and to date, there is only one book in English about both of their cuisines. It was published recently, and may no longer be in print. However, it is not definitive because it only has recipes, very little other information. Written by Kitty Choi Yee, it was published in 2012 by the Hai Bin Book Company in Hong Kong. Perhaps that is why confusions remain. After carefully reading both articles in this issue, we hope our articles clarify both cuisines and their cookery.

Hunan Cuisine comes from the province known as Xiang, so named as the region is known as the Xiang River region, the foods often called Xiang cooking, and it is one of the eight great culinary regions or food traditions in China. Located in south-central China north of the province of Guangzhou, and on shore of the Yangtze River, it is south of the Dingting Lake (some spell it Tingting Lake) and known as the ‘Lake of Clouds and Dreams.’

In Hunan, they raise lots of rice, the provincial capital city known as the ‘rice city.’ The climate is sub-tropical, it is in a flood basin, and in the past was part of the State of Chu. Here, traditional foods date back many centuries, and beside rice, they grow lots of corn, sweet potatoes, and tea; also millet, pears, plums, barley, and dates.

Recently we learned more about this region’s past by reading a lot about the excavations at Mawangdui in Changsha, their capital city. Many things there include items found from Western Han Dynasty times. This province has more than four thousand dishes, those already mentioned and Chicken with Spicy Sauce, Smoked Pork with Dried Long Beans, other pickles made with cabbage, Stuffed Melons, Pork Belly made Dongting style, Seared Eel with Chestnuts, and Stuffed Spare Ribs, among others.

Meals here often begin with cold meats, except in winter. Then they might start with a hot pot to keep people warm. They can include ginger with steeped hot peppers and many from here start with their cured meats.

LOng ago, their lakeside was densely populated, and it still is. In Changsha, those living in this capital city do love Dongan Chicken, and they love Crispy Fried Chicken. Both can be made with the chili peppers steeped in wine or with other pickled foods. Oil-drenched Chicken comes from this capital city or from what is called: The Land of Rice and Fishes. Many wonder about that name because this is a land-locked province, rich in forests, agriculture, minerals, and river fish. The rivers mentioned most often include the Tsu, the Li, Yuan, and the Hsing. They are very large rivers that flow into the lake and then feed the Yangzi River.

Rice is the staple grain, served at the same time but not in the same dish as their beloved pickled chili peppers. These are made in plain salt water, or pickled with shallots and garlic. Cooking here is known for its piquancy, also for being fatty, oily, or both, and for for using smoky meats in most of their dishes. Poultry and meat come with many aromatics, are almost always hot and sour, and these tastes they call suan la even if not mentioned in their name. A popular dish is orange beef but different from others of the same name as it is often marinated over night or longer as is their duck. Recently we had a duck made that way, it sat in orange juice for two days and emerged soft, succulent, and simply super.

Many restaurants in this province became popular and made local dishes famous such as their Yulin Fragrant Pork Kidneys from Peng Yulin, an eatery in Hengyang. Sister’s Glutinous Rice Dumplings originated in the Huogongdian Restaurant at their county fair, and Shetianqiao Bean Curd comes from Shandong County as does Shetianqiao Bean Curdl it was originally made at a bean curd shop in Shandong County.

You may have heard of their Sour Fish Soup, even their Crystal Sugar and Lotus seeds which is a sweet dessert-like dish soft and aromatic. So is Mashed Shrimp in Lotus Pod, Steamed Fish Head in Chili Sauce, Beer Duck, and Mao’s Braised Pork. Mao Zeodong was a Hunan native and when people from China eat Spicy Frog’s legs, they know they are eating a dish he adored. He also loved Hot and Sour, and Hot and Spicy dishes. The Chinese recognize dishes with these names as coming from Hunan, and as he did, they adore them. They also know that Xiang River dishes come from Changsha as do those from Hengyang, that Yueyang and Changde dishes come from in and around Dongting Lake, and that Jishou and Huaihua dishes are from Western Hunan.

Many Tu minority people live in this province in the western part, as do many Miao people. They and Hunanese like to add Sichuan peppers to their dishes, and they do add fewer than their Sichuan compatriots, but surely do put a lot of them in their Sour Fish Soup. They have no trouble telling it is from their province and not the Sichuan Province.

When we have had tea here, is was made with sliced ginger, oil, sugar, and ground sesame seeds, and was called ‘pestle tea.’ t was a surprise for us, while their tea with tree oil and fermented black beans was not. Both were loved by us and almost every local we met. We hope you get to taste them, and that you make several local dishes, and taste them, as well. The pestle tea which has no specific recipe, is creamy and without a drop of dairy; did you know that? For the record, the article about Henan is printed just before this one in this issue to help you tell these provinces apart. Enjoy them both!

                                                                                                                                                       
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