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Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan
Spring Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(1) page(s): 30, 31, and 32
Just south of the Yangzi river is Hunan, a large province. Its capital city is Changsha. To the west of this province rise hills and mountains while everywhere there are lakes, small rivers, and streams. With its abundant natural resources, the province has always been agriculturally self-sufficient.
The food in Hunan is often referred to as ‘Western cuisine’but it is flavorful and with roots in the ancient State of Chu. Though different, it can be mixed up with the foods of the Sichuan province. Both are spicy, but they are not the same.
Recently excavated ancient tombs, some just excavated in the past ten years or so, show millet and barley as the main grains consumed. Neither is a main grain today. Pears, plums, and dates, still fond foods, are remains found there, as well. Not all tomb findings uncovered have yet been radio-carbon dated, and that will be important because one source lists corn among the recovered remains. Many are waiting for that to be confirmed because corn is believed to have arrived in China around the 16th century, and these tombs are from hundreds upon hundreds of years before that. Perhaps it is there because someone broke into the tomb and left some of their lunch. However, the Chinese archeologists seem to doubt that.
An interesting item of more recent times, that is from several hundred years ago, documents exceptional hospitality in Hunan. One story told is about a general serving his guests a banquet. With more people than fit around his table, he solves his dilemma putting a double row of seats, probably stools, around it. Then he provides the guests with longer than usual chopsticks so those in the outer row can easily reach the food. He accommodates them in other ways, too. He instructs the kitchen staff to put all the food on extra-large platters and in extra-large bowls. The report advises that all food was very flavorful, made with many spices.
Used in Hunan since early times was black cardamon (cao guo), fennel seeds (xiao hui), cassia (gui pi), and different peppers. One popular pepper was fagara, also known as prickly ash or Sichuan pepper. Botanically it is Zanthxylum simulans; and the Chinese call it hua jiao. Other peppers used included black and white peppercorns, whole and crushed.
Hunan province is next door to Sichuan, so the use of piquant seasonings, particularly Sichuan pepper, makes for similarities. In addition, the Hunanese people also use lots of pickled vegetables, garlic, tangerine peel, many different nuts and seeds, and other herbs and spices. The most common in the nuts and seeds categories include walnuts, pine nuts, olive pits, and the gingko. All of these are used to flavor both rice and noodle dishes. While the main meat eaten in Hunan is pork, those that live in mountainous regions eat much more goat meat. Everyone eats many green vegetables including cabbages, and they adore large white radishes commonly known by their Japanese name of daikon, other root vegetables, and bamboo shoots.
Their many lakes and streams assure the people in Hunan an ample supply of fish. In addition, there is considerable game and a plethora of fungi and mountain herbs. Overall, the food of Hunan also enjoys broad beans and sesame seeds used in many ways, some for whole and mashed pastes. Imported vegetables such as the hot capsicum, the white potato and corn, all imported at least for five hundred years, have gained considerable prominence in Hunan.
Hunanese food has long been popular throughout China. Some provincial dishes include Spicy Eggplant, Tripe and Bamboo Shoots with Ginger Sauce, and a cured pork dish made with lots of garlic and chili. General Tsao’s chicken may have originated in the Hunan province (see Flavor and Fortune's Volume 3(4) on page 5. Not only do the Hunanese like spicy foods, as several of these dishes illustrate, they also like sweet ones. Two popular dessert-type items are Sauteed Banana with Sweet Bean Paste and Stuffed Dried Plums. Other than these and other adored dishes, the Hunanese like their foods and those from other provinces made with considerable amounts of oil.
Some Chinese food historians, when thinking about Hunanaese foods, say they see relationships with the province of Hupei. Others find similarities to dishes from Kiangsu and Chekiang. Reasons go beyond taste and ingredients. There were several wars fought in this region and after them, invading armies left marks on the countryside and its foods. It is this type of intermingling that makes regional differences varied, sometimes inconsistent, and often confusing, if they exist at all. And if they do, these relationships need to be discussed in time frames, as they are not consistent either through decades or over the centuries.
Rice, though not the only staple, is heavily used in Hunan. Cooks there are creative when using long and short grain types or the glutinous rices. All of them are served as whole polished grains and used as coatings after the rice grains are ground. In addition, they prepare dishes made with rice flour shaped into twists, rice cakes, rice crusts, and dried long-cooked rice. They even use popped rice, consumed most often as snack food, but it and any or all of the other flour-shapes are eaten plain or mixed into or put under the meat-vegetable main dishes.
Rice is also used to make candies and rice wines. Meat can be coated with rice flour and it can be covered with a cooked rice coating. Fresh and dried fish is prepared spiced and cooked in a fermented rice sauce. Meats are also dried and with or without rice on them, or rice mixed into them, particularly when minced fine. Both meat and fish are loved, particularly when cooked with bamboo shoots.
People in this province consume and enjoy many tonic foods. Some are made with mountain herbs, others with common food ingredients. Examples include Sparerib and Lotus Stew, Steamed Chicken with Turtle and Herbs, and Turtle Mutton Soup. These and other dishes are cooked with or without pickled vegetables, fermented tofu, and pastes made of chili peppers and soy sauce.
Tea is the beverage of choice in Hunan. However, it may look and taste different from tea in other parts of China. This province is known for its brick tea. They serve it strong and bitter. And, they make a beverage called 'Pestle Tea' grinding the tea leaves and mixing them with sugar and ground or whole sesame seeds. A pestle-type tea we were once served in the home of a Hunanese family in Beijing had oil floating on top. When we inquired, they said it was used to “keep in the value of all the other ingredients.” Another time, with another family, that same named tea served had ground peanuts added; yet another had ground rice flour mixed in.
Recently, a family friend who is Hunanese advised that when she was young, her mom made tea with tree oil. A couple of years ago when asked by a reader about tree oil, we confessed ignorance. Now we know tea tree oil to be sweet tasting, light yellow, and made from the juice of tea-tree seeds. This same friend told us that its value to the Chinese, is to cool the body. She claimed that putting it into hot tea was to make the beverage into an excellent health tonic.
She also spoke about her mom serving tea with tea tree oil and ground dried ginger and mushrooms. She said her mom made the tea tree oil herself and did so but once a year. She said she then had it to use all year long. When asked how else they used this home-made product, she advised that her family liked it mixed in with rice. They dried the rice then cooked it somewhat with the oil over low heat. This she reported was a snack. She did correct us as she thought we believed that tea-tree oil could only be made at home. She said one year when her mom was not well, she recalls conversations complaining of monies spent to purchase it because she said her mom did not want to live without it.
We discussed with her and some friends she invited us to meet, what they like best. We asked them to think of examples of foods from their province. They mentioned ham cooked with honey served sandwich-like in steamed bread. When asked how we might make this dish, a cacophony of voices said to steam it with rock sugar and spices before serving. Coat it with sweet sauce, they continued after that. They also spoke about a dish with pigeon and pork minced together steamed in a bamboo cup filled with rich chicken broth. Asking for a third suggestion, all agreed that dried pork cooked with garlic sprouts should be made. They said to be sure to both dry and serve slices of it with a layer of fat. They said this was best using what Americans call uncooked bacon. Use it sliced thin, dried in a very slow oven, then dice some, they chorused, and stir-fry it with minced garlic shoots and some spices.
On our first trip to Taiwan we were fortunate to be introduced to Stanley Yen, owner of the Ritz Hotel in Taipei. He offered to cook a banquet for us and with invitations also going to some of his permanent hotel residents. He asked if he should do a banquet of Hunanese food and if we knew about them. When he learned our experiences with this cuisine were few, he was thrilled and his chefs prepared a phenomenal meal. At the end of the evening, he gave each lady a hand-painted menu scroll. Since then ours has graced my office. Now it is one of the illustrations for this article that can be seen in the hard copy of this magazine.
A highlight of that meal was the Sweet and Sour Fish wrapped in a net made from a single piece of carrot. After dinner, those who stayed were treated to a lesson of how to do this. His kitchen always had carrots and huge white radish pieces soaking ready for making this magnificent piece of decor. The carrot he used was more than an inch thick, the piece about six inches long. After making some cuts into it, the chef slices it with his cleaver, going around and around the outside until he has a six- by about twelve-inch piece about an eighth of an inch thick. When stretched over the fish, the cuts magically made the carrot look like a fisherman’s net. Try though I did that night and since, mine never approached the beauty of the one on that dish. He also prepared, but we did not see how, a scallop and egg dish and some chicken cooked in bamboo. Exactly how we discussed all during the meal, and thereafter we were left for a while to guess.
Stanley Yen was a great ambassador of Hunanese food and hospitality that night. The meal was phenomenal. Wish my memory and my notes were likewise. That scallop and egg dish had ten eggs in their shells. After more than an hour, we still needed assistance to explain how the Taiwanese raise eggs with no yolk.
A ‘yolk’ it was not. The shell of a raw egg has a small whole made at the top. The egg is blown out, separated, and the whites mixed with very finely minced raw scallops. This mixture is put into the empty shells, steamed and served, the end with the hole facing down. We still remember everyone’s amazement when cracking those eggs. No one expected something virtually all white with no yellow in sight. That trick was shared, the answer to a question about cooked rice for it remained a mystery for years, until we learned the re-stuffed eggs were steamed on cooked rice to keep them from rolling in that process.
Today, Mr. Yen is still chairperson of the Ritz Taipei Hotel. He is also spokesperson for the Taiwan’s tourist industry. They could not have selected a better ambassador. His belief then of showing guests the very best matches his responsibility today of setting and sharing highest expectations and standards. That Hunanese meal certainly was the very best we had in Taiwan, and it serves as a model of how great Chinese food can be.
Below are some Hunanese recipes that reinforce lessons we learned that night, at his side. We are eternally grateful for his tutelage and for feeding us so well; it was a glorious banquet!
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