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Hunan Cuisine: Sichuan's Piquant Cousin

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Regional Foods

Winter Volume: 2014 Issue: 21(4) pages: 12 to 14

Several issues back, specifically in Volume 18(4), and then again in this issue, there were and are articles about Henan Cuisine. Some who sent us e-mails, did mistake it for Hunan cuisine, a common problem. These two provinces are alike by ear, somewhat different by mouth; and their cuisines have only a few similarities. For the record, Hunan cooking is closer to Sichuan cuisine, and it is also piquant.

We understand the confusions. There is only one book in English about both of their cuisines; it was published recently and still be in print, but 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. After carefully reading both articles in this issue, we hope our articles will clarify both cuisines and cookery.

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

In Hunan, they raise lots of rice, and its capital city is 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. Their 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 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, even Stuffed Melons, Pork Belly made Dongting style, Seared Eel with Chestnuts, and Stuffed Spare Ribs, among other dishes.

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 this goes well with their cured meats.

Lakeside, long ago, was densely populated, and it still is. In Changsha, the capital city, they 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 can come from the capital city or be from the ‘Land of Rice and Fishes.’ Many wonder about the name because this is a land-locked province that is rich in forests, agriculture, minerals, and river fish. The rivers mentioned most often include the Tsu, Li, Yuan, and the Hsing, very large rivers that flow into the lake, 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 made in plain salt water, or pickled with shallots, and garlic. Here, cooking is known for its piquancy, also for being fatty or oily, or both, and for for using smoky meats in most of their dishes. Poultry and meat here come with many aromatics, are almost always hot and sour which they call suan la, even if not mentioned in their name.

A popular dish here is orange beef; it is 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 that sat in orange juice for two days; it emerged soft, succulent, and simply super.

Many restaurants in this province became popular and made local dishes famous. One such is Yulin Fragrant Pork Kidneys from the Peng Yulin, an eatery in Hengyang. Sister’s Glutinous Rice Dumplings originated in the Huogongdian Restaurant at a county fair, and Shetianqiao Bean Curd is from Shandong County. So is Shetianqiao Bean Curd which 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, a sweet dessert-like dish soft and very 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 are eat Spicy Frog’s legs, they know they are eating a dish he adored as he did Hot and Sour, and Hot and Spicy dishes. The Chinese do recognize dishes with these names as coming from Hunan and like him, they adore them.

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

When we have had tea here, is was made with sliced ginger, oil, sugar, and ground sesame seeds, and called ‘Pestle Tea.’ It was a surprise for us, not the tea with tree oil and fermented black beans. 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, too, a few of which follow. The Pestle Tea which has no specific recipe so we made one up, is creamy and without a drop of dairy. That is something you need to know. For the record, the article about Henan is printed just before this one in this issue to help you keep them apart in your memory; good luck doing so!
Red Chilies Steeped in Wine, Hunan Style
½ pound red hot (piquant) chilies
½ cup Chinese white wine
3 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 cup peeled and crushed fresh ginger
2 Tablespoons fermented black beans
2 Tablespoons coarse salt
1. Seed the chili peppers, then rinse and dry them and put them into a sterilize canning jar setting its cover in boiling water. Fill the jar with the wine and the other ingredients at room temperature, then fill it with previously boiled and then cooled water, and seal the jar.
2. Leave this jar at room temperature in a dark place for one week, then move it to the rear of your refrigerator in a paper bag taped shut for two months or more before using them.
Hunan Pickled Cabbage
1 pound white or napa cabbage, rinsed and dried, then cut into one-inch or smaller pieces
1 peeled carrot cut into small pieces or slices
1 small seedless cucumber, peeled, rinsed, and dried, then diced small
2 chili pepper steeped in wine, seeded and cut into large seedless pieces
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and each one cut in half
10 Sichuan peppercorns, rinsed and dried
½ half cup Chinese rice or sorghum wine
2 Tablespoons white vinegar, Chinese or American
1 Tablespoon coarse salt
2 to 4 cups of ice water
1. Sterilize a one quart canning jar or two pint ones packed with a mix of cabbage, carrot, and cucumber pieces.
2. Mix the chili peppers, ginger, garlic and the peppercorns with the wine, vinegar, and the salt and pour over the vegetables.
3. Fill the jar or jars with the water, seal, and store in the refrigerator for twelve to twenty-four hours before using.
Pork Belly, Dongting Style
1 pound belly pork, submerged in boiling water for one hour, then allowed to cool in the refrigerator overnight, then drained and sliced thinly into two-inch long pieces
4 leeks, washed free of any sand, then cut into two-inch lengths
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1 chili pepper stepped in wine, seeded and minced
1 to 2 Tablespoons whole bean paste
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
1. Mix the pork belly, leeks, and the oil and fry for one to two minutes.
2. Add the bean paste and soy sauce, fry only for one more minute, then serve.
Eel with Chestnuts, Hunan Style
1 pound river eel, heads, tails, and skins removed, and cut across into one-inch pieces
10 soaked dry shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and discarded, and diced
10 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half
½ pound precooked peeled chestnuts
3 chilies steeped in wine or one cup pickled cabbage, blanched and drained
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 Tablespoon chicken bouillon powder
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1. Mix eel, mushrooms, garlic, chestnuts, chili peppers, and the wine and allow to rest for one hour.
2. Heat oil in a wok or fry pan, add the eel mixture and the soy sauce, the cornstarch, bouillon powder, sugar, and the sesame oil and bring to the boil, then add the eel and stir, and reduce the heat. Now simmer for fifteen minutes, add a little water if too dry, and serve.
Stuffed Melon
1 cup diced boneless white chicken meat
½ cup boneless thigh meat, minced
10 whole water chestnuts, minced
3 fresh scallops, minced
6 slices peeled fresh ginger, minced
1 teaspoon coarse salt
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
½ teaspoon ground white pepper
1 hami melon or a cantaloupe, one inch top removed and seeded
2 cups chicken stock
1. Mix minced white and thigh chicken meat, the water chestnuts, the scallops, ginger, salt, soy sauce, and ground pepper, and put this mixture into the melon cavity.
2. Add enough chicken stock to fill the melon, then put the cover on top. 3. Steam over boiling water for half an hour, then serve whole, cutting it into sections at the table.
Spare Ribs, Boned and Stuffed
1 pound spare ribs, cut into two inch lengths, then boiled for five minutes, drained, the liquid discarded, and the bones removed and discarded, as well
3 scallions, cut into two-inch pieces
2 cups oil for deep frying
3 stalks gai lan (Chinese broccoli)
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with the same amount of cold water
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon coarse salt
½ teaspoon granulated sugar
2 Tablespoons catsup
1 cup chicken stock
1. Stuff each spare rib with a piece of scallion.
2. Heat the oil in a wok or deep pan, then deep fry the stuffed spare ribs until they start to brown, then remove and drain them reserving oil for another use. Leave one tablespoon in the wok.
3. Heat salt, sugar, catsup, and the stock in the wok or deep pot, put the ribs in, and simmer for fifteen minutes, stirring once in a while, then remove them and any liquid to a dish with sides.
4. Stir-fry the gai lan and put around the stiffed spare ribs, and serve.
Pestle Tea
1 Tablespoon green tea leaves
2 Tablespoons cashew nuts
2 Tablespoons peanuts
2 Tablespoons sesame seeds
2 Tablespoons uncooked barley
2 Tablespoons pumpkin or sunflower seeds
1 Tablespoon walnuts
4 cups freshly brewed green tea>br> Preparation:
1. Grind tea leaves and the rest of the ingredients finely in a mortar and pestle for ten to twenty minutes or until seeing all their oil is released; the longer better.
2. Add the paste to the just boiled freshly brewed green tea, stir well, then pour into individual tea cups.

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