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Hunan: Province and Foods

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Regional Foods

Fall Volume: 2017 Issue: 24(3) pages: 7 to 10

This province, called ‘the land of magic’ by some, was cut off to outsiders, misunderstood because no foreigners were permitted entrance to its capital before 1880. More recently, home to Chairman Mao in Shanshan which was his home city, this province of four thousand five hundred sixty-three square miles, in 2015, had a census indicating nearly seven and a half million people lived there.

The provincial capital of Changsha has been there since its founding three and a half thousand years ago. However, it only began serious trading with the west in the twentieth century when foreigners no longer need watch its picturesque land and junks from afar.

This province is south of Lake Dongting bordering on Yueyang and Yiyang. It is a busy place where folks now learn about it adding to what they might have learned about its Han Dynasty past from books. These days, many visit its ruins at Mawangdui and are fascinated. They learn that the country’s cuisine is close to equally zesty and piquant, as is that of the Sichuan Province.

They now get to know its various rices, fish, chickens, pigs, fruits, and vegetable dishes first-hand. They do likewise about its well-watered plains in its north, the salty, steamed, smoked, and deep-fried foods from its fertile fields, the long growing season of often more than two hundred and fifty days, and that it is fed by tributaries of the Yangtze River. This is a land of plenty dominated by a bed of water whose provincial name means ‘south of the lake’ which is Lake Tung-ting. And that lake does contribute to what a local proverb says is: good harvests with every belly full under its heaven.

In Hunan, tea is produced in the south and south-west, tea dust steamed and molded as an essence, sort of like coffee’s espresso. They flavor most foods pickled, preserved, and spiced. This cuisine and its people lavish devouring luxuriously flavored snacks and dishes such as Strange-flavor Eggplant, Scallion Oil Cakes, Hunan Chicken, Vegetables with Chicken Strings, Scallop Balls in Tart Sesame Sauce, Pork Strips with Bamboo in Garlic Sauce, Rice-coated Spareribs with Yams, Red Radish Rounds, Drunken Dates, Hot and Sour Cabbage Hearts, and more.

In Hunan there are fish-a-plenty in their many rivers, various rices and bamboo in their fertile fields, fruits and vegetables growing everywhere, young cedar leaves smoked on camphor wood, and speciality wines and teas from their alluvial plains.

The province has more than four thousand local dishes in their Xiang-named cuisine including those from the past that included exotic elephant trunks gracing Imperial table, ground rhinoceros horn digestives to calm overfed stomachs of their common folk, dishes with sweet basil and red chilies to excite every one’s taste buds, and hot and sour dishes with mushrooms, clear soups, to heighten their mealtime delights.

Strange Flavor Eggplant

2 pounds Asian eggplants, baked until they collapse.
2 Tablespoons fresh garlic, peeled and minced
1 Tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
1 teaspoon dried minced piquant red peppers
2 scallions, minced
1 teaspoon white rice vinegar
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons sesame oil


1. Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F.
2. Prick eggplants with a fork and bake them for half an hour or until they collapse.
3. Peel and discard their skins, and tear them into thin strips or put them in a blender, then drain them in a strainer.
4. Mix garlic, ginger, minced piquant peppers, scallions, rice vinegar, brown sugar, and two tablespoons of cold water, then add the vegetable and sesame oils and stir them into the eggplant mixture in the wok until they are heated through. Then put it in a bowl, and serve.

Uncle Tai's Hunan Beef

1½ pounds flank steak
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons dry sherry or shao xing wine
1 egg white
3½ Tablespoons cornstarch
4 cups and 2 Tablespoons peanut oil
2 scallions, cut in half-inch lengths
3 Tablespoons dried orange peel
3 thin slices fresh ginger, cut in half-inch cubes
1 long thin fresh pepper, seeded and chopped (optional)
3 Tablespoons soy sauce
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 cup chicken broth
10 dried hot red pepper pods


1. Slice beef into half-inch wide thin strips
2. Put the beef in a mixing bowl, add two-thirds of a cup of water blended with the bicarbonate of soda, and refrigerate it for one hour or overnight. Then rinse the beef thoroughly under cold running water, drain, and pat it dry.
3. Add the salt to the meat, one tablespoon of the wine, and the egg white, and stir until the wine is bubbly, then add one and a half tablespoons of the cornstarch and two tablespoons of the oil, and stir to blend well.
4. Combine scallions, dried orange peel, fresh ginger and fresh pepper, and set this aside.
5. Combine the remaining two tablespoons of wine, the soy sauce, sugar, and the remaining two tablespoons of cornstarch blended with three tablespoons water. Add the sesame oil and the chicken broth, and stir well.
6. Heat four cups of oil in a wok or skillet and when almost smoking, add the beef and cook about forty-five seconds, stirring constantly. Scoop out the meat, drain it well leaving the oil in the wok, and return the meat and cook for half a minute more, then drain again.
7. Clean the wok and return two tablespoons of the oil to it. Add the pepper and the scallions and stir over high heat for one minute then remove before adding the beef and cooking it for half a minute, then adding the wine mixture and stirring until it is piping hot, the meat is well-coated. Then serve in a pre-heated bowl.

Hunan Chicken

2 pounds boneless and skinless chicken, cut in thin strips
5 slices fresh ginger, minced
2 scallions, minced
1 small piquant pepper, seeded and minced
2 teaspoons each of granulated and brown sugar
2 Tablespoons dry sherry or rice wine
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
½ cup chicken stock
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, crushed
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon sesame oil


1. Blanch the chicken strips, then simmer them for ten minutes.
2. Mix them with the ginger, scallions, and pepper pieces and all of these to just under the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for five minutes, and strain these and set them aside.
3. Heat the oil in the wok and stir-fry these items for one minute, then add the soy sauce, stock, peppercorns, rice wine, and sesame oil for two minutes.
4. Add the sesame oil and stir-fry another minute, then serve in a pre-heated bowl.

Scallion Cakes

2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons coarse salt
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 scallions, minced
½ cup vegetable oil


1. Mix flour, baking powder, one-quarter of a cup cold water, and the salt. Stir until a ball forms.
2. Next, add one-third cup boiling water to the ball and knead until smooth. Then let rest for ten minutes.
3. Knead in the sesame oil and scallions and form a snake; cut it into ten pieces, and knead until smooth.
4. Roll each piece into a circle; and repeat until all are rolled. Then cover them in a stack with a dry cloth and let them rest fifteen minutes.
5. Heat a little oil in a fry-pan and fry them one side at a time, each for twenty seconds, until slightly browned, then transfer, and stack them on a flat plate. Serve them cut into sections, if desired.

Smoked Belly Pork and Tofu

1/4 pound smoked belly pork
2 Tablespoons peanut oil
½ pound smoked tofu cut in one-inch squares, and dried on paper towels
5 dried chili peppers, seeded and slivered
10 green scallion parts cut into one-inch pieces
2 Tablespoons dark soy sauce


1. Put pork in a steamer basket over boiling water and steam for ten minutes. Then remove and let cool before cutting into half-inch cubes. Set them aside to cool.
2. Heat oil in a wok or small pot, and stir-fry the cubes for one minute, then remove and drain them on paper towels before putting them in a serving bowl.
3. Put the drained tofu in the remaining oil and fry until browned, about three minutes, then add the chili peppers and fry them for half a minute, then remove them and discard the oil.
4. Mix the tofu, chili peppers, and soy sauce with the pork cubes and serve hot, warm, or at room temperature, as preferred.

Vegetables With Chicken Strings

1 skinless boneless chicken breast cut in matchstick shaped pieces
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
3 slices fresh ginger, minced
1 onion cut in thin slices, each quartered
3 Tablespoons dry sherry
3 Tablespoons wood ear fungi soaked, then sliced thinly
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into matchstick pieces
1 large zucchini cut the same way the carrot was cut
3 Tablespoons pickled mustard green, slivered
3 small chili peppers, seeded and slivered
1 teaspoon coarse salt
3 Tablespoons fermented black bean chili paste (or 1 Tablespoon each of mashed fermented black beans, black vinegar, and hot chili oil)
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon brown sugar
½ cup chicken stock
2 Tablespoons cedar leaves. Coarsely chopped
1 Tablespoon cilantro, coarsely chopped
1 Tablespoon sesame oil


1. Heat wok or large fry pan, add the oil, garlic, and ginger and stir-fry for one minute, then add the onion and continue frying for two more minutes.
2. Next add the sherry and the wood ear fungi and stir-fry another minute before adding the next four vegetables, salt, and the black bean paste or other items instead of them, and both sugars. Stir well.
3. Now, add the stock and bring to the boil, then add the cedar and cilantro leaves and sesame oil, and toss well. Put all into a pre-heated bowl, and serve.

Scallop Balls in Sesame Sauce

½ pound fresh scallops, each one cut in quarters
1 teaspoon fresh minced ginger
1 teaspoon Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon gr0und white pepper
3 Tablespoons water chestnut flour in two parts
2 egg whites kept separated
3 Tablespoons Chinese white vinegar
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
2 large cloves fresh garlic, peeled and smashed
2 teaspoons coarsely minced fresh ginger
3/4 cup white sesame seeds
1 cup peanut or vegetable oil for deep frying


1. Put scallops, ginger, rice wine, salt, ground pepper, and half the water chestnut flour in a food processor with a metal blade and process until coarsely minced.
2. Add egg whites, vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, tomato paste, garlic, and the ginger and process again until smooth.
3. Mix half of the processed mixture into a small pot and set it aside.
4. Wet one’s hands, and make one-inch balls of the scallop mixture, and refrigerate on a flat plate for one hour.
5. Put sesame seeds on another flat plate, and a sheet of waxed paper on a flat work surface and roll the cold scallop balls in the sesame seeds until they are well coated, then deep-fry them in the hot oil until lightly browned, and take them out with a slotted spoon. Roll them in paper towels, and put them in a bowl on the dining table.
6. Bring the set aside vinegar mixture to the boil, then pour it into a heat-proof bowl and set it on the table next to the fried scallop balls. Diners can dip a scallop ball into the heated sauce, if they wish, or eat the sesame balls plain.

Lamb with Bamboo Shoots

4 Tablespoons vegetable oil, separated in half
10 baby lamb chops
5 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and smashed
10 scallions
1 cup chicken stock
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 Tablespoon chili paste with garlic
1/4 cup Chinese white wine
1 teaspoon five-spice power
6 ounces canned bamboo shoot slices
8 ounces rice noodles, cooked in boiling water until soft, the drained and used when done


1. Heat half the oil in wok or large fry pan, add the lamb chops and brown each on both sides, then remove them to a plate.
2, In another wok or fry pan, add the other half of the oil and stir-fry the scallions and smashed garlic, and remove from the heat.
3. Mix the chicken stock, soy sauce, chili paste, white wine and five-spice powder, and put this in the first wok, return the lamb chops, add the scallion mixture, and cover the pan and simmer for one-half an hour or until the lamb chops are tender.
4. Add the bamboo shoots and stir until heated through.
5. Put the cooked rice noodles in a pre-heated casserole, add the lamb chop mixture and simmer until hot, then serve.

Hunan Spareribs With Yams

1 pound yams, peeled, cut into one-inch sticks
2 Tablespoons honey
2 pounds spare ribs, cut apart, then chopped into one-inch pieces
1 Tablespoon sugar
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 Tablespoons hot chili bean paste
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 cup uncooked rice, browned, cooled, then ground
1 scallion, minced
1 Tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
1 large clove garlic, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon hot oil


1. Mix yams, honey, and a tablespoon boiling water.
2. Mix spare rib pieces with the sugar, soy sauce, hot bean paste, and Chinese rice wine, cover, and refrigerate for one hour, then toss them with the ground rice powder, and put on the yams.
3. Now steam this for two hours over boiling water, adding more water if/as needed.
4. Serve in a clean bowl tossing before serving.

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