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Hunan Cuisine Grandma's Way

by Adeline Shun P. Koepnick

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Fall Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(3) page(s): 15

Also known as Xiang cai, the cuisine of the Hunan province is famous in China. Some say it is one of China's most highly seasoned regional cuisines. Overall, the dishes in its culinary are said to be three styles, that is they are from around the Xiang River, from the Dongting Lake area, or they are considered Western Hunan style.

All Hunanese dishes should have several characteristics. The first is they need be made with skillful use of cleaver or kitchen knife, the second is they must have delicious taste, and a third is that they have beautiful visual appearance. The tastes food have from this region are somewhat sour, the dishes are made with various seasonings, some spicy, and they need reflect a wide variety of cookery techniques.

On the web and in good Chinese cookbooks and Chinese food sources, one notes Hunan cuisine is one of eight great Chinese culinary regions. Many say it is well known for its hot spiciness, fresh aroma, and depth of color. Cooking skills used in this regional cuisine date back many centuries. During the course of its history, Hunan assimilated a variety of styles that developed into its own style and many, many recipes that show it. Now, it has more than four thousand different dishes, more than three hundred said to be very famous. One such is Smoked Pork with Dried Long Beans.

Hunan cuisine shares commonalities with a close culinary neighbor, Sichuan. Both of these cuisines originated in China's Western areas where the climate is sub-tropical--humid and warm enough to encourage use of fiery spices to cool the body. With similar climates, these two regions share many ingredients. For both, rice is a staple, and chili peppers an important part of many of their dishes.

My ancestors come from Hunan. Though my family has lived in Shanghai for many years, they still eat, prepare, and love foods Hunanese style. We are used to having hot red peppers and yellow beans made in very special traditional ways. The foods we are used to were made under the guidance of my grandmother. When weather was very cold, she would ask servants to put yellow beans to ferment in a box. She warmed them with a hot water bag covered with a blanket. The fermenting yellow beans she made were perfect, neither too hard nor too soft. The knack, she said, was to let the yellow beans grow white mildew, the thicker the better.

Grandmother told us there were two important things when making dishes with fermented beans. One, she said, was to mix them well. She would dish some up, then cold dress them with rice wine and sesame oil. The other way, she advised, was to fry them in hot oil until they appeared golden in color. Either way, the results were delicious and they smelled so good!

Every year, we would buy a lot of hot peppers during harvest time. These peppers were cut into very small pieces and bottled. They were quite different from those like chill paste made from mashed hot peppers that are found nowadays in supermarkets. Those made by my grandmother could keep fresh a long time and were loaded with vitamin C. Besides, her hot peppers were cleaned one by one and with a cloth. That, she said, was better than washing them. She also told us they would not decay if prepared this way.

She put her peppers up in bottles and covered them with salt and sesame oil; then she sealed them. She made more than a dozen bottles of homemade minced hot red peppers, too. These would meet our family's needs the entire year. Some were even used as small gifts for friends and relatives.

Recently, I had a dish of steamed fish with minced fresh red peppers in a restaurant in the San Francisco Bay area. It is photographed above. You might recognize it as a famous Hunanese dish; seeing it I am so happy. It is a great reminder of my grandmother. When she made it, she used a live fish, then steamed the crucian carp which she covered with fresh minced hot red peppers. A good chef knows the perfect amount of time needed to steam the fish so that is tasty, tender, and delicious. A great one has all the flavors of grandmother's cooking.

Hunan fermented beans are available in Asian markets. I have bought some where the beans were too hard or something else was wrong with their texture or their taste. They were not as delicious as those made by my grandmother. But the ones with her fish were always perfect. If you look at her fish, perhaps you can see why I enjoyed it so.
Adeline S.P. Koepnick, an award winning Chinese writer, has written thousands of articles on food, travel, and restaurants in many newspapers and magazines. This is her third article in Flavor and Fortune. Her first was a second look at the R & G Restaurant; and that one was in Volume 14(3) on page 14. There was another about Sichuan cuisine in Volume 14(4); it was on pages 10 and 12.

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