Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Hunan Cuisine – Are We Ready for It?

Yummy Street Food - Changsha, Hunan, China
Alright, alright, I give in.

If you’ve been following my last few posts, I’ve been trying to stay on the high ground, meaning keeping on the philosophical and/or spiritual subjects. 

Well, it’s undeniable that one cannot spend a day (comfortably) without food.  And one definitely cannot skip Hunan cuisine before leaving Hunan.

Moving Street Vendor - Changsha, Hunan, ChinaWhat’s the Big Deal about Hunan Cuisine?
China is covered by such a vast land that Hunan cuisine is one of the eight regional cuisines of China.  So one could imagine how diversely distinctive regional cuisines are from one another.  In all honesty, I did not get to taste Hunan cuisine before I made the “leap” to the US 16 years ago.

Yumm - Changsha, Hunan, ChinaBeing in gourmand's heaven, Los Angeles, I’ve visited more than one Hunan restaurant.  However, I was not 100% sure that I’d had the most authentic Hunan cooking.  They are all delicious dishes.   But the thought of how Americanized some Chinese food has become (orange chicken, everyone?) makes me wonder if the same happened to regional cuisines from all over the world to tailor to US consumer’s tastes. 

Amazing Tea Pouring Skill - Changsha, Hunan, ChinaHow Does Hunan Dishes Taste Like?
Hunan cuisine is well known for its hot spicy flavor due to its liberal use of chili peppers, shallots and garlic (remember the red hot chili pepper sauce as seen in my other post?).  Another characteristics of Hunan cuisine is that it uses smoked and cured meats in its dishes frequently.

Spicy Hunan Pepper From my own experience with Hunan cuisine in the US, no doubt, chili peppers are prevalent in many dishes.  However, I could usually have the dishes custom-made to my level of tolerance so that my tongue does not become overwhelmed by the spiciness and as a result could not taste any other flavors.

Now that we are in Hunan where no exception will be made for us, would we love the dishes or would we not have anything but water?    

Street Foods

Changsha Map
Street foods are a casual and inexpensive way to sample where the local people’s taste buds are. 

A short walk along the major street from our hotel (Plaza Royale Furongguo Hotel, indicated by the “x” mark on the map), we arrived at the center of the action (a pedestrian street being circled in the map).

From here on, you would have to excuse me for letting my mouth do most of eating and less talking…

Street Food - Changsha, Hunan, China
Dalian Tepanyaki.  Hmmm, Dalian is the capital city of Liaoning, a province in the Northeastern region of China.  I didn’t know that their food is spicy?  But I remembered, before my trip to China, a friend was mockingly telling me that the whole country is hot of spicy food.  Alright, as long as they taste good.  I do love squid though.

Street Food - Changsha, Hunan, China (2)
Mmmmm, lots of variety.  Yummy!

Cold Bean Jelly Noodle - Changsha, Hunan, China
Cold bean jelly noodle.  This is one of my favorites.  I think it’s originally from Szechuan, Hunan’s neighboring province.  But it does not affect my enjoying it.  Do you know it’s made from a block of bean jelly like this:

Cold Bean Jelly - Changsha, Hunan, China

Spicy Yam Noodle - Changsha, Hunan, China
Spicy yam noodle.  Is it spicy?  Yes!!  You see the bottle?  That’s the iced tea that we used to wash off the spiciness.

Stewed Soup in Big Pot - Changsha, Hunan, China
Stewed soup in a big pot.  Small pots of soup are placed in a large one where they are heated within.

Stewed Soup in Big Pot - Changsha, Hunan, China (2)
Uh-hmmmm…  Now that you’ve become more familiar with the Hunan food, I feel that it’s about time to introduce one of the Hunan delicacies: deep-fried fermented tofu.  “So?”, You ask.  Well, I hid one (very important) word.  This dish stinks!  You can smell the cooking spot from blocks away.Deep-Fried Fermented (Stinky) Tofu - Changsha, Hunan, China
That’s right, it’s the black “stuff” in the picture.  But, don’t worry, have you heard a very well-known restaurant in California (there’s one in Beverly Hills) called The Stinky Rose?  This restaurant’s success is a strong evidence that “aroma” and taste should not be confused.   

Restaurants are Inexpensive
The next day, when the tour started, we were brought back to the same neighborhood, where we got to try more traditional local delicacies in a historical restaurant.
Po Zi Street - Changsha, Hunan, ChinaPo Zi (in English, meaning Slope) Street, where lots of restaurants serving Hunan cuisines are located.  This is in the old-town of Changsha.

Historical Restaurant for Local Delicacies - Changsha, Hunan, ChinaHuo Gong Dian (Fire Palace, in English), a historical restaurant where we tasted the local delicacies.

Mao's Braised Pork - Changsha, Hunan, ChinaMao’s braised pork:
Legend says that this dish is Mao Zedong (a once communist party’s leader)’s favorite, who was born in Hunan.

Rice Tofu in Chicken BrothRice tofu in chicken broth: 
We all know that tofu is made from bean.  Therefore, to taste tofu made of rice flour is an interesting experience.  It’s got a different texture.
Shallot Flavored Fried Wheat Bread - Changsha, Hunan, ChinaShallot flavor fried wheat bread:
Crunchy outside and tender inside.  It’s good to try.  But it fills you up pretty quickly. 

Sticky Rice Sister Buns - Changsha, Hunan, ChinaSticky rice sister buns:
Notice the sisters are of different shapes?  They have different flavors of fillings – one sweet, the other salty.

Restaurant Specials - Changsha, Hunan, China
When we passed by a restaurant coming out of Huo Gong Dian, we were amazed at how inexpensive it can be to try a large variety of local food.  Most dishes cost less than even a US dollar.
1 US dollar = roughly less than 7 RMB (Chinese currency). 

We had More Hunan Food for Dinner
Pork Sparerib - Changsha, Hunan, ChinaPork sparerib:
Spareribs have always been my favorite, ever since the age when we all were very poor and monthly household consumption of many staples, including meat, was controlled by “tickets”.
The quality of daikon radish found in Hunan and the skills that people have in turning them into delicacies are superb.
Cured Pork - Changsha, Hunan, ChinaCured pork:Stir Fried Pickled Vegetable - Changsha, Hunan, ChinaRemember, in Hunan food, cured meats are used frequently?

Stir-fried pickled vegetable:
One of the reasons, I think, that people in Hunan are capable of turning the most common food materials into the most delicious dishes is that back when there was limited supply (and lack of resources too), they were forced to work with only the common food materials.
Pork Bone and Radish Soup - Changsha, Hunan, China Pork bone and radish soup:
The quality of daikon radish found in Hunan and the skills that people have in turning them into delicacies are superb.

So, we had Hunan food for two days. 

“Did you survive the food?”, you might ask.

I loved everything I had!  My taste buds were happy to have a “stretch exercise” too.  And as you could see, not all that we had were covered by chili peppers.

“But I didn’t see any fancy food like lobsters, crabs, or even shrimp”, you might add.

I’m OK with it.  I came to explore what the region has to offer.  To me, that’s the beauty of traveling – to always learn something new and to always try something new. 

So if you ask my preference, I’d say the next time I visit Hunan, I would still seek out the authentic local delicacies, just like I do other places in the world.

Cooking by the Street - Changsha, Hunan, China

1 comment:

travler1 said...

I have tried the "fermented tofu" here in US either in deep fried or steamed. It is actually very tasty if you can ignore its aroma. All the dishes here are look so interesting. Wish that I have chances to taste it all. Very interesting article.