Red Hot Guide to Hunan Cuisine / by Thomas O'Malley

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This guide to one of China’s spiciest cooking styles was written for Starwood Hotels.

Ask a local what single characteristic defines Hunan cooking, and you’ll get the same answer every time: heat. Chilies dominate almost every dish with what might seem like reckless abandon to the uninitiated. Duo lajiao – chopped, spicy chilies pickled in vinegar and salt – is the singular Hunan condiment, added liberally to stir-fries, stews, soup stocks, or, in the case of the province’s best loved dish, simply dumped in a heap atop the steamed head of a carp. But more about that later.

Pickling lends Hunan cooking the sour note that its spicy neighbor Sichuan lacks; conversely, Hunan makes scant use of the famously lip-tingling Sichuan peppercorn. So, although the two cuisines are often confused, it helps to think of Hunan as a straight-up heat fest: salt, sour and spice from all those pickled chilies, lent a smoky richness from larou, a deliciously fatty peasant-style bacon that shows up in countless dishes.

Whereas Sichuan dazzles with its magical ma la one-two punch (mouth-numbing and spicy), Hunan instead turns everything up to eleven. Salt, spice, sour, oil, smoke. Big flavors balance out other big flavors. Stewing, braising and cooking on a low heat results in concentrated richness. Dry-pot dishes bubble away on the table, flavors infusing, spice-levels mounting. Hunan cuisine is food designed to make you sweat, beg for mercy, weep for joy, order another beer to put out the flames, but not be able to stop. Oh no.

“Hong shao rou, or ‘Chairman Mao’s favorite Red Braised Pork’, is a master class in how chefs turn base fat into gold.”

The Xiang River, a tributary of the mighty Yangtze, winds through the heart of Hunan province, giving the cuisine – xiang cai – it’s name. Xiang cai has been attributed one of China’s ‘Eight Great Cuisines’, a roll call of regional Chinese culinary traditions argued over by officialdom half a century ago. (Others on the list include Sichuan, Cantonese, and Shandong).

The Xiang knits together the lakes, mountains and plains of Hunan, a rich rice-producing region with a history of hearty peasant cooking. The Xiang also passes the provincial capital, Changsha, once home to a young revolutionary by the name of Mao Zedong. Parallels are often drawn between the cuisine of Hunan and the fiery spirit of its people - many epithets exist that purport to show Mao’s love of fiery spice. “You can’t be a revolutionary if you don’t eat chilies,” he once told a Russian diplomat. It is rumored he would even put chilies on slices of watermelon.

Curiously, though, the dish most associated with Mao and Hunan isn’t spicy at all. Hong shao rou, or ‘Chairman Mao’s favorite Red Braised Pork’, is a master class in how chefs turn base fat into gold. Hefty cubes of pork belly (mostly fat with a little lean meat attached) are cooked in a braising liquor spiked with whole spices like star anise and cassia, and flavored with Shaoxing rice wine and soy sauce. It reduces to a sticky-sweet, caramelized sauce as the meat becomes unctuously tender. Hong shao rou is best eaten over plain white rice, to temper the salt and soak up all the delicious juices.

Red-braised pork is the signature dish at hundreds of Hunan and Mao-themed restaurants across China, prompting the Hunan government (never one to miss a chance to cash in on Mao) to release an official recipe in 2010, to quell the rise of inferior versions, which states that the pork must be derived from a rare breed in Ningxiang county, close to the capital Changsha. Alleged to be Mao’s favorite dish, in his later years his physician warned him about consuming too much of the rich, fatty pork belly, to which he is said to have responded, “how can something that makes me so happy be bad for me?”

Another Mao favorite, according to his former chef Master Cheng Ruming (interviewed by this writer in 2009), was a dish we mentioned earlier - doujiao yutou. Translating to ‘fish head with pickled chilies’, this classic Hunan dish consists of pickled and diced red (and occasionally green) chillis stir-fried with ginger, garlic, spring onion, oyster sauce, soy sauce, vinegar and rice wine, before being served with the giant steamed head of the aptly-named “big-headed carp.” The sour heat of the peppers complements the tender, comparatively bland white fish. (As a historic note, the same chef said Mao also rather liked Western style cream éclairs - presumably the cream helps cut through all that spice).  

And a final word about spice: Hunan and neighboring Sichuan are so defined by the chili pepper that many people, Chinese included, assume it to be native to China. It’s not. The chilli came from South America perhaps as recently as the late 17th century. Its widespread adoption in regions like Hunan and neighboring Sichuan, rather than Guangdong, for example, while partly explained by favorable growing conditions, can also be understood in Chinese medicine terms. The climate in the central regions is stiflingly hot and humid, and so people believe that eating spicy food helps to relieve ‘internal dampness’ and cold, and, most importantly of all, stimulate the appetite and get people to the table.