It's Hunan when some like it hot: spicy lure of a hot tourist attraction
Changsha, capital of Hunan Province, is one of the hottest tourist destinations in China, and food is a top goal for many.
The cuisine of Hunan Province, known as Xiang cuisine, is among the eight cuisines of China, and its flavor profile is all about extreme spiciness.
The reason behind the super spicy cuisine is that the region has a very humid climate, and the locals have to eat hot chilis to enable the body to eliminate moisture, dampness and coldness. The reason is the same with Sichuan cuisine, only Hunan cuisine is strictly (and scaringly) hotter, complemented with a sourness for balance (while Sichuan cuisine is more about the spicy and numbing combination).
With plentiful fresh ingredients, rich flavors and high cooking skills, Hunan is a heaven for spicy cuisine enthusiasts.
Brace for the heat
Stir-fry dishes compose a large part of Hunan cuisine, and they are called xiaochao, or small stir-fry. Hunan-style xiaochao is quick and intensely flavored, and the dishes are perfect for pairing with steamed rice – beware the carbs as most people can't resist having more than one bowl of rice when enjoying the stir-fries.
Xiaochao dishes must be hot, quick, dry and aromatic. The ingredients are sliced and diced into small, thin pieces so that they can be cooked quickly and evenly, and the rich, spicy flavor from the sauces and condiments can get inside the ingredients fast as well to avoid longer cooking. Heat is the key to making Hunan-style xiaochao – extreme high heat, an extra hot wok and quick stir-frying motion are of great importance when it comes to achieving the perfect flavor and texture.
Notable and must-try xiaochao dishes include beef stir-fry, pork belly stir-fry, pork trotter stir-fry (the pork trotter is cooked in advance and has the bones removed, then diced into tiny pieces to stir-fry with chilis and condiments) and eggplant stir-fry, to name just a few.
As Hunan cuisine is extremely spicy, it's not exactly a taste friendly destination for people who cannot handle chilis. Even if you order non-spicy stir-fries in restaurants, the dish may still be somewhat spicy since the woks used by local chefs and cooks have been cooking spicy food for so long that the spiciness can't be got rid of entirely.
Steamed fish head with pickled chilis, or duojiao yutou, is one of the Xiang cuisine dishes well-known across the country – almost every Hunan cuisine restaurant has it on the menu. The dish uses the head of bighead carp, which is a shockingly large size and is halved for easier cooking so that the flavor from the condiments and sauces can get inside the meat within the fish head. The fish head also needs to be extremely fresh, otherwise the fishy smell and taste will put the dish beyond repair.
The chili part is the key to the dish, duojiao (which means chopped chili in Chinese) is a fermented chili sauce condiment that can be eaten directly as a side dish or added to various dishes. It's made from very small, yet extra spicy, fresh chili peppers, diced with garlic and ginger, and then seasoned with salt and distilled liquor before it's sealed to pickle for a few days. Apart from the spicy taste, the duojiao condiment is also extra salty. There are red and yellow duojiao, and the fish head is often steamed with a combination of the two for a more vibrant presentation.
The broth from the duojiao yutou dish is also not to be wasted. It has the umami flavor of the fish and the intense flavor of the duojiao condiment. After enjoying the fish head, many people love to add some cooked noodles to mix with the spicy broth.
The duojiao condiment can also be used to make other dishes to boost flavor and presentation. You can make a vegan version of the steamed fish head dish by replacing the protein with tofu, and a trick to elevate the recipe is to pan-fry tofu (use the harder variety) cubes with some oil until both sides are golden in color. It packs more calories for sure, but the flavor is much richer than steaming the raw, plain tofu directly.
Hunan cuisine is also known for its stinky tofu with scorched black crust, tender on the inside and crispy on the outside. The smelly delicacy actually tastes delicious after deep-frying (and less stinky, if compared with the stinky furu) with flavorful toppings such as chopped chilis, minced garlic, cilantro and chili sauce.
Hunan-style stinky tofu is usually enjoyed as a snack, and it's especially popular at night markets. The deep-fried stinky tofu can also be braised or stir-fried with other ingredients, while people who have high tolerance of the stinky smell can try the steamed stinky tofu with duojiao recipe.
Chairman Mao's family-style braised pork belly is one of the few non-spicy Hunan cuisine dishes with great fame and it's served at the majority of Hunan restaurants across China. Said to be the favorite of Chairman Mao Zedong, the dish uses pork belly meat, and the vibrant brownish red color comes from caramelized sugar instead of dark soy sauce, which also contributes to the sweet taste.
Hunan is the place to be if you are in pursuit of delicious rice noodles, or mifen, the thinner and softer variety. The rice noodles are usually served with rich toppings – beef, pickles, vegetables and of course, chilis.
Changde rice noodle is one of the most iconic local delicacies. It's a soup-style rice noodle made with round, long noodles with an al dente texture, which can be cooked quickly in boiling water.
The Changde rice noodle can be topped with more than two dozen kinds of toppings, especially stir-fries (such as pork and green chilis, pickled long beans with minced pork) and braised meats (pork ribs, river eel, braised pork trotter, mutton). The toppings are called ma, danma is the rice noodle with single topping, and shuangma has two.
The beef meat and offal is very popular, with braised beef that's cooked into a soft texture and noodles that are infused with the flavorful sauce, broth and condiments, a perfect breakfast dish to start the day.
Cured and preserved meats known as lawei is also an integral part of Hunan cuisine, the region's meat curing features include darker color, drier texture and saltier flavor, and common proteins of choice are pork, chicken and fish.
Steamed cured meat platter is a famous Hunan dish that cooks an assortment of cured pork, sausage, fish, chicken and more all together for the compound flavors. The cured meats are first soaked in water and rinsed thoroughly several times to get rid of the excess salt, then they are sliced and steamed. The dish is best served hot when the fatty parts of the meat are transparent, soft and rich without grease.
In Hunan cuisine, there is also a unique eggplant dish that pounds lightly fried eggplant and green chili in a mortar with pidan (century egg), soy sauce, garlic, sesame oil, salt and vinegar. The mash-like presentation of the dish may be a little off-putting, but the flavors of the ingredients blend wonderfully after they're pounded.