This article is part of our series «Eight Great Cuisines of China». Read more about the other cuisines we already covered: «Shandong Cuisine (鲁菜)», «Guangdong Cuisine (粤菜)», «Anhui Cuisine (徽菜)» or «Jiangsu Cuisine (苏菜)».
What comes to mind if one mentions spicy food and Chinese cuisine? Naturally, the common answer would be Sichuan cuisine! The famous spicy and numbing dishes from Sichuan province surely are mouthwatering and mark one of the most popular cuisines in China, but there is actually another place where you can get true “spicy food”.
That’s right, I am talking about the Hunan cuisine.
Many people actually don’t know that Hunan cuisine is spicier than Sichuan cuisine. In fact, Sichuan cuisine makes use of a lot of Sichuan peppers. However, in Hunan province, people use the pure spiciness of the chilis in the combination of the sourness of either vinegar or citrus fruits to elevate the dishes to a whole different level.
The Sichuanese use peppercorn that numbs your mouth so the food all starts tasting the same. Instead, the Hunanese use vinegar with pepper. It serves to stimulate the taste buds and make them tingle, so you can better perceive the wide range of flavours and the rich variety of ingredients and spices.
The numbing Sichuan dishes might give you a higher blood pressure/pulse rate so that you’ll need to drink something cold or go out for a walk to cool down. Hunan dishes do exactly the opposite. Vinegar lowers your blood pressure and the cholesterol levels. So it is actually healthy for those with high blood pressure.
Hunan cuisine uses an unusually wide variety of ingredients in comparison with other cuisines in China. Since the climate in Hunan is very humid, the locals consume a lot of chilis in order to balance out the humidity. As already mentioned, citrus fruits are one of their main crops throughout the seasons so most of the chefs make use of that.
I have been travelling around China just until recently and since I come from Hunan, I spent a lot of time there trying to gather information on the local cuisine. Fortunately, I have a relative who has been cooking for the leader circle of the communist party in the 70s and he is specialized in Hunan cuisine.
So according to my great-uncle, the Hunan cuisine focuses on “explosive” flavours. The term here would be 香辣 (fragrant spiciness). Unlike Sichuan cuisine, where everything tastes like Sichuan pepper, the spicy and sour combination of Hunan dishes actually activates one’s taste buds and enhance the appetite. “Dry Pan Searing”, that’s how he called it, is one of the signature technics of Hunan cuisine. By using a strong flame and a really heated up hot wok, the chef can easily achieve a unique crunchiness for the ingredients. The dish would taste rich, spicy, but also very fresh and crunchy, giving it a distinct type of flavour. Besides “Dry Pan Searing”, there are many other cooking technics used by Hunan chefs such as basting, steaming and stewing.
So apart from spicy dishes, the Hunan cuisine also offers flavours like sweet and sour (which is mostly combined with spicy). The orange duck for example is one of the famous dishes from the Hunan cuisine.
Here are some of the signature dishes of Hunan cuisine:
- 红烧肉 (braised pork belly)
- 剁椒鱼头 (Steamed Fish Head with Diced Spicy Red Peppers)
- 辣子鸡 (Spicy Chicken)
- 梅菜扣肉 (Steamed Pork belly with fermented cabbage)
- 钵子菜 (Dishes prepared in an earthen pot)
Not only is Hunan cuisine popular with its traditional recipes, but there are also many talented chefs that constantly challenge themselves in order to pursue new flavours and variations! My great-uncle told me that it was a pity that he wasn’t able to explore the world of tastes and flavours due to political reasons, but he still carries the love for cooking and food.
This beauty is one of the newest members in the big Hunan cuisine family: The “Volcano Ribs” (火山排骨)! Huge ribs from pigs piled up to form an impressive looking “volcano”, which is covered in hot sour chilli sauce… Simply by thinking about it makes my mouth water again…
It would be wrong if people now start to rank different cuisines in China. In China, we believe in the phrase: “一方水土养一方人” (a certain region nourishes only the people living in it). Maybe you can compare the differences in the usage of spices and ingredients across China, but when it comes to tastes and preferences, local people will always prefer their own local cuisine.
As for Hunan province, the preference was, is and will always be fragrant spiciness.