Being one of the 8 cuisines of China, Hunan is known for cooking the hottest yet spicy food across the country.
Notice that Hunan cuisine and Szechuan cuisine aren’t the same even though they are both hot and spicy.
Szechuan cuisine leaves a numbing sensation in your mouth while the Hunan cuisine doesn’t.
The cuisine is also known as Xiang cuisine. This is mostly because it consists of cuisines from the Xiang river region. It’s common for its spicy flavors
The History and Development of The Hunan Cuisine
History indicates that this cuisine dates to the17th century. At a time when there was the incorporation of various cuisines into the single one, Hunan cuisine. Chili was first imported into the country by the late 17th century and Hunan became the earliest adopters of the cuisine.
However, 9000 years ago, the people began eating cooked food. The people of Chu lived in Hunan. The people from this region were multi-ethnic and they lived in the different parts of the province that had different custom diets.
At a time when local rituals were popular with the people accompanying every sacrifice with food ceremonies and even at that time, there were set requirements as to how the food was to come out. The difference was in color shape texture and shape.
They used about 10 styles of cooking. With the development of Qing and Han dynasties, the Hunan cuisine developed to form its own unique flavors. Since they used raw material and employed the multiple cooking methods and flavor styles they formed the Hunan cuisine.
Over 2000 years ago, there were hundreds of refined varieties of cuisine. Today there are 5 categories of the cuisine as you will see below.
Categories of the Cuisine
The western Hunan style
In this style of cooking, you will notice the use of cured meats, wild games and fowls as well as fungi. The people here make their foods partial to spicy. You will find the food being hearty meals with strong flavors.
It features a blend of salty, sour, sweet, bitter and spicy hot flavors. It’s a reflection of the western area mountainous region which allows you to cook the wild game meat and plants.
Lake Dongting style
It’s called the dongting style because it features the ingredients from the lake. Fish is a staple in this cuisine style although they also use duck.
The meals from these regions are generally very aromatic and spicy-hot. It further has deep colors and is often salty.
Xiang River style
This is the real Hunan cuisine style as it incorporates the elements of western and lake dongting style of cooking. With its strategic location along the river, it produces the rice and veggies that not only feeds the area but is also exported to other parts.
You will further consume enough fish from the river and the lake. The cooking style is characterized by the smell, colors, taste and texture. It employs the various methods of cooking and it only uses fresh ingredients.
Hunan Cuisine Introduction to The West
The region like Sichuan is humid and since the Chinese believe in wellbeing, they tend to go for the spicy food to rid the body of excess moisture. Notice that the climate is characterized by cold winters, dry summers, rainy and dry in springs and summer.
Not many people can tell the difference between the two especially since it was introduced into the American market at around the same time. Some books indicate that after the trained chefs in Hunan cuisine had fled China they went to Taiwan where they prospered in the business.
Later, they immigrated to the U.S for more opportunities. This happened in the 20th century where they introduced the two cuisines in New yolk. At this time, they had to adjust the cuisines to suit the American palates.
Notice that to date the American Hunan and Sichuan food is a little different from the ones you eat at home. For the authentic flavors, visit the Chinese Hunan or Sichuan cuisine restaurants back home.
Although most people confuse the two cuisines, they are quite different in that Hunan cuisine doesn’t offer the tongue-numbing sensation like the Sichuan cuisines which is a result of the Sichuan peppercorn.
They further lack the sweetness of their Sichuan counterparts. Therefore, the Sichuan cuisine is more about the sweet, spicy and savory cuisine. It sometimes even has the fish aroma and will always contain the garlic paste flavors.
Hunan cuisine is more about the bold flavors, sour and chili hot flavors.
Where Is Hunan Located?
Hunan cuisine is from the Hunan province and it gets its name from the geographic location of the province. Hunan literary means south of the lake. The province is located at the south of lake dongting which is the second largest freshwater lake.
It borders other six provinces including Guangdong and Hebei among others. It’s another mountainous region province that has the ideal climate for the growth of rice and other foodstuffs.
The Features of The Hunan Cuisine
- It’s dry and spicy
The cuisine uses more of chilis, shallots and garlic which makes it hot and spicy. To those who compare the cuisine to that of the Sichuanese notice the difference where the latter always has a numbing sensation.
Hunan cuisine is mostly about the pure chilis, not a blend of different ingredients to get the chili flavor.
- It’s hot and sour
Like the Sichuanese, the people here like to eat chilis to get rid of the moisty body since the climate is mostly humid.
- Seasonal changes
Like most other regions, the Hunan cuisine changes its menu with the change in seasons. During the summer and humid season, the meal starts with a cold dish or cold meat together with different kinds of chilis.
This helps you to open your body or skin pores and keep you cool. On the contrary, during the winter seasons, you will find the hot pot regularly used. This will help in heating up your body.
You can even have the spicy hot pot and the mild kind of hotpot served. It’s normal for the people to use the hot pickled condiments. The meals you find cooked using these seasonings remain refreshing and appetizing.
Remember, all the Hunan cuisine meals are hot which includes the hot and dried marinated meats. The cuisine often uses preserved meat in its cuisine and it serves as the main ingredient.
This is another great invention by the people of Hunan which features the use of red-hot chilli peppers.
Here’s How It Was Made
You begin by chopping chilli peppers into small pieces, chop the ginger roots, garlic and salt then mixing them up together.
Next, put all those ingredients in a large pot to allow for fermentation. After the fermentation, you expect the blend to have a fresh and sour taste that is also salty. Although it’s originally from Hunan China, the condiment is commonly used in most other parts of China.
- Use of rice
The Hunan cuisine calls for the use of rice as a staple in the cuisine. You eat it in the company of veggies and meats. Also, you will find these smoked meats and pickled veggies on your day to day diet.
- They love the food being bitter
The origin of using bitter foodstuffs is traced back to the pre-Qin period. They sang about them in their songs and at the time they referred to douchi. The condiment is processed from beans.
Apart from the douchi, they also use bitter gourd and buckwheat. The people here believe that in using the bitter foods you can keep people fresh and cool during the hot and humid days of the year.
While they are solidly known for the liberal use of chilis, when they aren’t using chilis in their food they ferment the food. The common fermented food you will see in the Hunan homes is the dou fu ru.
This one works when you ferment tofu by covering it in dry rice straw. You then let it mold for a few weeks. They then mix it with strong liquor and star anise not forgetting the chili flakes. You then store in the pickling jar for a minimum of a month.
- Use of crunchy veggies
They are known to consume a large variety of veggies. The cooking method used for the veggies is sautéing which ensures the nutrients are retained. The veggies remain al dente.
- It’s hotter than the Sichuan cuisine
Notice that both the cuisines use a lot of chills. We use it to combat the humid climate experienced throughout the year.
However, in comparison to the Szechuan cuisine, the Hunan cuisine is hotter and they call for the use of pure chilis where the Szechuan cuisine uses the peppercorns for the numbing sensation.
- The presentation matters
Notice that the Hunan chefs will spend more time on the dish appearance than most other cuisines. They ensure you have the balance in colors, texture and all the general appearance.
The Flavors Of Hunan Cuisine
Generally, Hunan cuisine is fun to eat. The cuisine gives you a wide variety of tastes which is attributed to the agricultural products you find in the province. Since this is a region known for hot foods, you will find different kinds of chilis across the province.
Other plant products you will find include the citrus food. It’s also responsible for the sour taste you sometimes feel. A good example of a meal that will deliver these flavors includes the Hunan orange chicken.
For the bold and hot flavor, you may use the chopped chilis and vinegar to present the sour and salty taste. These chilis are placed in almost every meal as they love their food hot.
So, tourists in the country will ask do you have to use the hot and spicy food?
The answer to use is yes. In fact, the Sichuanese don’t fear hot food, the Hunan people must take their food hot while the Guizhou people fear eating food that has no spices. We attribute the desire for hot and spicy food to the weather.
In addition, the use of vinegar in this hot cuisines’ aides in the ease of digestion. It helps to heat your body during the cold season. It will also kill the bacteria in the hot weather. Vinegar is even ideal for use when you are sick.
Hunan cooking methods
Hunan cuisine like most other cuisines uses the various methods of cooking as you will see below.
This is ideal when you are cooking largely sized ingredients. You, therefore, add the ingredients and seasonings in a wok at the same time.
You add the water and broth then let it boil and simmer for more than one hour. You cut your large ingredients to cubes or diamond shapes. Braising is the best method of cooking if you are cooking animal products because it rids the awful odor.
After you rinse the meats in clean water, you can let it simmer over hours and this way thickens the sauce or use the corn-starch to thicken it.
Like all other Chinese regions, the stir-frying method is commonly used in Hunan cuisine. It will cook your thinly cut meat pieces over high heat. The time it takes to cook the food is further minimized.
You must use the edible oil to act as the heat conductor thus reduce burning. You further need to use the wok for the stir-frying method of cooking. It’s an ideal method since it retains all the nutrients and flavors.
Most people love stir-fried meats as they are juicy and nutritious yet tender and crispy.
This is a signature cooking method for most of the Chinese regional cuisines. The steaming method is widely used when you are steaming buns and dumplings. You simply cook your food by placing them in the food basket then over water in a steamer pot.
This is the healthier option where you use minimum oil and seasoning. It retains the food flavor and nutrients.
Frying uses more oil than the amount you use when stir-frying. It will make your food crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. For it to cook effectively, cut the foodstuffs into medium sized chunks.
- Wei cooking
This is the most common method of cooking. It works like a slow cooker. It literary means the usage of small fires to cook your food in a sealed container. This helps you to get the rich flavors and raw materials.
Most of the dishes that use this cooking method are popularly known across the globe.
There are other methods of cooking used in the Hunan cuisines which include baking, roasting and stewing but the last common style of cooking is fermenting.
This method is mostly used to preserve the meats during winter. You pickle tofu for weeks and you then mix it with liquor, star anise and chilis in your jars. This forms the brine solution where you store the meat.
Hunan Cuisine Seasoning
Below are the common ingredients used to season the food. The cuisine uses hot peppers, green onions, shallots, ginger, cinnamon, duo la jiao, spicy oil, garlic and soy sauce. The ingredients deliver a yang flavor.
They also use sweet foods. Moreover, it uses honey and sugar to deliver the sweetness. Although they eat a few sweet foods, they don’t like it like other regions of China.
The Best Hunan Food
- Steamed fish head with chopped chili pepper (duo Jiao yu tou)
This is one of the most famous Hunan dishes. It features the use of chopped chili peppers as a condiment. The origin of the dish dates to the Qing dynasty. The meal is delicious, tender and juicy.
It further has its flavors enhanced because it uses chili peppers as a condiment. The meal is further salty and spicy. You eat it by taking the fish headpiece then dipping in the chopped chili peppers.
This allows for the explosion of the flavors in your tongue. Let it settle in your mouth for a while so that you can have the fish flavors released. Note that, if you enjoy spicy food you will enjoy this kind of dish.
- Stinky tofu
I know quite a number of my friends back home who can’t stand the smell of the stinky tofu street food. The amazing thing, however, is that the moment you taste it you can never go back. The Hunan Changsha-style of stinky tofu has a less pungent smell.
Its often black in color as a result of the ingredients used in the brine solution during the fermentation of the tofu. It’s deep-fried and served with a hot delicious sauce. They appear crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.
You can further serve it with pickled veggies which will add some extra layer of flavor.
- Beer braised duck
You can never go wrong when you add alcohol to your food. It tenderizes the meat while adding a zesty flavor. The best beer to use is the larger which extracts the flavor from the star anise, cinnamon bark and Sichuan pepper thus enhancing the flavors and aroma of the food.
The dish will fully develop its flavors. The duck spices enhance the hotness of the meal. The beer braising goes well with other veggies as well. History indicates that it was invented by the Qing dynasty emperor called Kangxi.
Although people use the Tsingtao beer today to prepare it, you may use all the other kind of beers you think of.
- Dongan chicken
It’s originally a vinegar chicken. The main ingredients include the small cuts of chicken, chili peppers Sichuan peppercorns, white rice vinegar, ginger and scallions. You may add more ingredients if you wish and it’s the signature dish of the people of Hunan.
You begin the cooking process by parboiling it first for a couple of minutes before you begin to stew it with salt vinegar and wine.
The meal is eaten in the memory of one of the famous leaders called Tang who made a feast when they attained the victory of the northern expedition. This meal was vastly appreciated by his guest that they named it dongan chicken in reference to the place of origin.
- Mao’s braised pork
This is yet another common delicacy in the Hunan region. You first cut the pork into cube dices then braise it in the sauce that has little sugar and red pepper. It assumes a unique taste which is little spicy, salty and sweet yet not greasy.
The meal gets its name from the Mao’s family. It was braised long enough to allow it to melt in your mouth once it’s fully cooked. The meat has a savory taste that is sweet and thick at the same time.
If you would love to enjoy the Hunan cuisine you have every reason to try this as you will love it.
- Steamed Yolkless egg with mushroom
The Changsha tradition produces most authentic Hunan meals among them is the steamed yolkless eggs. It’s a traditional meal that has been in use for over 100 years. The chefs will extract the yolk then leave the egg white within the shells.
They then add chicken seasoning to the eggshell and mix it with the egg white before sealing it again. You then use the steaming method to cook it. After steaming, you can then cook the eggs with the mushrooms and other condiments.
Your dish here is delicate and fresh. Remember, you need to cook the eggs with extra heat to enjoy the tender eggs and mushrooms. It’s further a delicate meal.
Where to Eat the Hunan Cuisine
Cui Qing restaurant
This is one of the best Hunan cuisine restaurants in the country. There’s a reason why the diner is always packed. The reason is that they produce all the meals.
Address: No.310-2 Wanfeng road, Fengtai District Beijing
While the restaurant is decorated in the modern western style, it cooks authentic Hunan cuisine. It serves both the Hunan and Hubei cuisine. They have authentic flavors.
Address: 3-4F, Qianjiang building, No 971, Doufang road, Pudong new area, Shanghai
If you are going to enjoy the Hunan cuisine make sure it appears Hunan like. It should be nothing less than hot and sour, fresh aroma with deep colors.