34 Province Project: Hunan 湖南

Hunan, “South of [Dongting] Lake”, is a large province in central China, the mirror twin of north-of-lake Hubei. It is perhaps best known in the West as the birthplace and initial power base of Chairman Mao, and not surprisingly a disproportionate number of the Communist old guard hail from the area.

Hunanese cuisine, known in Chinese as Qiang cuisine (湘菜 Xiāng cài) after the Xiang river that runs through Hunan and drains in the Yangtze, is one of the Eight Great Traditions and is well known for being “dry and spicy” (干辣 gān là). Unlike nearby Sichuan, the numbing Sichuan pepper is rarely used; instead, the Hunanese like their chillis straight up, and employ smoking and pickling to add flavour.

I must admit that before this episode, I had never eaten Hunanese food, a particularly shameful admission since one of our good friends in Sydney hailed from the province. Alas, our meals together always stuck to the laowai-friendly staples like chilli-free hotpot, perhaps understandably so since kids on both sides were only toddlers at the time. In any case, it was long past time to fill in this gap in my education.

My first lesson was a takeaway meal from Xiang Signature (湘香厨房 Xiāngxiāng chúfáng, “Xiang Fragrance Kitchen”), which sprawls across several shophouses on Liang Seah St, another small Mainland-Chinatown in Bugis, and came well recommended by several Redditors. The interior is simply but stylishly decorated, an effect only slightly spoiled by their choice of soundtrack, a rousing kindergarten-friendly rendition of “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round”.

Following the guidance of /u/PickleShaman, I started off with Hunan Style Fried Pork (农家小炒肉), top left. You’d be excused for thinking there’s a mix of veggies there, but nope, it’s all sliced green chillies, with crispy bits of pork reminiscent of huiguorou, all tied together with a touch of black bean sauce. Spicy, but not overpoweringly so.

Up next was Olive Vegetable with Green Bean (橄榄四季豆). A vegetarian riff on Sichuan classic green beans with minced pork, this has nothing to do with the Mediterranean diet: the “olive” here is Canarium album (橄榄 gǎnlǎn) aka “Chinese olive”, thus named because the fruit grow in trees, are the size and shape of large olives, and can be mixed with mustard greens and fermented into a tapenade-like dark, salty, black paste simply called “olive vegetable” (橄榄菜 gǎnlǎn cài). This paste is most commonly used for porridge and fried rice, the latter a common dish particularly in Thailand, and while it doesn’t really taste like olives, it adds a nice earthy, umami kick to any dish. This was probably my favorite.

I ordered the Purple Perilla Cucumber (紫苏黄瓜) expecting a cold, raw cucumber dish, but was rather surprised to get a box of what looked an awful lot like sautéed zucchini instead. Yes, this was stir-fried cucumber in a starchy soy-based sauce, with some sliced chilli and the perilla, perhaps better known these days by its Japanese name shiso. A sushi condiment with a strong, distinct, vaguely minty taste that resists description, it’s commonly used Korean and Vietnamese cooking but I had never seen it used for Chinese food before. All in all, a rather unusual combo of tastes and textures.

Finally, a bowl of Tea Tree Mushroom with Chicken (茶树菇鸡汤). Tea tree mushroom (茶树菇 cháshùgū), apparently very common in Hunanese cuisine, is a rather large mushroom typically dried and reconstituted for use in soups, where the long stems in particular retains a chewy texture, but not much in the way of taste. Mushrooms aside, though, this was a pretty standard bowl of herbal chicken soup complete with a couple of very bony chunks of chicken.

For round two we headed to Hunan Traditional Cuisine in Chinatown. The apparently-nonsensical Chinese name, “Dense Whereas Hunan Food” (密斯湘菜 Mìsī Xiāngcài), comes from the phonetic Chinese reading of its original location on Smith St (史密斯街 Shǐmìsī jiē), only with the first syllable dropped for unclear reasons — and for bonus points, the restaurant is now a few blocks away on Mosque St, making the connection even more obscure.

On entry, you’re greeted by a chipper bronze bust of Hunan’s iconic mass murderer, which leaves you a bit of a bad taste in your mouth even before you sit down on the otherwise rather nice leather seats. On a random Wednesday evening the place was packed and the boisterous table of Koreans in front of us was already several beer bottles deep into their evening.

We started with an unusual appetizer of roasted and pickled chillis with century eggs (烧辣椒皮蛋), sounding similar to the Sichuan version I sampled in JB, but here they were mashed together in a mortar and pestle at your table. You’d be excused for not finding the end result very appetizing, but it was actually delicious: chilli heat, vinegar sourness, cool egg white jelly, all tied together with creamy egg yolk and fragrant sesame oil. Yum!

Appetizer out of the way, it was time for Steamed Fish Head with Preserved Chilli (剁椒蒸鱼头), the speciality here and one of Hunan’s best known dishes. Here they kick it up another notch by using not one, but two kinds of chillis to make it a Twin-Color Fish Head (双色鱼头): the actual head is coated in fresh red chilli intended mostly as decoration, while the meaty collar is covered with a mash of pickled green chilli, all floating in an oily broth laden with more chilli. The restaurant uses bighead carp (松鱼 sōngyú), a large, slightly muddy freshwater fish that’s quite popular in Singapore, and given the appearance the taste is, if not exactly mild, at least less brutal than you might think. Don’t forget to dig out the cheeks, which are the best bit!

On the side we had some cauliflower with cured pork (腊肉 làròu). This is often translated “bacon”, but it’s leaner, drier, sliced thin and intensely smoky, more resembling air-cured meat. It was served up in a heated mini wok that cooked the cauliflower as we are, and was tasty if salty. And the last fish was Changsha cold noodles (长沙凉面), which reminded me of what they call “cold Chinese” (hiyashi-chuka 冷やし中華) in Japanese: cold wheat noodles similar to those in ramen, doused in a vinegar-sesame oil broth, shredded cucumber and chopped peanuts. Tasty but oily. With a bottle of beer and some rice on the side, the total for 2 came to just about exactly $100.

All in all, Hunanese food was quite a positive surprise, much more varied than I had expected with all sorts of flavours I would not normally associate with China like smoky dried meat, shiso leaves and olive vegetable. It was also much less spicy than I had expected, although I suspect this may be partly a local adaptation. I’m definitely looking forward to sampling more of this.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is it: after 33 varying awkward segues, we’ve run out of provinces to cover. (I toyed briefly with the idea of making Singapore the 35th, but that would probably get my work permit cancelled for treason, and in any case I’ve already covered quite a few invented-in-Singapore dishes under Hainan and Fujian.) But stay tuned: there’s a wrap-up coming, as well as a special highlights edition for our vegetarian readers.

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