Hunanese Cuisine: Chairman Mao’s Favourite

Next to Cantonese cuisine, the two most widely known styles of Chinese cooking outside the mainland are Sichuanese, known in Putonghua as Chuan Cai (川菜), and Hunanese, known as Xiang Cai (湘菜). The name is derived from the Xiang River, which flows through the province.

Shenzhen is awash with restaurants serving dishes from both provinces. Both cuisines are fiery, both have strong flavours, and both can be outrageously oily so it is highly recommended to request less oil when ordering.

The peppers favoured by Sichuanese chefs differ markedly in taste from those used in Hunanese fare. Their unique numbing quality, known in Putonghua as ma la (麻辣), is so distinct that there is no English translation for the term. The sensation it causes in the mouth is practically impossible to describe.

“Chuan cuisine features ma la and the generous use of fragrant oils,” Ng Wing-kun, executive Chinese chef at the Futian Shangri-La, Shenzhen, China. “Condiments such as chili peppers, black pepper, huajiao (花椒)and ginger are often used to enrich the taste. As for Xiang cuisine, it is made using a wide variety of ingredients, often featuring smoked meats and spicy chilies. The use of oil is generous and the colours are vibrant.”

Curing, simmering, steaming, and stewing are the main cooking methods used by Hunanese chefs. Popular dishes include Dong’an chicken, orange beef, and spicy frog’s legs.

Chairman Mao was born in Hunan Province. Interestingly, many peasant uprisings in China’s long and tumultuous history broke out in the region. Mao once commented that the spicy food that the people in his native province ate made them a bit rebellious.

Copyright: Michael Taylor
Pictured: Le Chinois at the Pullman Sanya Yalong Bay on Hainan Island, China, serves regional Chinese cuisine.

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