The word “Hunan” has appeared in the names of Chinese restaurants in the United States, and in the names of dishes on their menus, for decades, without many Americans knowing what it meant exactly. Eateries with names like “Hunan Garden” and “Hunan Taste,” serving dishes like “Hunan pork,” have dotted the culinary landscape, but the actual cuisine of this province in south-central China, one of the most renowned in that country of 1.3 billion people, remains largely undiscovered here.
Heady with sour and smoky flavors, quite often with an underpinning of spicy heat, this cuisine of the Chinese heartland fits the bill for much of what American diners are looking for these days: bold flavors combined with the comfort of food that already seems familiar.
“After eating a Hunan meal I am so completely satisfied,” says Paul Muller, who currently is executive chef of Taneko Japanese Tavern in Scottsdale, Ariz., but for many years he led the team that developed the dishes at the P.F. Chang’s China Bistro and Pei Wei Asian Diner chains. “The combinations, textures, cold dishes with chiles, hot pots—there is so much to explore.”
Hunan is a large, lush province just north of Guangdong, which also is known as Canton.
Most Chinese-American food, at least those dishes that weren’t invented wholesale here, has its origins in Canton province. Yet the Chinese have a saying about Cantonese food that should make it unappealing to most Americans: If it moves on the ground and isn’t a truck, flies in the air and isn’t an airplane, or moves in the water and isn’t a submarine, the Cantonese will eat it.
Unlike the abalone, shark fin, jellyfish and bird nests that are delicacies among the Cantonese, Hunanese food largely features familiar proteins, such as pork, chicken, fish, beef and duck—although in the province’s west, wild turtles also are considered a local specialty, according to “Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province,” published last year by W. W. Norton & Company. In it author Fuchsia Dunlop also points out that the dish that is considered in the West to be the quintessential Hunanese item, General Tso’s chicken, can hardly be found in Hunan and was in fact refined to its current form in New York City.
Hunan’s mostly mainstream proteins are stir-fried, deep-fried, braised and—more so than in most of the rest of China—smoked and steamed. They are flavored mostly with salty, sour and especially spicy seasonings.
Hunanese dishes “start with elaborate preparations that start the development and foundations, the layering of flavors and textures,” Muller says. “Orange beef usually starts with an overnight marinade, then a secondary marinade, then an elaborate array of spices and sauces that become intensified in the wok.”
He adds that detail in presentation also is important in Hunanese dishes such as tea-smoked duck. That dish is first smoked for flavor, then steamed to make it moist, then fried to crisp up the skin, “creating these wonderful textures and flavors.”
“The chef then takes and carefully slices and arranges the duck and the garnishes to create…a piece of culinary artistry,” Muller says.
About 64 million people live in Hunan, making it slightly more populous than France. Of China’s 31 provinces, regions and self-governing municipalities, it produces the most rice, the second most tea and the third most oranges, according to Chinese government data. It is a leading producer of pork, and water buffalo, cattle and geese also are raised there. Freshwater fish are common, too: The name “Hunan” literally means “south of the lake” and refers to Dongting Lake, which separates Hunan from the province of Hubei, which means “north of the lake.” The area south of that lake has long been referred to as “a land of fish and rice,” and Hunan is laced with rivers and fertile valleys.
Lotus seeds, ginger and mushrooms are prized local ingredients. So are chiles.
From a culinary perspective, Hunan is part of a wide chile belt that stretches west to Sichuan—often spelled Szechwan on Chinese menus—Guizhou and Yunnan, and some people say that Hunanese food is the country’s spiciest.
Dunlop quotes a Chinese joke: “The Sichuanese are not afraid of chile heat; No degree of hotness will affright the people of Guizhou; but those Hunanese are terrified of food that isn’t hot.”
Muller says Hunan’s particular heat mostly comes from their use of fresh chiles, rather than dried ones, complete with the fiery seeds and membranes.
But the chiles in Hunanese cooking come in many forms, Dunlop says. Those include whole dried chiles, dried chile flakes, chile oil made by steeping the flakes in heated oil, preserved salted chiles, brined chiles and pickled chiles, as well as fresh ones. Chile bean paste, made from fermented wheat and soybeans, glutinous rice and red chiles, is a staple condiment and cooking ingredient, too.
But food that is merely spicy would not be considered tasty to the Hunanese, who also salt their food with fermented soy beans or soy sauce and add vinegar and pickled vegetables for sourness. Their favorite herbs are cilantro and purple perilla, a type of shiso.
Unlike the Sichuanese, however, the Hunanese don’t tend to use much sugar in their everyday savory food. Dunlop points out, however, that sugar is used in some banquet cooking, which tends to blur regional lines by combining delicacies and techniques from different parts of the country. There are some exceptions, like redbraised pork, the distinctive coloring of which comes from sugar caramelized in oil.
Some Hunanese dishes aren’t very spicy at all, Dunlop says, such as peas steamed with ginger and served with salt and a little oil, or squab with five spheres, a steamed dish flavored with wolfberries, longan, lychee, lotus seed and Chinese dates. Smoke is also a common ingredient, says Dunlop, especially in the western part of the province.
“In the Hunanese winter, you’ll find slabs of pork belly, carp and chickens smoking slowly over wood fires in the kitchens of most rural homes,” she writes.
Those meats are used as ingredients in stir-fries or eaten on their own, often after being steamed with salted beans and ground chiles, Dunlop says.
Chiles, though now integral to Hunanese cuisine, have only been so for a few centuries, as they are a New World item, brought to the Far East by the Portuguese in the 16th century—Dunlop says the Hunanese started using them in the late 17th century, making them early adopters by Chinese standards.
But documentation of elaborate food preparations in Hunan dates back more than two millennia. Dunlop points out that tombs of wealthy nobles from that era have been found with a wide array of grains, meats, fruits and vegetables, and flavorings including malt sugar, salt, vinegar, pickles, honey and fermented sauces.
In recent years Hunanese cuisine has enjoyed something of a renaissance throughout China. Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party until his death in 1976, was born in the Hunan town of Shaoshan, and in the late 1980s and ‘90s, as the realities of his often brutal rule became more distant, all things Maoist began to enjoy a sort of kitsch fashionableness. Pins bearing his likeness, de rigueur emblems worn during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, came back into vogue, and a number of Maothemed restaurants opened, featuring the rustic, spicy food that he favored.
But before the cuisine became stylish in China and the United States, Hunanese chefs also played a role in the development of modern Chinese-American food.
Phillip Chang, the founder of the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based P.F. Chang’s China Bistro chain, whose family has owned Chinese restaurants for decades, says that his mother’s first chefs at the Mandarin restaurant, on Polk Street in San Francisco, were from Hunan. The chefs later went on to open their own restaurant, Hunan Taste. The food there wasn’t just from Hunan, he says. However, he adds that the first spicy Chinese food introduced to Americans—as opposed to the relatively mild Cantonese cuisine—was Hunanese. Only later on was it eclipsed by Sichuan food.
Bruce Cost, culinary partner in the Big Bowl chain, a concept by Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, says the Hunan cuisine in restaurants in the 1960s and ‘70s lacked a certain authenticity, pointing out that T.T. Wang, who opened the first of many Hunan restaurants that sprouted up on New York City’s Upper West Side during that time, was from Shanghai.
“Then there was ‘Mandarin’ food, which doesn’t mean anything” except non-Cantonese, he says.
Chang and others, including Dunlop, say the cuisines of Sichuan and Hunan are similar.
“Sichuan food is basically spicy and peppery; Hunan tends to be spicy, but also sour,” Chang says.
The Hunanese also tend to steam more, he adds.
“But the difference is so minute between Sichuan and Hunan, unless there’s a restaurant that really does authentic Hunanese food, I think it’s always going to be in the background now that Sichuan food is so popular,” he says, adding that P.F. Chang’s version of orange beef was made in more of a Sichuanese than Hunanese style.
But he notes that a few Hunanese dishes have made it into the mainstream, such as a beef dish chef Bob Tam developed for P.F. Chang’s. For the menu item, strips of beef were mixed with rice kernels. They were steamed together and served in bamboo cups.
“It was really spicy and really delicious,” Chang says.
Cost says that for Big Bowl’s purposes he groups the cuisines of Sichuan and Hunan together with Yunnan when teaching his staff about it. Separately he teaches about Cantonese food and the food of the lower Yangtze River area, including Shanghai and Hangzhou.
“I couldn’t make enough of a distinction for my staff” to separate Hunan, Sichuan and Yunnan, he says.
He adds that as authentic as he tries to be—with house-made chile oils and fermented chile-garlic sauce—Chinese food in the United States remains too far removed from the real thing to bother splitting hairs.
“We have a lot of authentic flavors,” he says, but not really authentic dishes.
That said, the food of China’s chile belt is enjoying popularity in the United States.
“I think the trend, particularly with younger people, is for those strong and hotter flavors,” he says, so much so that in recent years they added a page of “Red Hot Dishes” to Big Bowl’s menu, and it has enjoyed widespread appeal.
Among those popular items is Uncle Deng’s eggplant, a dish named for Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, who came from Sichuan and had a famously thick accent and love for chiles.
Cost uses long purple eggplant for the dish, which he cuts into pieces, browns, drains and then flavors with a sauce of chile paste, light soy sauce, garlic, ginger, Shaoxing wine, shiitake mushrooms, bamboo and red bell pepper.
“We couldn’t sell an eggplant dish like that five or six years ago,” he says.
Chef Kevin Penner’s background is in contemporary American and Italian restaurants, but many of his cooks were Chinese and Thai, “and they’re among the better cooks I’ve worked with in terms of speed and precision,” he says.
That spurred an interest he already had in the cuisines of Asia, and so he opened Wei Fun in East Hampton, N.Y., about two years ago.
He says the menu is “kind of random” but features Chinese cuisine other than Cantonese, which, he says, “I think has been pretty well-covered.”
The liberal use of chiles and vinegar in Hunanese cuisine appealed to him, as did the agricultural basis of the dishes from Hunan, Sichuan and Yunnan.
“I think they’re more important agriculturally than, say, cuisines that are based in Beijing or Shanghai or places like that,” he says.
One Hunanese dish he uses a lot was also a favorite of Mao’s—red-cooked pork, which Dunlop describes as “cooked slowly with spices into melting submission.”
For the dish, pork belly, traditionally with skin on, is blanched and then simmered with dark soy sauce or caramelized sugar, Shaoxing wine, ginger, star anise, chiles and cassia bark—a mild cousin of cinnamon.
Penner, who says he’s a huge fan of Dunlop, likes to use it in pork-fried rice along with onions, garlic and bok choy.
He also likes the Hunanese technique of tea smoking. Using pork belly again, he braises it with regular and mushroom soy sauce, pork stock, black vinegar, and sugar. Then he smokes it over a mixture of black tea leaves, rice, brown sugar, cinnamon, cloves and star anise. He crisps that up and serves it with braised radish and bamboo shoots that have been julienned, salted and stored in chile oil.
He also tea-smokes duck and tofu, and he makes a cucumber salad using black vinegar and chile bean sauce, which both are common Hunanese condiments.
Dunlop found enough distinction between the foods of Sichuan and Hunan that she has written different books about both cuisines.
“Hunan is often mentioned in the same breath as Sichuan,” she says, but she wanted to focus on a place that the rest of the world didn’t know much about, and also to include some of the revolutionary history that is so linked to Hunan.
“It’s also one of those places where people always say there’s delicious food,” she adds.
Her next book is titled “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China” and is being published this April.