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Hunan's dry, spicy delights

AS one of the eight regional cuisines of China, Xiang, or Hunan, cuisine has evolved from the three local styles of the Xiang River region, Dongting Lake and western Hunan Province.

It is popular for hot spicy and sour flavors, fresh aromas and deep color, as well as sophisticated cooking and cutting techniques.

Common cooking methods include stewing, frying, pot-roasting, braising and smoking.

Ingredients used in Hunan dishes are many and varied due to the region's high agricultural output.

Xiang cuisine master chef Xu Yunju has defined authentic Hunan cuisine as "a hundred courses (with) a hundred tastes and each dish (with) a distinguished flavor. Elegant cutting, dainty cooking."

Actually, Xiang cuisine has a long history of over 2,000 years and probably dates back as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).

Relics unearthed from a Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24) tomb in Changsha, capital of Hunan Province, are evidence of local people's early cooking of various dishes: not only the bones of fish, pigs and cows but also pickled fruits and vegetables.

Located in central and south China, the region has distinctive seasons, abundant rainfall and plenty of sunshine which have all contributed to the development of Hunan cuisine.

Ross Terrill, the renowned Harvard professor, once described Hunan as "an abundant and fertile inland province which has been honored as 'the land of rice and fish'." He added that the people are straightforward.

The heavy style and hot flavors of the cuisine reflect the resource-rich land and the bold and unrestrained character of Hunan people. Their addiction to spicy food can be attributed to the region's wet climate.

People believe that the chili spice is effective in getting rid of the affects of humidity and rheumatic afflictions and is also important in stimulating the appetite.

If you visit the Dong and Miao ethnic people in Hunan Province they usually welcome you with a dish of stewed meat cooked with dried chili. During a meal, they will warmly invite you to take more chili rather than meat, a clear indication of their passion for the hot seasoning.

Actually people in China's western and southern areas are all keen on spicy food. The differences are that Sichuan people prefer m(r)°èl(r)°? (hot and numbing) food, Guizhou people usually like it xi(r)°?ngl(r)°? (aromatic and hot), Yunnan people have a crush on xi(r)°?nl(r)°? (pure spicy), Shaanxi people focus on xi(r)°ènl(r)°? (salty and spicy) and Hunan people are more interested in g(r)°?nl(r)°? and su(r)°?nl(r)°? (dry spicy and sour spicy).

As opposed to other spicy cuisines around the country, Xiang cuisine is known for being dry hot or purely hot thanks to its liberal use of chili peppers, shallots and garlic, and the technique of pickling.

Hunan cuisine is often spicier purely due to chili content, contains a larger variety of fresh ingredients, tends to be oilier, and is said to be purer and simpler in taste.

Another characteristic distinguishing Hunan cuisine from other spicy cuisines is that, in general, it uses smoked and cured goods in its dishes much more frequently.

In recent years, Hunan cuisine has become popular among foreign people, especially those from European, American and South-east Asian regions.

In the United States, some Hunan-style restaurants display paintings of huge chilis on their outdoor signs and their waiter aprons are embroidered with chili motifs.

Former US President George W. Bush also put chou doufu (stinky tofu), one of the most distinguished Hunan snacks, on his list of must-tries.

It is not possible to discuss this cuisine without mentioning the late Chairman Mao Zedong, a Shaoshan native of Hunan Province who never lost his love for the local spicy cuisine. His hometown food style is original Xiang homemade dishes from the Shaoshan mountain area. His favorites - braised pork, fried bitter melon with chili and loach toufu - are all signature dishes of the style.

When former US President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, Mao ordered signature Hunan-style dishes, including braised pork, to be on the banquet menu.


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