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A Guide to Hunan Cuisine and Top Restaurants

Name one thing that you wouldn’t and couldn’t miss while you are traveling in Hunan Province? The answer is Hunan cuisine, or locally known as Xiang Cai (湘菜). Hunan cuisine is one of China’s Eight Major Cuisines (八大菜系), which are defined by the region.

The distinctive characters of Hunan cuisine are spicy, soar, dry and greasy. With a considerable use of  chili peppers, shallots and garlic, its dishes can be simply noted as purely spicy. Food ingredients are always fresh and up to the season.

According to traditional Chinese herbal medicine, humid climate and huge rainfall in Hunan cause heavy in-body dampness (湿气重), which is the cause of dysfunction in kidneys and digestive system. Chill, pepper and garlic are natural medicines for in-body dampness. Spicy-and-soar tasting Hunan cuisine is not only stimulating the appetite but also has healthy benefits.

Hunan cuisine can be subcategorized into three types: Xiang River Style (湘江流域), Lake Dongting Style (洞庭湖区) and Western Hunan Style (湘西山区). Special regional ingredients and spices are used in each style: Xiang River abounds fish; Lake Dongting is rich in fish, shrimps, lotus roots (莲藕), soft shelled turtle (甲鱼) and gray ducks; mountains in Western Hunan bring about bamboo shoots (竹笋), mushrooms, mountainous chicken (山鸡) and other seasonal fresh goods. 


Cooking Style & Main Ingredients

Hunan cuisine often compared with Sichuan cuisine, which is also very spicy. However, Sichuan cuisine uses a great amount of dried or preserved ingredients, such as pickled veggies, and give out a distinctive mala (hot and numbing) feeling that lasts for some time after a meal. Hunan cuisine, on the contrary, favors fresh ingredients and the menu changes on the season.

Besides its spiciness, Hunan cuisine can also be described as greasy, colorful and richly flavored. Peanut oil and bacon grease are used generously to create an appealing smell. Different materials are cooked together as a way for them to emerge throughout both tastes and colors.

Frying, stewing, roasting and steaming are the basic culinary skills for a Hunan chef to be adept at. Furthermore, the chef obtains experiences in the ingredient matching, cooking timing and ingredients choosing upon seasons and locations.

Main ingredients contain two types: main spices and main food materials. Chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorn (干胡椒), shallots, garlic and pricklyash seeds (花椒) fall into the former category. Food materials differ by the regions, yet fish, shrimps, chicken, ducks, hyacinth beans, bamboo shoots, mushrooms and seasonal vegetables are the most used ones.

Notable Dishes & Legends

From the unearthed relics of Western Han Tomb at Mawangdui (马王堆), we learn that people in Hunan region used up to 20 kinds of animals and plants as food ingredients. From the West Han Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, important officials used to own one or two cooks who specialized at Hunan cuisine. Over time, Hunan cuisine bonds its flavors with interesting legends and anecdotes.

Steamed Fish Head with Diced Pepper

Steamed Fished Head with Diced Peper (剁椒鱼头) places a monstrously-looking challenge for almost every westerner. Red and green peppers are chopped up and placed willy-nilly on the fish head that is steamed into white glazed with hot oil. This Hunan cuisine speaker is created to make its daredevil go Oh My God.
During the Yongzheng years of Qing dynasty, mathematician Huang Zongxian fled out of the capital due to the literary persecution. He was hidden by a poor peasant who could hardly offer a popper meal. The household’s wife caught a fish and made it into two dishes: one was fired with other ingredients and the head was steamed with chopped pepper. The fish head dish stroke Huang’s fancy and he re-created the dish when he returned home. Whence the dish became a popular hit at the officials’ dining table.

Dong’an Chicken

Dong’an Chicken (东安子鸡) is originally named Vinegar Chicken (醋鸡), popular in Dong’an County of Hunan Province. The main ingredients are small chick cut in small trunks, shredded onion, bell pepper and red pepper. All the materials are firstly cooked shallowly for a couple minutes and then stewed with salt, wine and vinegar.
It was renamed by a famous general, Tang Sheng-Chih (唐生智, 1889-1970). Back in the the Republic of China, Tang held a feast after the victory of Northern Expedition (北伐,1926). Vinegar Chicken evoked a wide appreciation and guests asked about the name and culinary. Finding the name Vinegar Chicken not so elegant, the general renamed it after his hometown Dong’an, which is also the place of origin for this dish.

Mao's Braised Pork

As the name implies, Mao’s Braised Pork (毛氏红烧肉) is simply related to Chairman Mao. In his late days, his appetite changed from hot and spicy to sweet and tender. His chief chef reformed the traditional braised pork with deeper cooking and more brown sugar. Unlike other spicy food, this dish is more like Shanghai cuisine due to its sugar base. It is the aniseed and pricklyash seeds that put a Hunan touch to it.

Dragon Princess Presenting Pearls / Steamed Fish with Lotus Seeds

Dragon Princess Presenting Pearls are also called as Steamed Fished with Lotus Seeds (龙女一斛珠). As confusing as the name is, you won’t know what you are having until the dish is presented. Fresh carp is steamed with sweet and tender lotus seeds (莲子) inside its stomach.

Legend has it that the dragon princess of Lake Dongting fell in love with a human, Liu Yi. Liu was invited to the feast at the underwater palace of the Dragon King. The girl put some pearls into the fish stomach that is served for Liu, as a way to announce her secret crush. This dish is passed down by those creative chefs and this legend is an interesting appetizer to go with. 

Other daily dishes of Hunan cuisine include: Changsha-style stinky tofu (长沙臭豆腐), Smoky Flavors Steamed Together (腊味合蒸), Stir Fried Duck Blood (炒鸭血), Stir Fried Pork with Douchi and Chili Peppers (豆豉辣椒炒肉), Shredded Pork with Vegetables (农家小炒肉), Hunan Eggs (湖南蛋), Kong Pao Stir-Fried Kidney (宫保腰花) and Sesame Frog (芝麻田鸡).

Top Restaurants for Hunan Cuisine

Fire Palace

Firstly built in the Qing Dynasty, Fire Palace (火宫殿) used to be a worship place for the God of fire. In 2000, Changsha Government set up the brand and made it a chain restaurant specialized in Hunan cuisine and local snacks.
Must-Try Dishes: Sister Meatballs (姐妹团子), Soy-Stewed Pork Leg (红烧猪蹄), Fairy Rice Pot (神仙钵饭), Mao's Braised Pork (毛氏红烧肉)
Price: 50-200RMB/Person
Address: 127, Pozi Street, Tianxin District, Changsha City 长沙市天心区坡子街127号 / +86 0731 85819591
Getting There: Bus No. 11, 18, 112, 138, 143, 145, 202

Big Cupboard

Big Cupboard (大碗厨) is the new trendy restaurant chain in town, offering refined and creative menu. The dishes are served in big portion and can be personalized by non-spicy, little-spicy and Hunan-spicy.
Must-Try Dishes: Soy-Stewed Pork Leg (红烧猪蹄), Steamed Fish Head with Diced Pepper (剁椒鱼头), Shredded Pork with Vegetables (农家小炒肉)

Price: 50-80RMB/Person
Address: 103, Dongfeng Road, Kaifu District, Changsha 长沙市开福区东风路103号/ +86 0731-82692588
Getting There: Bus No.112, 136, 146, 150, 302, 901

Junzi Restaurant

Junzi Restaurant (俊子饭店) is a local restaurant located in Fenghuang Ancient Town, enjoys grand popularity amongst young people. Besides Hunan cuisine, you can try some Fenghuang flavors here. Cheap prices and nice views of the ancient town.

Must-Try Dishes: Soar-and-Spicy Fish (酸辣鱼), Stir-Fired Ferns with Bacon (蕨菜炒腊肉), Shredded Pork with Vegetables (农家小炒肉)
Price: 30-70RMB/Person
Address: Jianshe Road, Fenghuang County, Hunan 凤凰镇建设路 / 15897436850