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      China's Hunan Cuisine Article
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Regional Cuisine Hunan Cuisine

by Kirsten Hawkins

Copyright 2005

Hunan cuisine shares many commonalities with its close, more

well-known cousin, Szechwan cooking, Both cuisines originate in

the Western region of China. The climate there is sub-tropical –

humid and warm enough to encourage the use of fiery spices to

help cool the body, and to require high spicing of food as a

preservative. With similar climate, the two regions also share

many ingredients – rice is a major staple in both diets, and

chili peppers are an important part of most dishes. The two

styles of regional cuisine are similar enough that many

restaurants and cookbooks lump them together under ‘Western

Chinese cooking’ or simple refer to both as Szechwan cuisine.

There are some important differences, though. Hunan cooking is,

for one thing, even more fiery than most Szechwan dishes.

Szechwan dishes often include chili paste for rubbing into

meats, or including in sauce. Hunan chefs include the entire

dried chili pepper, with its intensely spicy seeds and rind.

The differences in the actual land of the two regions also has

an effect on the differences in their cuisine. The Szechwan

region is mountainous jungle, with little arable land for

farming. The Hunan region, by contrast, is a land of soft

rolling hills and slow rivers. Because of its fertile hillocks

and valleys, the Hunan region has access to an amazing variety

of ingredients that aren’t available to Szechwan chefs. Seafood

and beef are both far more common in Hunan cooking, as are many


The land, and the hardships associated with it, also give the

Hunan more time to concentrate on food. Hunan cooking features

complex and time-consuming preparation time. Many dishes begin

their preparation the day before they are to be served, and may

be marinated, then steamed or smoked, and finally deep-fried or

stewed before they reach the table. The same attention is paid

to the preparation of ingredients, and it is said that Hunan

cuisine is the most pleasing to the eye of all Chinese

cuisines. The shape of a food in a particular recipe is nearly

as important as its presence in the final dish. Hunan chefs are

specialists with the knife – carving fanciful shapes of

vegetables and fruits that will be used in preparing meals, or

to present them.

Hunan cuisine is noted for its use of chili peppers, garlic and

shallots, and for the use of sauces to accent the flavors in the

ingredients of a dish. It is not uncommon for a Hunan dish to

play on the contrasts of flavors – hot and sour, sweet and

sour, sweet and hot – pungent, spicy and deliciously sweet all

at once. Hunan chefs are noted for their ability to create a

symphony of taste with their ingredients. A classic example is

Hunan spicy beef with vegetables, where the beef is first

marinated overnight in a citrus and ginger mixture, then washed

and rubbed with chili paste before being simmered in a pungent

brown sauce. The end result is a meat that is meltingly tender

on the tongue and changes flavor even as you enjoy it.

More and more, restaurants are beginning to sort out the two

cuisines, and Hunan cuisine is coming into its own. Crispy duck

and Garlic-Fried String Beans are taking their place alongside

Kung Pao Chicken and Double Cooked Spicy Pork. But there is no

battle between the two for a place of honor among Chinese

Regional cuisines – rather, there are only winners – the diners

who have the pleasure of sampling both.

About The Author: Kirsten Hawkins is a food and nutrition

expert specializing the Mexican, Chinese, and Italian food.

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