Hunan Chinese:

Hunan Chinese Cooking

Hunan cuisine shares many common traits with its close, more well-known cousin, Szechwan cooking. Both cuisines originate in the Western region of China. The climate there is humid and warm enough to encourage the use of fiery spices to help cool the body, as well as 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 brought over from the new world are an important part of most dishes. The two styles of regional cuisine are similar enough that many restaurants and cookbooks join them together under "Western Chinese cooking" or simply refer to both as Szechwan cuisine.

However, there are important differences between the two styles of cuisine. For one thing, Hunan cooking is even more fiery than most Szechwan dishes. Szechwan dishes often include chili paste for rubbing over meats, or adding to sauce. Hunan chefs include the entire dried chili pepper, with its insanely spicy seeds and rind.

The difference in the actual land of the two regions also has an impact on the differences in their cuisine. The Szechwan region is mountainous jungle that boasts little arable land for farming. The Hunan region, by contrast, is a land of soft rolling hills and gentle rivers. Because of its fertile hills and valleys, the Hunan region holds an amazing variety of ingredients that aren't available to Szechwan chefs. Seafood and beef are each far more common in Hunan cooking, as are a multitude of vegetables.

The land, and the hardships associated with it, also give the Hunan more time to concentrate on preparation of food. Hunan cooking features complex and time-consuming prep 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 make it to the table. The same attention is paid to the preparation of ingredients, and it is said that Hunan cuisine is the most aesthetic of all Chinese cuisines. The shape of a food in a particular recipe is nearly as crucial 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 and presentation of meals.

Hunan cuisine is noted for its use of chili peppers, garlic and shallots, and for the use of sauces to accentuate the flavors 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 -- they can be pungent, spicy and deliciously sweet all at once.

Hunan chefs are noted for their skill in creation of a symphony of taste with their ingredients. A telling 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 deliciously tender on the tongue and changes flavors as you enjoy it.

Today, many 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, two Szechwan dishes. But there is no battle between the two for a place of honor among Chinese Regional cuisines as diners have the pleasure of sampling both.

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