“Can you eat spicy?” Qin Shaoyou, a slim 29-year-old man with glasses and a crew cut, asks me from across the dining table. Before there is time to answer, the dishes start arriving in quick succession: A platter of green chilli peppers stir-fried with lean strips of pork; a bowl piled high with cauliflower florets peppered with cumin; and a plate loaded with a medley of smoked pork jowl and crunchy bamboo shoots. Everything’s laced with slices of bright red chilli peppers.
Those four words in Mandarin – neng chi la ma? – are the most important words that any visitor to Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, needs to know. Qin is, in a sense, a visitor too. He moved to Changsha from Jiangxi province six years ago. Since then, he has carefully documented the city’s restaurants, from street stalls to institutions, in a book titled My Dear Xiang Cuisine. The province’s cooking – one of China’s eight major cuisines – is often just called xiang cai, after the Xiang River that flows through Changsha.
Often, Hunan’s cuisine is compared to Sichuan’s. But where Sichuan cooking is famed for being ma and la – literally numbing and hot, on account of its copious amounts of Sichuan peppercorns and chillies – Hunan’s food is typically more sour and smoky, and wears its country roots proudly.
Now, on the terrace of Xi Yuan Restaurant, Qin talks me through the rest of the dishes. The restaurant is an awkward mishmash of coffee shop, disco and bar – probably not the first place where a foodie might seek out a proper rendition of Hunan’s cuisine. The food, however, is stellar. The other dishes on our table include scarlet crayfish drenched in a hot-and-sour tomato broth, and an enormous steamed fish served under a blanket of duo jiao (salted chilli sauce).
The restaurant’s chef and owner, 32-year-old Chen Qinghua, joins us after the cooking is done. Chen is stout and tanned, a country boy from nearby Liuyang – a place that’s better known for producing most of the world’s fireworks. He left his hometown to pursue a cooking career in Changsha nearly 20 years ago.
He pulls out his phone and flicks through photos of his farm, showing us mahogany slabs of pork belly, glistening rows of fish, and plump whole ducks, all coloured with wood smoke. Smoked meats, which are fundamental in Hunan cuisine, are prepared in winter to sustain families through the coming year. For Chen, the meats will have to last the restaurant for the next year – he wouldn’t dare outsource something so important. The same goes for his salted chilli sauce, which is made from slender “heaven-facing” chillies (so named for their habit of growing upside-down) from his family farm.
When he asks us about the food, we tell him that the flavours are intense, but not overwhelming. Chen laughs – he has heard that before. “Good Hunan cooking doesn’t hide behind the spice,” he says.
Good Hunan cooking doesn’t hide behind the spice
Hunan has earned a reputation as a fiery province in both food and politics, and these have mixed more than once. Mao Zedong, who founded modern China in 1949 and established it as a communist country, was born here in 1893. Then, 100 years later, villagers from his hometown tried to capitalise on his legacy by creating a whole new cuisine, based on what were supposedly his favourite dishes. This was dubbed “Mao Family Cuisine”, though Mao himself was hardly known to be a gourmet.
Hunan also gave the world Zuo Zongtang, a Qing dynasty statesman. Zuo led a colourful military career and fought against several uprisings. However, he is forever immortalised in the form of a Chinese take-out dish of fried chicken in a sweet-and-sour glaze: General Tso’s chicken.
Huo Gong Dian, Changsha’s proudest landmark, has borne witness to these historical events. Originally a temple founded in 1747, the restaurant (whose name translates into “The Palace of the Fire God”) is now one of the city’s most popular eateries. Initially, street vendors set up stalls on the temple’s grounds to cater to the crowds at its numerous fairs. Eventually, the snacks became as much of a draw as the fairs themselves.
The turning point came in 1958, when Mao visited Hao Gong Dian on a homecoming trip to Hunan. He declared the stinky tofu (tofu first soaked in a fermented and flavoured brine, then deep-fried) of his youth to be as delectable as ever – and so a legend was born. The loose collection of street vendors were subsequently placed under one roof, each peddling their specialties around the dining hall on pushcarts.
Yu Pengyuan, a Changsha native and amateur historian, explains all this over a meal at Huo Gong Dian. He tells us that over the last few years, the restaurant has expanded upwards. The new second and third floors stand in stark contrast to the bustling ground floor, where the pushcarts remain to this day – circling the dining hall, their bright yellow flags proclaiming their offerings, and stopping just long enough for hungry customers to pick out a dish or two. Upstairs, the décor is more in line with that of a traditional cafeteria, with baskets of Hunan-style dim sum lined up in rows.
Inevitably, the talk turns to stinky tofu. Changsha is famous for its own version, which is as black as night. Its funk is often compared to the odour of strong cheese. Thankfully, despite its frightful appearance and Mao’s famous assessment (which can be translated loosely as “it stinks so good”), Huo Gong Dian’s version is disarmingly mild, and even palatable.
Huo Gong Dian anchors the Pozi Street market, which is a warren of alleyways lined with bars, snack vendors and stinky tofu stands. Among the latter is Black Classic, which claims to have more than 600 stinky tofu stores across China. The queue outside the eatery is long and business is good. Inside, TV screens play a slickly produced video informing customers how to discern “real” Changsha-style stinky tofu from the “fake” stuff. I discover that the tofu here has a touch more stink than Huo Gong Dian’s, with a crispy, inky-black exterior that gives way to a soft, white centre.
I’m still hungry, so I decide to check out La Ta Fendian, a rice noodle shop that my hosts Qin, Chen and Yu have all recommended. Their directions are simple: find Xiangchun Road and look for the big tree. A thirty-minute walk takes me out of downtown and into a quiet residential neighbourhood.
I turn onto Xiangchun Road with anticipation; there, as promised, is a makeshift noodle shop below a large tree, with a handful of rickety tables and stools spilling out onto the sidewalk. On each table are three little jars holding different types of chilli peppers. The menu here is straightforward: rice noodles in a sharp broth, standard or with extras. As I approach, the boss looks up from his pot and asks a now-familiar question, “can you eat spicy?”
Xi Yuan (郋园)
A dependable option for authentic (read: spicy) Hunan fare.
350 Renmin Xi Rd; daily noon-10pm
Huo Gong Dian (火宫殿)
This temple-turned-restaurant is undoubtedly Changsha’s most prominent landmark and one of its top eateries.
127 Pozi St; daily 10.30am-2am
Black Classic (黑色经典长沙臭豆腐)
A popular stinky tofu specialty shop, with more than 600 outlets across the country.
Various locations; tz988.com
La Ta Fendian (辣塔粉店)
This simple stall does only one dish – rice noodles in a spicy broth – but does it well.
355 Xiangchun Rd (under the big tree); daily 6pm-midnight
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine