Located in the south-central part of China, Hunan province is known for its notoriously spicy cuisine. In fact, the food is the spiciest of all of China.
Dishes are inundated with fresh chilies in various hues of red, yellow, green and orange. They look like by-products of the holiday season but rest assured, these chilies are regular features of Hunan dishes -- available year-round.
Hunan food is often compared to that of Sichuan. Both provinces have humid climates, so chilies are often used to cleanse the palate and cool down the body. While they're both similarly spicy, the differences are rather distinct. Sichuan cuisine uses tongue-numbing peppercorns; Hunan food does not. Sichuan dishes use a large number of preserved and dried chilis; Hunan chefs capitalize on fresh chilies. A single bite will have your taste buds gasping for relief. Have a bowl of white rice handy, or better yet, milk. (Not water. Oil and water don't mix, so a tall glass of it won't cure the burning sensation.)
Here are two fantastic Hunan-style restaurants in the greater Los Angeles area:
Hunan Mao's Restaurant
Hunan Mao's most famous dish is the spicy fish head -- it's the whole head of a carp, blanketed in a blend of multi-colored chilies. The head is surprisingly meaty. Pair it with rice and note, in Chinese tradition, it's considered an honor if you're the one to eat the fish eyes. Give the red-braised pork, or hong shao rou, a try. It was reportedly Mao Zedong's (a Hunan native) favorite dish. Tradition says it builds the brain and makes ladies more beautiful. While we seriously doubt that, it is wonderfully delicious. It's essentially fatty, large cubes of pork belly, glazed with caramelized sugar, and flavored with peanut oil, a single cinnamon stick, and Shaoxing rice wine. 8728 Valley Blvd., Ste 101, Rosemead, CA 91770; (626) 280-0588.
Hunan Chili King
If you walk by Hunan Chili King on a sunny day, chances are you'll see a pile of chili peppers being laid outside to dry. True to its name, Hunan Chili King uses a lot of them. Spicy dishes are their specialty and while you can customize your level of heat, don't come expecting a bland meal. You will most definitely be gasping for a drink. We recommend the spicy sole (#67) -- white fish fillets stir-fried with preserved greens and a generous handful of green, yellow, orange, and dark red chiles. The mala tofu (#57) is a great pairing as well. It's covered in a thick, red chili sauce and is ideal when spooned over a fresh bowl of white rice. 534 E Valley Blvd # 2, San Gabriel, CA 91776; (626) 288-7993.