This past Easter, a group of friends and I embarked on a spontaneous trip to 湖南 Hunan, China. This adventure not only called for exploring a whole new terrain, but adventurous food too. Hunan cuisine resembles the cuisine beloved by its neighbours in Sichuan and Chongqing, with liberal use of different kinds of spices, chilli peppers, chilli oil, shallots and garlic. They are very big on serving their dishes in hotpot style, believing that through this method they can better contain the flavours – and what’s not to love about having food served piping hot?
On route to the beautiful 张家界 Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, we made a pit stop in the heart of 长 沙 Changsa, where we sampled a few local delicacies. We trusted our guide to make the food decisions for us, because, well, locals know best, right? But in a restaurant named 鱼嘴火锅餐馆 (Fish Mouth Hotpot Restaurant), we could only brace ourselves and convince each other that it was going to be okay.
鱼嘴火锅 (fish mouth hot pot) – check out that spicy pout
Despite hesitant hearts, we had to try the restaurant’s signature 鱼嘴火锅 (fish mouth hotpot). This dish was not for the faint-hearted – and definitely not for someone who hasn’t yet given out his/her first kiss. With fish mouths floating about the bubbling pot of spices like they were gasping for air, all of us held our breath and took a bite. Not surprisingly, there was not much meat to taste except for skimpy fish skin in the overwhelmingly spicy broth. I was left confused; of all parts of the fish, why the mouth? I could understand if it were the eyes, the cheeks or even the entire head. But the mouth was exceptionally bony, with the fish's tiny fangs sticking out like Dracula's.
猪肚包鸡汤 (pig-stomach-wrapped chicken soup)
Behind the scenes of how they unravel the chicken inside the pig's stomach
You can’t really see much of this from the picture, but beneath the hot broth lay slices of pig’s stomach and chicken chunks. This is no ordinary soup; it’s 猪肚包鸡汤 (pig-stomach-wrapped chicken soup), and as the name says it, the chicken is wrapped inside a pig’s stomach and boiled for hours into a broth, resembling an English roast turducken (check out how the dish is prepared via the above GIF). I have had a similar dish in Jiangmen, and I was excited to try it – meat cooked in this way usually turns out extremely tender and full of flavour. But Hunan’s version didn’t quite cut it and had an overcooked texture.
Hold your breath: it's stinky black tofu
Having accumulated some bravery from lunch, we tried some stinky black tofu at a street-side shop next to the restaurant. Unlike Hong Kong’s version, which is normally served with a sweet cheung fun–style sauce, Hunan’s version was stark black and topped with lots of garlic bits and chilli, with absolutely no saving grace for our breath. My virgin stinky black tofu experience turned out surprisingly pleasant though. I enjoyed the savoury fermented flavour, crispy skin and juicy interior.
长沙豆皮 (glutinous rice with bean skin)
We had to try another signature street eat from the same shop: 长沙豆皮 (glutinous rice with bean skin). This was another dish that came with a perfect crispy skin, plus a chewy glutinous rice layer that was rich in pork oil and Chinese sausage.
I guess the uncertainty is why I love travelling to China; I never know what to expect. It's interesting to see how we are all Chinese in race but are raised under different circumstances with different foods and traditions. China, it's definitely not the last I will see of you. I'm coming back soon for more exotic and exciting eats!