Authentic Chinese food is not the sort of food that you get from your local takeaway restaurant. Authentic Chinese food is regional, provincial and one of those regional cuisines is from the Hunan province.
More than sixty four million people live in the Hunan province of central China where the cooking has been influenced by all sorts of cuisines. The region has vast areas of agricultural land producing plentiful crops as well as being home to one of the largest freshwater lakes in China, which naturally has had its own influence on the cuisine.
There are so many ingredients from which to choose that Hunan chefs can't just make a simple meal by chucking meat and vegetables into a wok. No, Hunan cuisine consists of complex flavours and is prepared very carefully, taking as long as necessary to get the results absolutely perfect.
One typically elaborate dish is Orange Beef - beef which has been left to marinate overnight in wine, white pepper and egg whites then deep fried in very hot oil, drained then fried again until crisp. The beef is then added to stir fried dried chillies, ginger, garlic, fresh chilli, spring onions and orange peel. A sauce mix of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, Chinese white rice vinegar, chicken stock and ground white pepper is then added to coat the beef.
Another characteristic of Hunan cooking is the liberal use of chillies. Dishes are often made using lots of fresh chillies, complete with seeds, so if you're tasting Hunan cookery for the first time, be sure to have plenty of yoghurt or bread to hand to mitigate the heat or you may find that beer is more pleasant and equally effective. Oh and you'll need paper handkerchiefs to mop up the tears as well....... tears of delight, of course.
Rice is prevalent in Hunan province, so unlike other Chinese cuisines, such as Mandarin which uses more wheat, Hunan cookery features rice as well as beef and pork which are abundant here.
Naturally, the Dongting lake is home to fish and seafood as well as ducks. Shellfish is often served dressed with shallots and garlic while the duck (and chicken too) is often seared before being simmered or fried, giving it a wonderful crispy skin, also typical of this region.
Steamed and stewed meat are also typical of Hunan cooking which together with the use of chilles, result in a tasty and healthy meal. Often, the meat used is smoked, cured pork which is a local speciality and results in a delicious dark gravy.
Hunan cuisine is very varied, depending on the season. In summer the climate is very hot and humid so spices are used liberally to open the pores and allow sweating. In winter a dish called Lover's Hot Pot is frequently eaten which is part spicy and partly mild.
Whatever you eat of this cuisine, you're bound to love it.