Hunan Cuisine, sometimes called Xiang Cuisine after the area's river of the same name, is one of the eight great cuisine "schools" of China. Like the other Chinese cuisine schools, the Hunan school is made up of the cuisine traditions of a number of regional styles. In the case of Hunan Cuisine, these are: the Xiang River, Lake Dongting, and western Hunan styles. Each of these regional styles is further represented by more local cuisine strains. The Xiang River style of Hunan Cuisine is represented by the dishes of the cities of Changsha, Hengyang and Xiangtan. The Lake Dongting style of Hunan Cuisine is represented by the dishes of the cities of Yueyang and Changde, while the western Hunan Cuisine style is represented by the dishes of the cities of Huaihua, Jishou and Zhangjiajie.
Hunan Province is characterized by a humid continental (the province is inland, not coastal) and subtropical monsoon climate (it lies in the south of China). Its winters are cold; its summers, hot. It is rainy in spring and summer, dry in autumn and winter. These overarching climatic realities naturally affect food preferences, especially in a culture like the Chinese, which has age-old traditions regarding the art and science of developing and maintaining a sense of well-being.
The people of Hunan Province have traditionally preferred food that is spicy-hot during summer because the area is humid, making it difficult to eliminate body heat via evaporation. The use of spicy-hot foods, in keeping with the principles of traditional Chinese medicinal foods, helps the body rid itself of heat by opening up the pores (though to a skeptical reader, the logic of this seems a bit shaky, since the problem in humid climes is not an inability to sweat/ exude moisture, but an inability of the sweat/ exuded moisture to evaporate, given the high degree of humidity in the air … as a compromise position, we herewith propose that when in Hunan Province during the summer, you should dine on cold dishes that are heavily laced with chilies while sitting in front of a fan - that should do the trick quite nicely :) … to read more about traditional Chinese medicinal foods, click here.)
In winter, which is cold as indicated, Hunan Cuisine tends to be both spicy-hot and just plain "hot", or hot temperature-wise. The carry-over of spicy-hotness to the winter season probably reflects a general Hunan preference for spicy-tasting foods, while the ingestion of "hot" foods during the winter warms an otherwise chilly abdomen as well as speeds up the digestive process. The generous use of chilis, scallions (aka spring onions) and garlic is another way to characterize the essence of Hunan Cuisine, which is especially known for its stewed dishes as well as its soups. A favorite Hunan Cuisine dish in winter is Hot Pot.*
Western Hunan Style - The Western Hunan Cuisine Style reflects the fact that the mountainous area of western Hunan Province abounds in wild game, including wild fowl, as well as in fungi (mushrooms). Cured meats (salted or smoked) are also common to western Hunan Cuisine. Besides being partial to spiciness, the people of western Hunan are also fond of hearty, yet simple dishes with strong flavors. All taste experiences, from the salty to the sour to the sweet to the bitter to the spicy-hot are welcomed in western Hunan. A few distinctive western Hunan dishes are: Deep-Fried Loach with Mushrooms (the loach, alternately known as Dojo Loach or Weather Loach (Misgurnus anguillicaudatus), is a small, hardy, freshwater fish), Tripe in Duck's Feet Soup, Hot & Spicy Fried Frog Legs, and Hot Pot.*
Lake Dongting Style - The Lake Dongting Style of Hunan Cuisine, not unlike the Western Hunan Cuisine Style, reflects the natural availabilty of foodstuff resources. The presence of Lake Dongting means that the region relies heavily on fishes in its cuisine, but also duck. Moreover, since one of the core cities of the Lake Dongting Cuisine Style is the city of Yueyang, and since Yueyang is made famous by the Song-Dynasty man-of-letters, Fan Zhongyan, who composed the renowned hommage "Memorial to Yueyang Pavilion", the dishes of the Lake Dongting Cuisine Style tend to reflect this highbrow cultural influence, both in their composition as well as in their names.
Lake Dongting Style dishes are generally very aromatic and spicy-hot, with a distinct tendency to saltiness and with rich, deep colors. The restaurants of the Lake Dongting area favor tableware that is complementarily artfully designed and beautifully ornamented, being respectful of the region's cultural heritage. Typical Lake Dongting dishes are Xiaoxiang Turtle, Wuling Snake Soup, Mashed Shrimp in Lotus Pods, Jade-Belt Fish Rolls, Dongting Wild Duck, and Hot Pot.*
Xiang River Style - The Xiang River Style of Hunan Cuisine considers itself the standard-bearer of Hunan Cuisine, since it incorporates elements from both of the other two regional Hunan Cuisine styles, albeit, carried to a higher level of perfection, as a Xiang River chef would insist, notwithstanding the Lake Dongting style's claim to cultural fame. With its strategic location (the Xiang River flows through all of the aforementioned regional cities that make up the Xiang River cuisine style, emptying eventually into Lake Dongting, where it merges with several other rivers before flowing briefly northward where it links up with the Yangtze River), the Xiang River Valley is rich in the production of rice and vegetables. Fish aplenty abound from the nearby river as well as from Lake Dongting itself. Indeed, Hunan Province, thanks in no small part to the fertile Xiang River Valley, is known as "a land of fish and rice", a distinction it shares with many similar regions of southern China.
The chefs of the Xiang River Valley pride themselves on culinary perfection when it comes to the harmony of sight, smell, taste and texture. The Xiang River style stresses the use of only the best and freshest raw ingredients, superb cutting skills, well-tempered cooking times and excellence in all of the traditional methods of Chinese cooking, from baking, roasting and braising to stir-frying and sautéing to steaming and stewing to curing by smoking and salting. Xiang River style chefs are also masters at making soup. Like the other regional styles that make up Hunan Cuisine, the Xiang River style favors spicy dishes with strong flavors featuring a generous use of hot chilies, scallions and garlic.
Characteristic Xiang River style dishes include Fried Chicken in Hot & Spicy Sauce, Braised Pork with Lotus Seeds, Sweet-Smelling & Crispy Roast Duck, Julienned Stir-Fried Tripe, Dong' an Chicken, Sweet & Sour Chicken, Sautéed Eggwhites & Snails with Honey Mushrooms, and of course the ubiquitous (in Hunan Province as well as in the region at large) Hot Pot.*
* Hot Pot, aka Steamboat Stew (and sometimes incorrectly referred to by Westerners as Chinese Fondue), can roughly be described as an at-table version of Bao stir-fry, which is a "wet" (as opposed to an "oily") method of stir-fry in which thin meat strips and finely diced vegetables are sloshed around in a thin sauce (soup or broth is often used) in a very hot wok, after the meat has first been browned in hot oil (to learn more about Bao stir-fry, click here and scroll down to point 4 under general characteristics of Guangdong Cuisine). The Hot Pot pot, which occupies the center of the table, is kept simmering at high heat, and the meat strips, diced vegetables, dumplings, noodles, etc. are lowered into the pot for a few minutes until done, then served piping hot, where they are often dipped in a - of course! - spicy-hot sauce before being eaten.
If you have ever seen the live, televised shows of the Hangzhou-born, Chinese-American TV cook, Martin Yan (yancancook.com), you will most certainly have run across Hot Pot, for example, in his coverage of the restaurants of Chongqing, which borders Hunan Province to the west.