Thursday, October 22, 2009

Return of the Hunan

I was excited to learn, several months ago, that an authentic Hunan restaurant had opened in Queens.  Hunan restaurants, the real thing that is, are well nigh impossible to find in the U.S. Forget about the multitudes of places with names like Hunan Garden, Hunan Palace, Hunan Empire, Hunan Dynasty, Grand Hunan, Great Hunan, or Little Hunan that serve generic Americanized Chinese food.  I think Chinese restaurateurs must use some kind of name generator to come up with a moniker for their business.  Take Szechuan or Hunan, add Grand, Great or Little before it, or Garden, Palace, Empire or Dynasty after it, and voila, you have a generic American-Chinese restaurant.  They're interchangeable.

There was a brief time, in the seventies, when New York had several Hunan restaurants, hot on the heels of Nixon's China trip.  The most famous Hunanese chef/restaurateur in New York at the time was Peng Chang-kuei (inventor of General Tso's chicken and bean curd home style), who was born in Hunan province and had come to New York by way of Taiwan.  Though his cooking was championed by Henry Kissinger, you shouldn't hold that against him. After a brief flowering of true Hunan and Sichuan cuisine in New York, where Americanized Cantonese had been the standard Chinese fare for decades, those spicier cuisines became bastardized and morphed into the Americanized Chinese food we know today.  By the end of the seventies you'd have been hard-pressed to find an authentic Hunan or Sichuan restaurant in New York.

In the past ten years or so, real Sichuan food has returned to New York, spearheaded by the Grand Sichuan chain and ably represented by Manhattan's Wu Liang Ye and Szechuan Gourmet (which also has a Queens location), and Flushing's Spicy & Tasty and Little Pepper.  It took a little longer for Hunan to return.  Let's hope it sticks around.

While there are similarities among the spicy cuisines of the western Sichuan, Hunnan and Yunnan provinces (and all fall under the Chuan category in the "four schools" classification of Chinese cuisine), there are a number distinctive differences.  Hunan cuisine, overall, I find less oily than Sichuan food, and its dishes are more reliant on pickled chillies than the aromatic Sichuan peppercorn for spice and oomph.

I organized a group of ten to try a range of dishes at Flushing's Hunan House. We started with two cold appetizers.

The tree fungus (moyee, also known as tree ears or clouds ears) in vinegar sauce was crunchy and refreshing.

Cucumbers with scallion sauce was bathed in a dressing of finely minced scallion and oil.  It was subtly delicious, and one can also order the same sauce with cold tofu.  I believe I've seen one Sichuan menu where the sauce was referred to as "scallion pesto."

Hunan being an inland province, there's not much in the way of seafood in the cuisine except freshwater fish.  We decided to try the fish head (shown at top), and what a formidable head it was (though one has to forage diligently for the meat), topped with pickled chillies.  It got mixed reviews, and perhaps the whole fish with the same preparation would have gone over better, even if it would have stripped us of some macho foodie cachet.

For the most part we went with meat dishes, three of them pork.  You can never have too much pork, and you can quote me on that.

Steamed spare ribs in bamboo came in a boatlike vessel I've mostly seen used for rice dishes.  It had a peppery, soupy sauce.  One diner remarked that the flavor reminded her of a Mexican dish, and I immediately knew she was thinking of adobo de puerco; it was an apt comparison. The dish got mixed reviews from the table.  I liked it quite a lot while others were frustrated by the scant meat to be found on the chopped bones.

An item on one of several specials menus is referred to as Fuzhi meat dish, and consists of pork belly chunks with a rice flour coating, steamed in lotus leaves. This dish too got mixed reviews.  About half of the table rated it among their favorites, but I was disappointed, perhaps because I've yet to find a steamed pork with rice powder that equals that of the long defunct Chinatown Sichuan restaurant Ting Fu Garden.

I think the big winner in the pork category was unquestionably the "braised pork Mao style," otherwise known as red-cooked pork.  Made with chunks of belly pork, the dish was mildly spicy (more so than the version I've had at one of the Grand Sichuan branches).  While rice wine and soy sauce figure in all recipes for red cooked pork (hongshao rou) I've seen, the spices can vary.

Sliced lamb with cumin dishes are popular in a number of western and northern Chinese regional cuisines, and I'm guessing the cumin came via the silk road trade route through Xinxiang province.  Everybody enjoyed this one, though I'm more partial to the crispy version I've had a number of times at Szechuan Gourmet and the truly amazing northeastern version at Waterfront International (now called Fu Run). 

Another item from one of the specials menus is the lean dry duck with soybean paste.  More prominent than the soybean paste was the mix of chopped chillies atop the dish.  It was indeed lean, and crispy, but dry is a bit of a misnomer as the meat is quite moist.

The Hunan-style sliced fish was coated with a complex spice paste and served with steamed bok choi in a way that resembled the Shanghai meatball dish called lion's head.  The waiter told us the fish was frogfish.

Hunan House has a more extensive and more interesting vegetable section of the menu than you're likely to find at most authentic Sichuan restaurants in New York.  We went with a dish called "pickled with mustard greens."  It didn't taste expecially pickly, but it was a wonderful dish, with subtle spicing.

There are a number of tofu dishes on the menu.  It was a hard time choosing one, but we went with the mashed peppers with tofu.  Slices of firm smoked tofu, in a light sauce, are topped with a mound of the mashed peppers.  Several diners remarked on the tofu's resemblance to smoked mozzarella.  What's nice about this dish and several others is that they're served in a way that allows the diner to adjust the spiciness of his portion.

Perhaps the dish that was most unique of all (and now that William Safire is dead I can say "most unique" without fear) was the white chili with preserved beef.  I had never seen nor heard of white chillies before.  The chewy pieces of moderately spicy peppers were a perfect match for the chewy, salty but not overwhelmingly so preserved beef.  The dish was a textural complement to the rest of the meal.

Hunan House is, I'm prepared to declare, an outstanding restaurant.  It features a large menu of regional dishes, many of which can be found at no other restaurant in the city.  The range of preparations and textures along with the subtlety and complexity of flavoring are quite remarkable.  While the Sichuan restaurants I've been to all seem to have strengths and weaknesses among their offerings, Hunan House was amazingly consistent.  Of the twelve items we ordered at least eight were admired by all and the other four got mixed reviews.  There was nothing that everybody declared a loser, and that's an impressive thing.  

Hunan House
137-40 Northern Boulevard (between Main & Union)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

that pickle with mustard greens is "xue-li-hong" what some call the blood-in-snow dish, but I think that's mostly phonetic, and not by actual meaning.

thanks for the report!

11:05 AM  
Anonymous Stephanie said...

Me and my family are from Hunan so we go to Hunan House all the time. It's really the only authentic place in all of NYC. The xue li hong is one of our favorites, but you should also try the wood ear sauteed with leeks and the smoked duck with pickled radish. No matter what else we get, we always order these three dishes as well, b/c they're just that good. Only the smoked duck is spicy in my opinion, but then again my taste buds may have been corrupted by years of spicy eating.

10:27 PM  

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