Hunan heat

Most people associate spicy seasonings with Hunan cooking, but there are delicately seasoned recipes.

stir fry 88  (photo credit: Jan van der Crabben)
stir fry 88
(photo credit: Jan van der Crabben)
When my husband asked if I wanted to go to a town hall meeting, all I heard was the location - Alhambra, in the heart of the Chinese area of Southern California known as the San Gabriel Valley. The event turned out to be quite a lesson in American social culture, but then came the part of the evening I was really waiting for. After a few minutes' drive, we arrived at a small eatery called Hunan Restaurant, which serves specialties from China's region of Hunan. Like its more famous neighbor, Sichuan, Hunan is known for its pungent, chili-laden cuisine but differs in its selection of other flavorings that are combined with the hot peppers. Our friend Linda Burum, with whom we had feasted on the cuisine of Hunan in several restaurants, described the food of this region in an article in The Los Angeles Times: "The earthy, rough-edged cooking from Hunan in south-central China is less about pure heat than about subtle layers of flavor and a harmonious balance of salty, tart, fermented and smoky tastes." In the past we had eaten fiery Hunan dishes, like rustic chicken with chilies, laced generously with hot red pepper sauce, big chunks of garlic and thick slices of ginger, as well as plenty of sweet peppers. A dish of dried long beans (similar to green beans) with preserved meat was nearly as pungent. These entrees were enjoyable but I had to eat them slowly, with plenty of rice. The menu was posted on the wall - in Chinese. The English menu had presented us with a surprise. A dish we had on a previous visit called beef with mint turned out to be flavored with cumin instead. For us this was a fortunate error; we were delighted to see how well the familiar Middle Eastern spice harmonized with the intense Chinese seasonings. This time we opted for a mostly vegetable-meal: Hunan-style tofu, followed by eggplant with mushrooms and minced meat. We decided to be cautious, and asked for a medium level of heat. Actually, the savory fried tofu with its soy sauce and green onion dipping sauce was quite mild. Nina Simonds, who introduced me to Chinese regional cuisine during a culinary trip to East Asia, explained in Chinese Seasons: "Although most Americans associate spicy seasonings with Hunan cooking, few are aware that there are also a number of delicately seasoned recipes," such as a subtle Hunan fish and spinach dish with rice wine, green onions, gingerroot and sesame oil. Our eggplant entree featured sliced shiitake mushrooms, garlic, fresh ginger, green onion chunks and those super-hot dried red chilies, which gave the vegetables a deliciously exuberant flavor. A small amount of stir-fried ground meat imparted richness to the sauce. We loved the spicy saucy eggplant spooned into our bowls of jasmine rice. This type of dish can be considered a formula for making fast and flavorful Chinese-seasoned vegetable-centered meals at home. Use a small amount of ground meat along with a few lively seasonings to flavor a big bowlful of vegetables, so the dish is not only satisfying to the taste buds but also nutritionally balanced. CHINESE EGGPLANT WITH CHICKEN AND SWEET AND HOT PEPPERS This tasty, easy-to-prepare entree, flavored with ginger, garlic and dried hot peppers, is best accompanied by steamed rice. Make it with ground chicken or add diced tofu to the vegetables at the last minute; or leave it as a pure vegetable dish, without the addition of meat or tofu. For best results, use small, slim tender eggplants. If you're making this dish ahead, remember that the sauce becomes more pungent the longer the hot peppers sit in it. You might like to explain to those at the table that the hot peppers are there to season the dish but are not for eating. 4 Tbsp. vegetable oil 1 1⁄2 cups diced bell peppers - mixed red, green and yellow, or 1 large pepper, diced 350 gr. to 450 gr. small eggplants, peeled if desired, halved lengthwise and sliced thin 2 tsp. minced gingerroot 4 garlic cloves, chopped 225 gr. ground chicken 1⁄2 cup chicken broth 4 to 6 dried hot peppers (optional) or hot sauce or cayenne pepper to taste 2 to 3 Tbsp. soy sauce, or more if desired 2 green onions, cut in 1-cm. pieces Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet, add sweet peppers and saute over medium-high heat 5 minutes or until crisp-tender. Remove to a plate. Add 2 tablespoons oil to skillet and heat it. Add eggplant slices and saute over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring often, about 7 minutes or until eggplant is tender. Transfer to a plate. Heat remaining oil in skillet, add ginger and garlic and saute over medium heat for 10 seconds. Add chicken and saute over medium heat, crumbling with a fork, about 4 minutes or until meat changes color. Add broth, dried peppers and 2 tablespoons soy sauce and bring to a simmer. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. Return eggplant and sweet peppers to skillet. If sauce is too thin, cook uncovered for 2 to 3 minutes or until thickened. Add green onion pieces and heat briefly. Season to taste with more soy sauce or hot sauce, if you like. Serve hot. Makes 2 to 4 main-course servings (with rice). CHINESE-INSPIRED GREEN BEANS WITH MUSHROOMS AND TURKEY You can make this savory dish, seasoned with hot pepper paste, garlic and green onions, with ground turkey, chicken or beef. Flavor it with ginger or with cumin according to your taste. Serve it over steamed white or brown rice or cooked spaghetti. 225 gr. ground turkey 5 Tbsp. vegetable oil 3 to 5 Tbsp. soy sauce 225 gr. green beans, ends removed, halved 1⁄2 cup peeled sliced celery 225 gr. mushrooms, cut in thick slices 3 or 4 garlic cloves, chopped 2 Tbsp. minced peeled gingerroot or 1 tsp. ground cumin 1⁄2 cup chicken broth 1 to 2 tsp. Chinese chili-garlic paste, Yemenite s'hug (hot pepper garlic relish) or hot sauce, or to taste 1⁄2 cup green onions in 1-cm. lengths Combine turkey, 1 tablespoon oil and 1 tablespoon soy sauce in a medium bowl and mix well; set aside. Cook green beans in a medium saucepan of boiling salted water uncovered over high heat for 6 minutes or until crisp-tender. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain well. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a large skillet. Add celery and mushrooms and saute over medium heat about 3 minutes or until celery is crisp-tender. Remove with a slotted spoon. Heat remaining tablespoon oil in skillet. Add garlic and gingerroot (but not cumin) and stir over heat for a few seconds. Add turkey mixture (and cumin, if using) and saute over medium heat, crumbling with a fork, about 4 minutes or until meat changes color. Add broth and 2 tablespoons soy sauce and bring to a simmer. Return celery-mushroom mixture to pan. Just before serving, reheat turkey mixture. Add chili paste, green beans and green onions. Heat a few seconds. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more soy sauce or chili paste if you like. Serve hot. Makes 4 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Faye Levy's International Chicken Cookbook.