Hunan province takes its name from its geographical location, “south of the lake.” Situated south of Dongting Lake, it shares borders with six other provinces, including Hubei to the north and Guangdong to the South. Celebrated local products include wild turtles, citrus, bamboo shoots, many types of fish, silver needle tea, lotus seeds, bacon, and, of course, chillies. Summers in the province’s southern subtropical climate are hot and humid while winters are cool and damp, further bolstering the cuisine’s predilection for the use of chillies, with the Chinese medicinal concept that chilli heat expels unhealthy damp humours.
For many years even one thought that Hunan and Sichuan was one and the same, when it comes to spicy Chinese cuisine. This misperception has its roots in how Hunan and Sichuan food was introduced to the public. It was assumed that during the early 1940s, a group of Chinese chefs trained in Hunan and Sichuan cuisines fled after the Communist took over the Mainland China. Some of these chefs prospered and some sought opportunities in other parts of the world, eventually bringing in the mix of Hunan and Sichuan cuisines. Basically classic Hunan and Sichuan dishes adjusted to local tastes (read: sweeter and less spicy and complex).
“Given the complex history and local specialty ingredients, Hunan cuisine is a lot more sophisticated than the pseudo-Sichuan flavour often found in the Chinese eateries. But one would be amazed to know how different authentic Hunan cooking is different than the Sichuan cousin”. The Sichuan Cuisine have all kinds of spicy-sweet-savoury combinations, “including the ‘fish-fragrant’ and ‘garlic paste’ flavours, the Hunan Cuisine tend to go for bold savoury tastes, chilli-hot tastes, and sour-hot tastes.”
It was on this note that we thought of visiting the Hunan Festival at Mayfair Lemon Grass restaurant. The Executive Chef Atish Saxena and Chef Sachin gave us a warm welcome. The aroma in the dinning space assured us of the Hunan festivity. The review was of mixed bag. Which started off with hot and sweet Crispy Zucchini and the show stopper been Hot and Namkeen Chicken
If you hear the sound of breaking of the crunchy crust in the mouth of any good plated fried food, you know it’s crunchy and perfect. So was the lush looking zucchini fried in a tempura batter. Covered in a sticky honey-based sauce, it was crunchy outside and soft inside. The sweetness of the honey sauce was well balanced by chilli, galangal, fennel leaves, and chilli oil.
Now, this dish had everything in it! This is absolutely a vegetarian’s paradise. Sliced Zucchini, Baby corn, Runner beans, Chinese cabbage, Carrots, Ginger, Galangal, Red and Yellow pepper, pickled Onion, Wooden and Shitake mushrooms- yes, Sancho veggies had it all. One bite, the crunch of the veggies, aroma of wooden mushrooms and the tangy punch from the broth of shitake mushrooms were a mouthful of Umami. For the faint heart be careful:, it’s spicy, too spicy! As these veggies were tossed in chilli oil and pickle oil, bet it had quite a fire in the dish. Instead of zha choy, the chef used pickled onions to add the balancing tang and pungency. Garnished with micro greens, this dish was finger!
COTTAGE CHEESE & GREEN GARLIC
Tender cottage cheese dressed in tempura batter and fried till crispy was the highlight of the event. Sautéed with olive oil, chopped green garlic and seasoned with red chillies, this still makes our mouth water. The cheese was soaked & seasoned with the chef’s secret marinade and so delicate it was which gave way upon been picked. The fried tempura batter was the glue, which could hold this silken cottage cheese.
SMOKED GARLIC FISH
There are only so many things one can do with fish. Chef Sachin presented, again, one of his amazing fusion dishes. Smothered in garlic, smoked liquor, Worcestershire sauce, light soy, and chilli oil, the Vietnamese Basa got a whole new level of flavours. The fish, prior to cooking it in the sauces, was cooked in Banana leaves. The fish was amazing with a saucy affair!
HOT & NAMKEEN CHICKEN
Soft and tender chicken wok tossed in chilli oil, garlic, ginger, Sichuan peppers, and black peppercorns will set your mouth on fire. With a dash of vinegar, there was a twist in taste to this hot dish. It’s so fiery that you can’t stop coming back for more. The seasoning was the platting done with slices of dripping chilli oil which gave a new taste
If we have to pick the “Hon-Har” of all the dishes, undoubtedly it will be the COTTAGE CHEESE IN GREEN GARLIC. The whole experience recalled about: “Chairman Mao Zedong, who hailed from spice-loving Hunan province, once said, “You can’t be a revolutionary if you don’t eat chillies.”
Inputs: Apurba and Photos Tveshaj & Google