Monday, April 27, 2009

Hunan Part I

At Zhangjiajie

I'm not a huge fan of travelling in China, but given my geographical proximity it's kind of hard (not to mention stupid) to avoid it.

Over Easter I went to Zhangjiajie 張家界, a specially-zoned tourism area in western Hunan. The reason why it's zoned off is that it's got this unique landscape of pillars of sedimentary rock. Also nearby (3 hours by car) is Fenghuang Gucheng 鳳凰古城 (literally 'the ancient town of Phoenix') which I was desperate to see.

The latter was a complete disaster - a badly-maintained Disneyland of beautiful, thousand-year-old buildings patched up hastily with concrete. Just one of the many examples to illustrate my frustration of going to China.

In any case, for once we weren't travelling for food - a rarity in my family's history - but we found some good stuff anyway.

To be totally un-PC about it, western Hunan is pretty damned poor. Most people are farmers and they farm on little plots of land with cows as their aides. So instantly for me this meant fresh ingredients and no MSG ('cause it's too expensive). But it also means a few other things. One, chilli - Hunan is humid, and the Chinese believe that chillis help ward off the humidity. Two, fresh water fish - there are lakes and rivers all round. Three, lots of oil - because this is China.

The Zhangjiajie 'tourism zone' itself is commercialised, and in a bad way. Farmer's food is seen as lower-class, yet it's what their cuisine is all about (about farm-fresh produce, not about being 'lower-class') - so you have quite a few tryhard places in ZJJ that cater to solvent, middle-class mainland Chinese. The only place worth mentioning within the 'zone' is Xiang Li Ren Jia 湘里人家, which is apparently a chain, though I'd never heard of it before. (湘 is the abbreviated name for Hunan)

In our privileged little bubble, we usually try to avoid chains, name-calling them like bullies in a playground with labels like 'generic' and 'lack of character', but in China, a chain is almost always a good thing - firstly for hygiene and secondly for consistency - with so many choices now on the market and such a fickle, nascent consumer mentality, a restaurant that doesn't do well in China will fold quicker than you can say xiaolongbao, and to be able to expand is an even rarer thing. (Though even in China there are examples of chains gone bad, like the once venerable 海港 from Zhongshan, Guangzhou)

Cold starters - black fungi; cucumber(ish) veg
I guess you could call them salads. The fungi was accompanied by a vinagrette, the cucumber, something very similar but with more sesame oil. The cucmber is pretty common in southern China, it's been roughly chopped then lightly 'patted' with a cleaver (拍黃瓜), thereby flattening it (to increase contact with the vinagrette) without breaking/separating it into little dices, which would make it lose its satisfying crunch.

Chicken soup - clear and consomme-like, like Cantonese soup, though this tasted a bit richer/heavier. So much so that we all thought we were going to get MSG attacks - but alas, we didn't.

Beef brisket stew - delicious balance of spicy/sour flavours, reminded me a bit of Vietnamese food. The brisket was meltingly soft, and there was vermicelli underneath to soak up the sauces. Yum.

Steamed taro, probably scooped with a melon baller or something, with a simple chilli-soy sauce. So simple yet so satisfying.

Chilli chicken, almost Sichuan-esque; pork chop. Meat is a rarity in these parts as it's expensive - and the quality isn't that great - they did their best, but the meats here were a bit tough.

That was about it for this meal - there was also some uninspiring tofu (tofu from the countryside is supposed to be awesome cause the people make it from scratch themselves, but alas, this was a chain - there's got to be something bad about a chain, despite everything I said...)

(There are a couple of branches even within ZJJ city - I think this is the one I went to... It's opposite a fruit seller...)
Huilong Lu
Zhangjiajie City
Hunan Province

+86 0757-87724145


  1. I've never been to Hunan before, but I love to try new regional cuisines. We have a restaurant here in London, called Hunan(!) which I'm going to visit next month, although I'm not sure how authentic the food is compared to what you've eaten...

  2. I'm not sure what I ate wsa entirely "authentic" either, since we were in a touristy kind of area, but what I appreciated most from this trip was the farm/river-to-table concept - everything was so fresh and mostly indigenous to the area.

    Would love to see & read about your meal at Hunan (the restaurant)!