Hunan cuisine, also known as Xiang cuisine comprises of cuisines from the regions around the Xiang river, the Dongting lake and the Western Hunan province of China; and it is one of the eight great traditions of Chinese cuisine. Hunan cuisine is characterized by three major attributes – hot spicy flavor, fresh aroma and deep color. This could be got by cooking techniques like braising, pot-roasting, frying, stewing and/or smoking.
Hunan cuisine involves liberal usage of chili peppers, shallots and garlic. One of the most unique things about Hunan cuisine is that the menu changes with the changing seasons. In a hot and humid summer, a meal will usually start with cold dishes or a platter holding a selection of cold meats with chilies for opening the pores and keeping cool in the summer. In winter, a popular choice is the hot pot, thought to heat the blood in the cold months. A special hot pot called yuanyang huoguo is notable for splitting the pot into two sides – a spicy one and a mild one.
Chilies are an entire class of flavorings in Hunan.
Hunan cuisine is often compared to one of the other great traditions of Chinese cuisine, viz the Sichuan cuisine. However, Hunan cuisine is spicier than Sichuan. Sichuan cuisine uses pepper corn which numbs the mouth so all food starts tasting the same, however, Hunan cuisine uses vinegar with the peppers, which stimulates the taste buds, makes them tingle and feel every bit of the taste.
Citrus fruits are also an abundant produce of the Hunan region and find a unique place in Hunan cuisine lending it that yummy tartness.
Hunan region is agriculturally rich, producing a very wide variety of produce. Hence, their cuisine uses different vegetables. Hunan cuisine uses a lot of crunchy vegetables, generally cut long and sautéed with a small amount of oil. This helps in preserving its nutritional value. White rice and rice noodles form the essential staple of the region. Commonly used seasonings are hot peppers, green onions, shallots, garlic, ginger, spicy oil, duo la jiao, cassia cinnamon, soy sauce, tea seed oil, honey. People of the region are known to like sweet food but not as much as the Cantonese.
Since the region is abundant with fresh produce, the people have a tradition of fermenting and pickling the produce to preserve it for longer time periods. They are known to eat a lot of fermented and pickled food. For instance, they pickle the tofu by letting it sit for a few weeks, then mixing it with liquor, salt, star anise, chili and fermenting it in pickling jars.