One thing you must travel to China for to experience is the sheer diversity of their food. You just don’t get the many, many variants you find here. Hunan food is incredibly delicious, as it’s laced with dried chili peppers creating a burning heat. But, China has other spicy cuisines, but again those flavor palettes are just different. Sichuan food has “mouth-numbing” heat, known as mala, which includes both the dry spiciness Westerners are somewhat accustomed to, in addition to the numbing sensation that follows eating anything touched by the Sichuan peppercorn. Guizhou food, on the other hand, combines sourness with spiciness. Most Westerners don’t particularly like sour, which is probably why this cuisine isn’t readily available in Chinatowns worldwide (along with other reasons, like lack of immigration from Guizhou.)
Dishes like “stinky tofu” which are found all over China, are actually from Hunan. Others include boiled pig blood, various soups, fried flour and pork pits in a broth, special dumplings, and a mouth-watering meat dish called sanxiaguo, which literally translates to “three down pot.” The history is that during war centuries ago, the local generals didn’t have enough time to cook, so they took three different kinds of meat, threw it in the pot and voila! you have this dish. In the restaurants you get to pick which three you want (smoked pork, pig face, lamb innards, chicken innards, or just normal pork.) It was awesome eating the local version, because one of my favorite restaurants in Foshan was a Hunan restaurant, and the difference between the standardized, purified chain restaurants and homemade grub is a world apart.
One oddity of spicy Chinese food is that prior to the Pre-Colombian exchange these regions obviously didn’t include the use of Andean chilies. They had other ways of introducing kick (Sichuan peppercorn, wasabi, ginger, etc.) but it didn’t include the chilies that Sichuan, Hunan and Guizhou food all use today and we associate with their cuisine. So many cuisines we revere today wouldn’t be the same were it not for the Old-New World exchange. (Not to utterly glorify the man here…) But to give a few examples: Italian food and tomatoes; Irish cuisine and potatoes; Chinese food with corn and chilies.
This isn’t even to say that there isn’t other spicy Chinese cuisines. Food from Xi’an, Xinjiang and Yunnan are all spicy, not to mention Beijing food. You’ll find a cornucopia of flavors across this vast, vast country if you’re looking for it.
The types of burning these cuisines produce are all unique and something you can’t readily get in the US. The sheer variety of food and ingredients means that if you want Sichuan, Hunan or Guizhou food with their original chilies and authentic flavorings, you need to go there. Decent Sichuan food can be found in New York, but for the other two, you might just need a trans-Pacific flight to those rural provinces!
Let me know what you think of spicy Chinese food!
Like what you’re reading on China? Check out some other related articles in: The China Chronicles!