Mao's favorite dishes, one called Stinky Bean Curd
Changsha, Hunan, China
One of my most memorable dinners in China was at the Fire Palace Restaurant, a favorite eating place of Chairman Mao, who was born in Hunan province and attended and taught school here.Skip to next paragraph
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The city's history goes back 3,000 years, but today it's known mostly for the historical places connected with Mao's activities, including Orange Island where he made his famous swim -- and it is known to a few people for its food.
This was the favorite of the three large cities I visited on my first trip to China. Although not restored from the tremendous damage from both Japanese and liberation battles, the town has charm and interesting facets, and the people are friendly and very polite.
There are interesting small shops and two good museums; the Hunan Provincial Museum and the more famous and recently publicized Han Tomb No. 1 at Mawangtuik.
At Mao's birthplace in Shao Shan I enjoyed seeing the rooms in the model house where he grew up. The small town is a day trip away from Changsha, and there is a hotel there, a few shops, and interesting countryside.
But the highlight of Hunan Province for me was dinner at the Fire Palace Restaurant, not necessarily because the chairman had eaten there, but because I wanted to enjoy some of the regional dishes of Hunan, which I had read and heard so much about. Although the guide books said there were no restaurants of interest in this city, I had a list of places I wanted to go to and one was the Fire Palace.
The restaurant, which dates back to the Ching Dynasty, was entered through a moon gateway or round gate, and we walked through several passageways and up the stairway to a second floor overlooking a courtyard to the plain dining room set with three tables with white tablecloths and white napkins folded in the water glasses.
Chefs Shah and Li gave us the exact date of Mao's last visit -- April 14, 1958, and after a friendly welcome, they told us, through an interpreter, some of the chairman's favorites dishes such as Pork with Leek Sprouts, Hunan Smoked Ham, Smoked Pork, tripe, fish, especially squid, and a dish with an amusing name , Stinky Bean Curd.
We were served the Stinky Bean Curd, (Chou Tou Fu), which was fine, interesting but not very exciting in flavor, I thought, although it is a favorite Chinese snack food.
It looks like a very dark brownie, 3 or 4- inches square, pungent with a smoky, caramel, interesting taste. Made from an ancient recipe, it is a bean curd made of broad beans that have been marinated in sesame oil, red pepper, and other ingredients, then deep-fried and eaten with a choice of soy sauce, vinegar , mashed garlic, and chili paste.
Mr. Shah and Mr. Li had prepared a dinner of specialties of the province of Hunan which are somewhat similar to foods in the neighboring province of Sichuan.
The Hunan pepper, however, is different from the fagara peppercorn of Sichuan , which is described as having a "delayed reaction before bursting on the palate." The Hunan pepper, they say is "more straightforward and immediate in its warmth."
Hot pepper is still hot pepper to some people, but it is not, of course, used in every dish. It is usually mixed with one or several ingredients such as sesame oil, fermented black beans, garlic, chopped ginger, scallions, chicken broth, and vinegar.
I have used this seasoning combination at home since I returned; most recently with a beef and bitter melon recipe that is now one of my favorite dishes.