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.
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.
The meats of Hunan were especially intriguing. They had a smoky flavor that we were constantly trying to analyze in dishes in other restaurants in the area.
The tantalizing, slightly evasive flavor comes from the smoking, which is done over hickory wood, tea leaves, rice hulls, and orange peels, before shredding or dicing the meat and sometimes cooking it several times. The result is the subtle flavor that seems to have a combination of tastes -- at the same time smoky, spicy, fresh, sharp, pungent, and wonderful.
At the Fire Palace we were served an excellent Fish Maw Soup and a chicken dish called Dong Nam with scallions and peppers. A cold platter contained stuffed eggs, liver, and bok choy. A pork dish with leek sprouts was delicious, and we were served a sweet soup made of mung beans and pineapple with peas.
Stuffed bitter melon was excellent with cold noodles, as was beef with vegetables and garlic chives. We then were served Hong Hua, a combination of sweet, glutinous rice with warm mandarin oranges and a small dumpling filled with sweet bean paste.
The condiments in Hunanese dishes are meant to harmonize and contrast with the natural flavors or essences of the food, not to overpower them, according to the philosophy of these regional chefs whose spicing is quite distinctive. Some consider it on the heavy side because of the Hunanese pride and affection for their locally grown hot peppers, but the hotness in most dishes can be modified to taste.
The only place in the world, other than Hunan, where I have had superior Hunanese food has been at the Hunan restaurant in San Francisco. With his wife, Diana, Henry Chung, who was born in Hunan, now has two restaurants there. The couple met at college in Changsha when Diane was a physical-education major and a basketball, volleyball, and track star in the Chinese national olympics. They came to United States in 1948.
The following recipe is from Henry's cookbook, "Hunan Style Chinese Cookbook" (New York: Real World/Harmony Books. $10). I talked with the Chungs after my trip to Hunan and Mr. Chung said that recipes in the book, not on the restaurant menu, have explanations about how the dishes got started and about the season when they are eaten.
The following recipe is usually served in Hunan in July when the new rice crop is ready. Steamed new rice is especially fragrant and pleases the children , Henry Chung says. Spicy Deep-Fried Pork 1 tablespoon plus 2 cups vegetable oil 1 cup green or red bell pepper, cut in 1-inch squares 1/2 pound lean pork, cut in slices 1 1/2 long and 1/8 inches thick 1 tablespoon Sichuan hot bean sauce or 1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper powder and 1 table spoon fermented black beans 1 tablespoon white wine (optional) 2 tablespoons soy sauce 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon sugar 1/2 tablespoon fresh ginger, chopped 1 cup chopped leeks each piece 1 1/2 inches long or 1 cup chopped scallions 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil (optional)
Heat wok over highest heat 1 minute; add 1 tablespoon vegetable oil and heat over high heat until smoking hot. Stir-fry bell pepper until wilted, then remove it and set it aside.
Clean the wok. Add 2 cups vegetable oil and heat until smoking hot. The hotter the oil the better the taste of the finished dish. Deep- fry pork until golden brown. Remove and set aside.
Pour off all but 2 to 3 tablespoons oil from wok and reheat until smoking hot. Toss in cooked pork, hot bean sauce, wine, soy sauce, salt, sugar, minced ginger, leeks, and cooked bell pepper. Garnish with sesami oil. Serve hot.