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People like to think of Sichuan as the fieriest cuisine in China, but I’ve got news for you: Hunan is hotter, which is instantly apparent when you eat at Hunan Kitchen. Many dishes come slagged with squishy pickled chilies; others are aflame with dried red or fresh green hot peppers, or both. Recipes even make use of the white pepper beloved of French cooks for its ability to blend colorlessly into a sauce. In white pepper smoked beef ($14.95), jerky coated in egg whites is stir-fried with papery tofu skin and scallions, to which the pepper adds a pungent, perfumey taste. Yes, you can find Sichuan peppercorns, too—but the truth is that the cuisine doesn’t really need ’em.
Hunan Kitchen is the most serious restaurant serving the food of the region wedged between Sichuan and Guandong that New York City has yet seen. For decades, Manhattan has had places that referred to the province—Hunan Balcony, Hunan Delight—while providing few authentic dishes. Then Grand Sichuan began offering a special menu of what it was pleased to call Chairman Mao’s Cuisine—reflecting the fact that the revolutionary leader is forever associated with the province of his birth. Eventually a full-blown restaurant, Hunan House, debuted on Flushing’s Northern Boulevard two years ago, but now we have an even better one. You won’t be surprised to learn it’s an offshoot of the Grand Sichuan chain.
Located among the northern Chinese restaurants that have recently appeared several blocks south of downtown Flushing, Hunan Kitchen looks like any other East Asian restaurant, but more sparsely decorated. There are a couple of ironic Mao purses on a brick wall, and, over the kitchen door, one of those revolutionary-realism posters showing workers storming the barricades that college students once adorned their rooms with. The big round tables are equipped with lazy Susans, which is a tip-off that the dishes will soon be coming fast and furious, and you’ll be spinning that turntable like a nightclub DJ. I implore you, bring lots and lots of friends, because the cuisine provides one surprise after another.
Here are a few general principles to guide you in orchestrating a meal. As in the white pepper beef, Hunan cooking makes much of meats and vegetables preserved by pickling, smoking, and drying. One of the best in this vein is smoked bamboo ($12.95). Flecked with Asian cumin, it tastes and even looks like a heap of barbecued brisket. I mean it! In addition to the Hunanese love of chilies, all sorts of alliums appear, too, such as scallions, garlic, leeks, shallots, and their manifold botanical variations. Sourness is a virtue in soups, stews, and stir-fries. The surprise favorite cooking technique is steaming, which might make you think of cheerless “healthy” meals offered by most Chinese restaurants. Far from it.
Many of these principles come together in steamed fish head with pickled chili sauce ($18.95), a dish I’ve been told Hunan expats crave above all others. It’s more than a head, really the anterior end of the fish, and you can pull copious flesh from the collar, cheeks, and forehead as the creature stares pitifully up at you. Heaps of scallions and fire-engine-red pickled chilies sit on top, leaching color into the rich, barely thickened broth, which needs to be sopped with something. If ever there was a time to acquire the giant bowl of white rice provided gratis at your request, it would be now. Other steamed faves include pork with oatmeal vegetable (a dome of tender sliced belly in an even richer broth, the reason for the name never quite clarified) and steamed mashed pepper with winter melon (a vegetarian tour de force showcasing spongy diamonds of glistening green).
Some dishes have fanciful names. Liquor-soaked duck ($7.93) features slices of quacker in a dark solution of rice wine studded with Sichuan peppercorns, and the same mouth-numbing spice appears along with dried chilies in another Hunan classic, dong an chicken. Braised pork, Mao’s style ($11.95), pays reverent tribute to a dish associated with his hometown of Shaoshan: very fatty pork cooked in Shaoxing rice wine with cinnamon, red chilies, and sugar. No wonder the chairman was so tubby!
Another amusing name will hit you as soon as you open the menu: braised phoenix feet ($6.95). We sat expectantly waiting for the mythological beast to arrive. In fluttered a small plate of mere chicken feet, the tart aroma and pale appearance suggesting more pickling. Strewn around were woody segments of star anise. Gnawing away, we discovered that we liked the dish—but were a little disappointed it had nothing whatsoever to do with Harry Potter.
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