"Something about filling our stomachs with fish stomachs spoke to us."
When I was just a little eater, my folks and I used to go to a restaurant in Levittown called Hunam. It was my first exposure to anything vaguely resembling the cuisine of Mao Zedong’s home province. And I use "vaguely" in the loosest sense of the word. At the time, spicy cold noodles with hacked chicken and sesame sauce was considered the height of exotic cuisine.
Later in college, I would go to Hunan Cottage on Manhattan’s Upper East Side—mainly for the free carafes of white wine. Since then, I have been fortunate enough to partake of several regional Chinese cuisines (largely due to the rise of food courts in Flushing’s Chinatown), yet the food of Hunan has eluded my omnivorous chopsticks.
So when I read Hunan House, or Xiang Shui Shan Zhuang, was offering authentic Hunan cuisine, I dragged a friend there and we ordered up a feast.
Fu qi fei pian (pictured at top), or “husband and wife offal slices,” is perhaps my favorite cold Chinese dish. The Sichuan version sits in a slick of chili oil and is riddled with mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, peanuts, and Chinese celery. I usually order this dish in Chinese, but if memory serves, Hunan House’s version is listed on the menu as “ox tongue and tripe” ($5.95). It may not be sitting in a lake of chili oil, but it’s still quite spicy and quite delicious. I spoke to someone about it the other day and they said it tastes like parmesan cheese, due to an “umami thing.” I didn’t notice that when I ate it, but next time I might have to try it with a side of hot noodles.
Wu xiang dou gan, or special bean curd Hunan style ($4.95), proved worthy of its name. Planks of firm smoked tofu were showered with pickled red chilies and bathed in a sweet sauce.
From the specials menu we ordered xiang we lu zhu er, or fragrant pig ears in aromatic sauce ($5.95). The ribbons of pig ear had a touch of star anise and just a bit of a chili kick. They were sliced so thin that one can either chew them, or simply let them melt on the tongue.
Looks sort of like elbow macaroni, no? Actually, it’s another special, bao chao you shui yu du, or flash-fried fish stomach ($14.95). Something about filling our stomachs with fish stomachs spoke to us. We asked the waiter whether it was crunchy. He said it was chewy, but this didn't deter us from expanding our offal horizons. He was right; the tiny stomachs were kind of chewy and had little flavor on their own. Guess that’s why the dish had so much peppers, garlic, and ginger. Not my favorite, but it was pleasant enough spooned over rice.
The first item on the specials list is xiang shan ma la fu zi rou, or "Hunan house old Master Fuzi meat dish," steamed pork with rice powder ($14.95). As best I can tell, it’s named after Wang Fuzhi, a 17th century philosopher from Hunan. Even though the menu description is fairly long, it really doesn’t do the dish justice. “Pork belly steamed in lotus leaf for so long that it practically disintegrates,” is more like it.
Let’s take a closer look. Even though it’s retained the form of a slice of pork belly, something very interesting has happened here. The rice powder has melded with the pork fat, and vice versa. It’s tasty, but superfatty, which is where those pickled chilies come in. It’s the type of thing that’s best eaten with rice and shared with more than one person. (All the more reason for me to bring a posse next time I hit up Hunan House.)
Incidentally, the Xiang in Hunan House's Chinese name refers to the Xiang River, an alternate name for the province. It also happens to be a homonym for the word fragrant. How apt for a place that has such a deft hand with spices.
137-40 Northern Boulevard, Flushing NY 11354 (map)