UNESCO Zhang Jia Jie (张家界) may have been the subject of our journalog (here and here), but this handprint story focuses on the culinary side in a little more depth than covered in the sequentially narrative journalog.
As one might know, there were traditionally 4 (four) major cuisines in the past referring to the 4 directions. Today however it has been refined to 8 (eight) regional Chinese cuisines: Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan, and Zhejiang.
We have said often enough that China is a continental sized country, with diversity within its borders that will baffle visitors if they traverse across the country. Just as much as pastas comes from Italy instead of northern Europe, the effect of climate on availability of ingredients plus the mix of cultural preferences led to a divergence we savor today.
So what would be considered the cuisine of Zhangjiajie?
The fire of Hunanese meals 湘菜
Yes in this part of China the saying is辣不怕 – which means to say they use a lot of chillies and spices that will really numb your tongue and eventually your lips too…literally the folks of Hunan are not afraid their food is spicy!
But the literature will also remind you that Hunan cuisine is not to be confused with that of Sichuan. Less oily (yeah that’s relative), it is said Hunan dishes use more smoked or cured ingredients. We could not really detect that though in the course of our culinary adventure…however the use of vinegar is something we appreciate a lot. Because we love it!
Throughout the journey, every meal came with something that is spicy. Be it chicken or fish, it would be there. But that is not to say we did not enjoy it. We have to say our travel companions loved it too*.
That’s not to say there isn’t the ‘blander’ side of the cuisine. For example at breakfast, folks still cling onto the traditional rice porridge and fried dough. And how can one leave out the tofu soup or savory oysters?
Opulence of serving
One thing that folks might have to get used to is the size of serving and the number of dishes that you’d get when dining in a Chinese restaurant. And it is not a phenomena of Hunannese restaurants alone. As all our meals were catered for during this journey, it was interesting to share what we were given even as a group of two. *For the duration of the trip we had our driver and guide join us, as the amount of food would be overwhelming for just two!
As we said, the servings for meals are rather large. This is probably the need to ensure there is more than enough – the concept of “no face” if food runs out on the table…Then there are the number of dishes – typically no less than 6, even though we are a party of 2. One also need to be prepared for the repetition.
We seemed to be served a lot of 3-layered pork belly, almost every meal! So much that by the third day the novelty wore off…. However the soup that were served was superb by our standard (which is not low). Good ingredients were used and we thoroughly enjoyed these. Fish though was the river kind – ie lots of bones! You will need to be nimble to tease out the tiny bones in some of the fish servings. All part of the experience we guess.
Of course nothing is wasted. For example all parts of the chicken including the innards are served. The bowl in the picture on the top right is actually chicken blood and liver, to be mixed into the boiling broth. In addition, the local specialty of rice tofu was also tossed into the mix. Not something for the faint hearted and those that cannot stand the sight of blood. All this washed down with a fury of spicy broth is how the Hunan people have their typical meal!
Food everywhere & wellness in the mountains
Of course we also had the opportunity to dine in the hotels and where breakfast was concerned it was a buffet. So, pick what you need. We loved the fried dough fritters in Wuhan, in that it differs and are in the form of a ring – like onion rings in fact!
We were reminded that this is China and there will always be many food peddlers around to keep the mass occupied.
Such as the time we were waiting for the cable car on one of our days. We found cooked maize (ie corn) of the kind that we have not seen before; yellow and purple (looks like what we saw in Peru). Our guide bought some fried potatoes from one of the peddlers. The taste was good except for the oil. Well, what could we expect?
There is one more thing about food in Zhangjiajie. And that is all about the natural produce, mother nature’s bounty if you will. Some of these we found and bought for ourselves. They are not just simple ingredients but nourishment for one’s health. Super foods some literature refer to them.
What are they?
Stone Lichen Fungi (岩耳). Unique in that it is black on one side and grayish on the other, it costs ~1600 RMB per kg. Also called the Iwatake mushroom, you will also find a host of cures that this fungus can deliver. This lichen thrives on humid rocks and is said to lower blood pressure!
However, it is said that consumption of this fungus when you have a “cold” spleen or stomach (whatever that means) is contra-indicative. Consult your nearest TCM doctor for a prescription!
天麻 (‘Tian Ma’) is a tuber that is used both medicinally as well as an ingredient for soup. If you look it up in the internet, you will find a treasure trove of wonderful things it purportedly does for your health. Our encounter with this was through the chicken soup that was served to us. Yet another costly product at 960 RMB per kg.
Peruvian Maca (玛卡), a turnip that is now so expensive that it has been virtually out of stock in its home country! Yep this ain’t a native Chinese specie. It is also known as the Peruvian Ginseng. Actually this is not new, as this turnip has been used in the US for a long time as part of supplementary nutrition foods. Now that the Chinese have learnt about to it, demand had soared. It now costs 6 RMB per gram. The old investment adage is to buy what the Chinese wants, for it will surely reap dividends. Don’t read this article to believe it, the Peruvian Maca is also known as an aphrodisiac that enhances sexual performance, in addition to being a strength enhancer. The Inca warriors were said to consume lots of these before a battle!
All prices cited accurate at the time of our journey.
Now if you think it was all just huge and massive ‘in your face’ kind of servings, you could be relieved to know that there are finer ways in which the local cuisine is presented too. Here we have wild yam (淮山) that came in delectable and decently sized portions.
Technically Wuhan and all are in Hubei, but culinary-wise they fall within the same sphere of influence. Now we are hopeful this has been a eye opening article to share with you the joys of dining while on a journey through the UNESCO sites and cities of Hunan. We hope this will inspire you to get on a journey not just to see how the movie Avatar was inspired but also to enjoy the wonderful meals that can be had while doing so.
This journey took place in May 2015