When people think of spicy Chinese food, thoughts first turn to Sichuan. But, while often overshadowed by its fiery neighbouring province, Hunan cuisine can pack a more powerful punch. Get your chilli kicks by visiting this eatery off Chaowai where hordes of hungry businessmen descend at lunchtime. Those who land a table are indeed lucky birds, just as the translation of the restaurant’s name suggests.
Hunan province’s best-known export is Chairman Mao, and you’ll find his favourite dish here. It’s listed as ‘braised pork with brown sauce’ (36RMB) on the menu, rather than the more familiar ‘red cooked pork’. Instead, pay homage to the great leader by ordering a dozen Changsha shaomai (26RMB). These dumplings from Changsha, the provincial capital where Mao began his political career, have thick, doughy skins hiding a filling of diced, sweet, marinated pork and glutinous rice. They make a sweet treat to begin the meal.
Many punters come here for the steamed big fish head with chopped peppers (from 68RMB), which, despite the name, also involves a bit of body. The fish in question is bighead carp, a river dweller that’s boney for some. But the sauce it’s poached in and the liberal sprinkling of pickled jian jiao (hot green peppers) make both your mouth and eyes water. This comes with an optional accompaniment of tender oatmeal noodles – a firm offering not dissimilar from thin spaghetti.
Also topped with similar pickled jian jiao is steamed eggplant with pepper (18RMB), a Hunanese speciality that’s been adapted for Beijing palates with more vinegar than usual. Another comforting side, home-style stir-fried cabbage with red chillies (22RMB), is sweetly simple.
With its mission to cater for crowds of officemates, there’s a wide selection of big dishes to share, including two menu pages of iron hotpots and another two of light, golden soups. We opt for the lucky chicken soup (48RMB) and we’re far from disappointed when the broth arrives at our table bubbling and served in traditional crockery.
If you’re not familiar with Hunanese food, ask the servers for advice (in Chinese). They’re friendly and helpful, often wearing cute traditional red hair ribbons, and several of them, like the ingredients at this restaurant, hail from Hunan. Gabrielle Jaffe
Photo: Lillian Chou