Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Hunan Province – Part One - Fenghuang

Hunan Province is famed for many things, but the most famous is being the birthplace of Mao Zedong. I did think about writing something about him, but decided against it, as the subject is just too complicated with too many people knowing a hell of a lot more about him and the history around him than me, So I decided no.
But whatever you think about the man and what history says about him. He has one major claim to fame. His favourite dish of Red Cooked Pork has been renamed in his honour. Mao Shi Hong Shao Rou. 毛氏红烧肉 ….
How cool is that not only to have a dish named after you, but it’s also a bloody good plate of food at that.
Sadly we never had time to visit his hometown of Shaoshan. Which is a shame, because not only could we have visited the house he once lived in, wow, thankfully now preserved as a museum, but we also missed eating at Mao’s Family Restaurant. A small chain selling all of Mao’s favourite dishes, including smoked fish with dried red chilli (ban hou bei yu). But sadly it wasn’t meant to be, as we were in Changsa for only 1 night and itching to start heading west.

I’m pretty sure Changsa doesn’t get that many foreign tourists as we were looked upon with friendly curiosity, especially down some of the back alleys, where old ladies sitting outside gossiping looked at us with surprise, before their faces broke out in large warm smiles.
I didn’t know anything about the food of Hunan, except it was supposed to be hot. Excellent. Hunan and Sichuan foods are compared with each other, but where as Sichuan uses those ohh so lovely palette numbing peppercorns, in Hunan it is just straightforward chilli they use and they use it so well.

One of the major sights of Hunan Province is Fenghuang (Phoenix). A beautiful well preserved ancient town with a history dating back over a thousand years.
The ancient part of the town adjacent to the river that splits the town in two has been spruced up and a lot of the stilted houses have also been renovated.
Domestic tourism in China has exploded since we were last on the mainland 7 years ago, and these old towns that gives a glimpse into China’s wealthy history are inundated with eager tourists wanting to learn more about their history first hand.
Fenghuang is definitely a place for this. It really has everything. Lot’s of history, minority groups, ancient buildings, a lovely river to take boat rides on, and plenty of places to eat and drink.

We had no problem finding food to eat and eat well we did. A lot of it was down to potluck though with a lot of pointing at what other people were eating and what looked good coming out of the kitchen.
This way of ordering never let us down, but I know for certain we definitely missed out on a lot of food we would have wanted to eat.

But this is the problem with not be able to speak or read the language, and not finding any menus in English, and no one to hand to translate. But this is why I love travelling so much.
This is something we would love to change, but it would mean some serious studying and/or moving to China. Now that is one thing we would love to do. One day.
The eating highlight was definitely to be had at the night market. A wondrous sight just outside of the old town. Row upon row of stalls selling everything known to man that can be cooked on an open grill.

The sounds and those smells were a sight to behold. Thankfully in my old age, dementia has not set in just yet and I can still picture the scene, smell the food being cooked, the sounds of those musicians coming around and playing your favourite Chinese tunes for 10 Yuan a pop. I want to go back.
I have a way of choosing where to eat when it comes to street food. Generally its best to choose a stall that is jammed pack with a steady stream of customers, as it means the food is freshly cooked and turned over pretty fast. So nothing hanging around for a long time going off.
Here, every stall was packed. A really good sign. We were waiting for a while for a couple of seats to come free. Thankfully the seats were at the stall of the best grill master at the night market.

We could have stayed there all night choosing a few of these, some of that, a couple of skewers of those, oh definitely gotta have some of them. 3 of the pork skewers. A whole fish, some veggies as well. Choosing was mad.
There was a wide range of food on offer at the night market from fish to vegetables, meat and even pig’s head. We were really tempted to see how they were going to serve it, but we never saw anyone having it. Shame.

Over the 3 nights there we ate at quite a few different stalls, but the best dish we had was a whole aubergine cooked on the hot plate. The Grill Master rubbed it all over in oil, and then ever so gently made little cuts to open it out as it softened and cooked.

After several minutes of this, it was opened up as flat as a fish, and with some chilli oil and chilli powder liberally sprinkled on top, it actually ended up coming to our table looking like a nice fish. It was amazing.
Our other favourite place to eat was a small hole in the wall away from the tourist hordes. For breakfast everyday this lovely lady made us feel so welcome and had a large smile as she cooked our simple rice noodle stir fries. Simple food but cooked ohh so well.

This side of the Fenghuang we were mini stars, with all the locals who were dropping their kids or grandchildren off at the adjacent school, would all said hello to us with their big toothless grins.
We did try and speak to all and sundry, even if it was just a few words and badly pronounced, but people seemed to be patient with us and were pleased that we were making an effort.
The problem was when people tried to speak to us. Those blank looks in our faces must have been a sight to behold.

One thing I regret was not persuading the wife to dress up in traditional minority costume and have her photo taken like everyone else was.
It would have given us memories for a lifetime, even though Fenghuang has given us that already. 


Mr Noodles said...

Bloody brilliant! I especially love the aubergine 'fish'. As this is Part One, I hope there's plenty more from Fenghuang, Hunan and China.

The Grubworm said...

What a bloody amazing looking night market. We never made it to Hunnan and it is somewhere I'd love to go. Like Mr Noodles I love the look of the aubergine, and I am also fascinated by the idea of pigs head. Looking forward to hearing more.

We found those grill spots pretty much everywhere we went, although none were as good (or hot) as those we had in Chengdu.

Mzungu said...

Mr N - Thanks, the aubergine was bloody good. No more on Fenghuang, but plenty more on China whenever I get round to it.

Mr Grub - We saw a few more night markets, but this was the best.