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A Sampler of Hunan Cuisine

CEBU, Philippines — China has 22 provinces (alphabetically listed from Anhui to Zhejiang), five autonomous regions (including Inner Mongolia and Xizang or Tibet), two special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau), and four municipalities (Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai and Tianjin).  Each area has a food culture of its own but for simplicity experts have declared Eight Cuisines of China: Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan and Zhejiang.

Cantonese cuisine is very popular among most Cebuanos, while Fujian cuisine is the cradle food of the Filipino Chinese because majority of them came from that province. The rest are available only to travellers in China, although some dishes from Shanghai Zhejiang cuisine (Xiao Long Bao – Soup Dumplings), Sichuan and Hunan cuisine may be served in some Chinese restaurants in Metro Manila. I’ve travelled to some parts of China, except Hunan.

A new restaurant recently opened in Cebu – the Mao Jia Hunan Cuisine at the Crossroad, Banilad. A group of online and mainline journalists were invited by Mars Espera for taste of Hunan cuisine. In 2016, I ate at its Makati branch, since I was fascinated about Hunan cuisine and tried to compare their dishes and the dishes I recreated myself after reading cookbooks like “Pei Mei’s Best Selection” and “Hunan Cooking, Chinese Regional Cuisine Series.”

First of all, we have to understand the term “málà,” which means numbing and spicy (hot). The numbness is caused by Sichuan peppercorn found in Sichuan cuisine, which Hunan cuisine does not use. Both cuisines use dried red peppers and many dishes are really spicy hot, a taste sensation that is not very popular to Cebuanos.

At the Mao Jia Restaurant, we were served an appetizer (Pig’s Ear), Soup (Three Fresh Delicacies Soup) and dishes like Mao Jia Braised Pork, Hunan Fish Head, Kung Pao Chicken, Minced Pork with Eggplant, and Minced Pork with Corn. We also had some veggies like the Hot and Sour Cabbage, Stir Fry Taiwan Pechay, and the Hot and Sour Potato String.

The easy favourite among the guests were the Pig’s Ear and the Mao Jia Braised Pork. I went to dissect the flavors of the Hunan Fish Head and expected a really spicy hot chilli dish after viewing all the red peppers flakes on top. However, it was mild and very tasty. I was waiting for a duck dish (Camphor & Tea Smoked Duck) which my daughter, Aiess, a filmmaker, said was the very best dish she had eaten in Hunan. She was in Hunan in 2015, at the birthplace of Mao Zedong (Mao Tse Tung).

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Unfortunately duck was not in the menu and I tried to soothe my frustration and went for the veggies and, this time, it was a really pleasant surprise because one dish, the Hot and Sour Cabbage looked very ordinary – but it had a taste similar to the Braised Pork. It was the same with the presentation of the Smoked Duck that my daughter found extremely tasty.

Bottom line… never judge a book by its cover. If the media event serves 40 dishes like in an Indian Wedding, it is the sacred duty, excuse me, for the food writer to taste each and every dish before giving out an opinion which dish is the better dish.

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