What Changsha is lacking in beautiful buildings and historic sites, it more than makes up for with truly excellent — and truly spicy — food. In her Hunanese cookbook, food writer Fuschia Dunlop quotes an old joke:
The Sichuanese are not afraid of chili heat;
No degree of hotness will affright the people of Guizhou;
But those Hunanese are terrified of food that isn’t hot.
Real Hunanese food, laden with 辣椒 (lajiao, peppers), will challenge the taste buds of even the most dedicated spice fiend. If you’ve got a sensitive stomach, be prepared with the Pepto-Bismol before you tuck into dinner.
Some dishes to look out for are:
- Anything with la rou (腊肉), a smoky, fatty pork product that is the Chinese equivalent of bacon.
- Steamed fish head with peppers (jiangjiao zheng yutou, 酱椒蒸鱼头): It can be a bit tricky to get the meat out of the fish head, but is worth it. Make sure the waitresses add noodles to the bowl when you’re done with the fish. They soak up the spicy broth, and I think they’re almost the best part.
- Beef with cumin (孜然牛肉): Pork, not beef, is the staple meat in Hunan. But this dish is a regular on Changsha menus.
- Lotus root slices (藕片, ou pian): This is my favorite Chinese vegetable. It’s starchy like a potato, but it stays crunchy when it’s stirfried.
- Eggplant and green beans (茄子豆角, qiezi doujiao): If you’re looking for something a bit less spicy, this eggplant-and-green-bean stirfry is a reliable choice. In its best iterations, something alchemical happens to the eggplant to turn it into soft edible gold.
East of the River
Hunan Wildfire (Yehuo Huxiang, 野火湖湘)
Update: As of March 2010, Hunan Wildfire appears to have closed shop. Assuaging my initial disappointment was the discovery of Miao Qu (妙趣), a new restaurant in what might be the same location. The whole fish and cauliflower that we ordered were both delicious, though neither quite matched Hunan Wildfire’s level of spice. Dinner for two cost 81 RMB.
Hunan Wildfire is not the place to come if you “pa la” — fear spicy food. This restaurant delivers all the heat that Hunan food is famous for, and then some. It is more expensive than some of the other options listed here, but the food is consistently excellent. Lots of red decorations and private rooms named after Mao and other revolutionary figures add to the atmosphere. Don’t expect much from the service, though.
Hunan Wildfire is located on Xiangjiang Lu (湘江中路, bordering the east side of the river), just south of Renmin Lu (人民路). Their glossy picture menu makes for easy ordering, whether or not you speak Chiinese. [June 2009]
The Bullfrog Restaurant
France isn’t the only place to make frog legs into a delicacy — spicy bullfrog is also a specialty of Hunan cuisine. To try it, head for the Bullfrog Restaurant, recognizable for the green neon bullfrogs that adorn its sign. Don’t be freaked out by the fact that it’s frog, either — it tastes just like a very tender chicken. The 干锅牛蛙 (ganguo niuwa) is served bubbling atop a sterno burner. The Bullfrog Restaurant is also a good place to sample other Hunanese dishes, and they are a bit less heavy-handed with the peppers than Hunan Wildfire.
The 牛蛙馆 (niu2wa1guan3) is located at 138 Xiangjiang Lu (湘江中路, bordering the east side of the river) just around the corner from Laodong Lu (劳动路). Dinner for 8 cost 240 RMB, not including beer. [May 2009]
The Huogongdian is a good choice if you have a small group but still want to sample many of Hunan’s specialties in one meal. The Huogongdian works like a dim sum restaurant: Servers wheel carts laden with small servings of different dishes around the dining room, and you choose the ones that look best to you. (The pan-fried dumpling are to-die-for.) There is also a menu if you want to round out the meal with one or two heartier dishes. I wrote a full review of Huogongdian on the blog in December 2009.
The Huogongdian restaurant is located at 78 Pozi Jie, off of Buxing Jie (the pedestrian street in the heart of downtown). A huge gate on the north side of the street marks the entrance to the Huogongdian complex, and the entrance to the restaurant is just on your left as you pass through the gate. Way too much food for two cost 110 RMB. [December 2009]
West of the River
HuDa Impressions (湖大印象)
This bizarrely named restaurant near Hunan University and Yuelu Mountain might be one of the nicest dining experiences Changsha has to offer. The decorations are subtle and attractive, and screens and curtains divide the room into smaller, more intimate sections. Oh, and the food is amazing. There is no picture menu, but the waitresses’ recommendations are generally excellent. The fengchui rou (right), which comes stirfried with red peppers, is a less-fatty alternative to la rou — more like smoked ham than bacon. We also usually order a soup made with “silk melon” (丝瓜) that comes with little pork dumplings floating in it.
The restaurant is a bit hard to find. Take a taxi or ask for directions to the Yuelu Academy (Yuelu Shuyuan). Facing the academy, turn right. You’ll soon reach a round gate leading to a path up the hill, on your left. (The Jixian Hotel will be across the street on your right.) Go up the hill, and HuDa Impressions will be the leftmost two buildings. The phone number is 0731-8821246
Dinner for 7, including beer, cost 260 RMB. [June 2009]
Tian Ma Shao Kao (天马烧烤)
When it comes to finding cheap eats in any city, one of the best places to look is the local university. Lucky for us, there are three large campuses in a row on the west side of the Xiang River. Students from Hunan University and Hunan Normal University all live in dormitories around Tianma Lu, and every evening, dozens of street food stands set up shop all over the neighborhood.
Shaokao (烧烤) is Chinese barbeque — skewers of meat and vegetables slathered in spicy sauce and cooked on the grill. The vendors offer every food that can be put on a stick, from chicken to chives to tiny squid. At Tianma, you choose your shaokao vendor first (they’re all about the same) and set up at their table. Once you’ve ordered the barbeque, you can supplement your feast with fried rice, fried noodles, dumplings, salads and fruit from other vendors in the area. The grocery store on the corner sells beer and soft drinks.
Take the 202, the 1 or the 106 bus to the Lushan Nanlu Kou stop (麓山南路口). The shaokao vendors set up in the evenings along Fubu He Lu and Lushan Nanlu, close to the Hunan University Student dorms. Turn left or right as you get off the bus and walk a block or two. You’ll see swarms of portable grills and woks awaiting your business. You can fill up on shaokao, noodles and beer for around 20 to 30 RMB per person. [September 2009]
The Fifth Tone
This is a popular hangout for Changsha’s young expats. Owned by an American and his Chinese wife, this coffee shop has the most authentic coffee and baked goods in town. It is a nice place to relax in a more Western ambience, and you’re sure to meet other Americans and Canadians.
The coffee shop is located just off of Xinmin Lu (新民路). From the corner of Xinmin Lu and Lushan Lu (麓山路), walk east on Xinmin Lu. Turn right at the first street. The Fifth Tone will be on your left. Look for glass doors and blue paint. Coffee drinks cost between 15 and 25 RMB. Baked goods, including banana bread and cookies, are generally 10 RMB or less. [June 2009]