Before today I had no real idea what Hunanese food was, or how it differed from Sichuan. Sure, I have the Fuschia Dunlop’s cookbook. But following recipes for a cuisine I’ve never tried is not the way to experience it. After Ba Shan though, my response to Hunanese has gone from “Huh?” to “Hell yeah!”.
From the first mouthful of preserved duck eggs and salted (I think) chillies, all creamy, subtle and darkly translucent “whites” covered with vivid fire-engine red chilli I knew this would be interesting. And the fascination just grew, right through to the despairing lift of my chopsticks as i tried to cram in one, last piece of tofu.
This food was very good indeed. Just as firey as Chilli Cool’s sichuan specialities, but more pungent and sharp than numbing and fierce. This is because Hunan, as well as worshipping the chilli, loves everything pickled and preserved, dried and salted.
Dried radish with Chinese bacon was a classic example. Fine slices of pork and fat laced rashers were intensly smokey, slighty sweet with a wallop of salty umami flavours. Dried radish for texture and a sauce to bring it all together. This hit my taste receptors like comet from Mars, teeming with strange and alien things. And wonderful for it.
An enourmous bowl of poached catfish fillets came in a shimmering warm and deeply orange broth and covered in salted chillies. The fish, while delicate in flavour still managed to stand eat with chop sticks, but with enough slippery texture to get your teeth into.
Peng’s beancurd was slabs of fried tofu slathered in pickled chillies. It was a triumph of texture and taste, with minced pork giving an underlying meaty edge to creamy tofu and those pungently delicious chillies. It felt like the Hunanese equivalent of down home cooking, comforting and full of flavour.
Everything was very well cooked, and compared favourably with anything else I’ve eaten in a Chinese restaurant in London. Is it authentic? I haven’t got the faintest. But tasty, good value and interesting? Definitely. So for the moment it’s hell yes to Hunanese. Because at £35 per head with plenty of beer, an unrushed meal was well worth the cost.
Ba Shan, 24 Romilly Street, London, W1D 5AH, 020 7287 3266
For more on Ba Shan have a look at Hollow Leg’s post: http://lizzieeatslondon.blogspot.com/2011/02/ba-shan-revisited.html
And for a detailed take on the General Tso’s chicken we ate check out Mr Noodles here